Lessons of Battle
South African photographers, cameramen and producers are sought after by the international networks to cover conflicts around the world. Hamilton Wende reflects on some of the lessons he and his colleagues learned in the townships in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
In the Muslim world one never forgets that brief touch of the heart, the ancient greeting which encompasses so much in such a small gesture.
I was in Baghdad covering a demonstration by the followers of the radical Shia leader Moqtada al- Sadr when one of his clerics showed me the traditional greeting after I had smiled at him.
The situation between the heavily-armed and jittery US troops and the demonstrators at the demonstration was tense, but still under the control of the Shia leadership, and I knew that if things got out of hand my crew and I had an influential friend somewhere in the crowd. If our lives were threatened we had a good chance that he would protect us.
As it turned out the demonstration in Baghdad went off peacefully that day, but the incident reminded me of one of my first journalistic assignments covering a mass funeral in Evaton in 1984. The large crowd was angry because nearly 10 people had been shot dead by the police the week before. At first, the police kept a low profile, but by mid-afternoon, inexplicably they decided to encircle the crowd with Casspirs. The situation shifted instantly. Anger turned into rage. The youths began throwing rocks at the police, taunting them. The police were on the verge of firing into the crowd. What had been a tense situation was now very ugly. Being white in the midst of that angry black crowd was frightening. Suddenly I felt someone plucking at my sleeve. I turned to see a teenaged boy I had smiled at vaguely earlier in the day. “Come this way,” he said. Myself and the rest of the crew followed his lead. Within seconds three or four other youths had gathered round to protect us. They ushered us through the enraged crowd to our car and safety. At one point, when a fence blocked our way, someone miraculously produced a pair of wire cutters and cut open the fence to let our car through.
Since 1984 I have covered some 15 different wars and conflicts around the world, and I have never forgotten the lesson of Evaton township and those miraculous wire cutters. There are no hard and fast rules for surviving as a journalist in a hostile environment, but keeping a friendly smile on your face and an open, unthreatening attitude are two of the most important ways of ensuring that if things turn nasty, you’ve got a chance of getting out alive.
“We’ve got the experience,” says freelance producer Cecile Antonie, who has covered wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and who won an Emmy for a documentary she produced for ABC News in Sierra Leone. “We’re streetwise. The townships taught us to be competitive but cautious. We had to think of our colleagues as well and not compromise their safety.”
Antonie believes that it was learning to cover conflict in one’s own country that gave South African journalists a different, and valuable perspective. “We managed to do the story as best we could,” she says. “But we also had an empathy for the people. It was our home and our country, and so when we work in other countries, we see the suffering. They might be different headlines, but it’s the same story. When you see the suffering you remember what it was like in your own country.”
In television journalism it is the cameraman who will make or break your story. An inexperienced cameraman in a war zone is usually a frightening liability. What your cameraman does in a dangerous situation is often one of the most crucial factors that determines your safety.
Cameraman Ian Robbie covered the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and has worked for ITN and Sky News in Israel, Somalia, Congo and both Gulf Wars. Says Robbie: “In the 1980s TV news was becoming prolific and it mushroomed in this country. South Africa was one of the most violent countries in the world then. One of the most important things was that we learned how to judge the mood of a hostile crowd. It’s not always a good idea to put a camera on your shoulder and start filming straight away. Often the camera can attract trouble. It’s happened to me on a few occasions that I pick up the camera and people start acting up to it. Personally, I put the camera down and walk away.”
Robbie believes that there are two key elements to filming in a hostile environment: safety and editorial judgment. “I always try to choose a side,” he says. “It’s the times when you are not on one side or the other when you are really in trouble.”
Yet, he stresses, “you’re not choosing a side from an editorial point of view, but from a safety aspect. The side you choose in the field may not be the good guys, but that shouldn’t affect the way you report the story.”
The recent war in Iraq highlighted this dilemma for camera crews. The only way to get decent pictures of the war was to be “embedded” with either the US or UK troops. I was one of the journalists known as “unilaterals”, ie: working independently of the Coalition forces, trying to get the stories that the embedded crews weren’t getting. It was a highly frustrating and unexpectedly dangerous role to carry out. There is an old saying that armies always fight the last war. Well, journalists tend to make the same mistake: we planned our coverage based on what happened in the first Gulf War.
No one expected the levels of resistance that elements of the Fedayeen and the Republican Guard put up against the Coalition troops. The fighting was often ferocious and in the first days of the fighting it was virtually impossible to cover the war independently. It was just too damn dangerous. Even experienced journalists like Terry Lloyd of ITN news found themselves trapped in the no-man’s-land between Iraqi units and US troops. The young, inexperienced US troops opened fire on the journalists’ vehicle as it raced towards them and killed Terry and his crew.
Milton Nkosi, who grew up in Soweto and is currently bureau editor of the BBC in Johannesburg, also covered the war in Iraq, amongst many others in Africa and the Middle East. He points out that “it is too simplistic to draw close parallels but our experience in the townships helped. Firstly, I knew my perimeters in Iraq. I learned in the townships to know where your boundaries were. I learned how to place myself in a safety zone both physically and editorially. I wanted to be in a neutral zone, taking an observer’s perspective. For example, going in with the cops in the ‘80s would have given you amazing pictures. But it was not the right thing to do. The story could be done better on the ground instead of from the back of a police van. And in Iraq I knew that I didn’t want to be on the back of a Humvee as much as I didn’t want to be on the back of a Casspir to film. I wanted to be right there with the people.”
Like Antonie, Nkosi feels that covering a conflict in his own country taught him an invaluable lesson in how to balance his own feelings with the demands of journalism. “Someone like me was unequivocally part of the anti-apartheid struggle, but when I was working as a journalist I had a job to do. My equipment didn’t give me the right to be an activist.” And that lesson was invaluable to him in the Iraq war. “In a war you need to be accurate. There are lots of approaches. There is the big picture of an illegal invasion of Iraq - you don’t need to be an Iraqi to understand that. Then there are the specifics - the battle for Najaf, suicide bombings, you must get the very detailed facts right about those stories. No matter where you are, say, in Gaza or in Iraq, you must get the story right, that’s what I learned in the townships.”
In so many ways, though, the situation of journalists on the ground has gotten worse. The ubiquity of TV news means that everyone from governments to the smallest rebel group in the most obscure conflict wants to control what you say and what pictures you broadcast.
On the ground, this desire for control translates into greater danger for crews. Robbie sums it up best: “I learned long ago that you must never go back to the same place and assume that the situation will be the same. 24 hour news has made the situation for journalists much more dangerous. People go home and watch the news, and what was a friendly crowd today can become a hostile crowd tomorrow because of what they’ve seen on the news - and it doesn’t even have to be your report. If they don’t see what they wanted to see or hear, they blame you.”
Hamilton Wende is a freelance author and television producer. He has covered some 15 different conflicts around the world, including South Africa’s transition to democracy. Most recently he covered the war in Iraq. His latest book “Deadlines From the Edge” is published by Penguin SA.
There’s no question that it is becoming more dangerous to be a journalist. According to The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in the last decade, some 347 journalists have been killed while doing their work. The frightening thing about their research is that most journalists don’t die in crossfire, but are killed in retaliation for their reports. According to CPJ statistics only just over 50 (16%) of those journalists killed died in cross fire - all the others were deliberately murdered.
And those who kill journalists almost always get away with it. The CPJ estimates that in some 90% of cases where journalists were murdered there have been no prosecutions or arrests made.
It will come as no surprise that the worst place to be a journalist in the last two years has been Iraq, where some 25 journalists have been killed since March 2003. This figure does not include those who have died in accidents. The recent upsurge in kidnappings and suicide bombings has meant that journalists, foreign and Iraqi, are among those deliberately targeted.
Overall, Algeria has been the most dangerous country for journalists since 1994 with 51 reporters having been killed there - three times the number killed in the Balkans in the 1990s.
But it is not only the possibility of murder or death which threatens media workers. Cuba, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Haiti, Turkmenistan, Bangladesh, China, Russia and the Palestinian Territories are all listed as places where journalists face the risk of lengthy jail sentences if their reports offend the powers that be. China, with 41 journalists in jail, leads the world in the imprisoning of journalists, while Eritrea has jailed the greatest number of journos in Africa, holding some 17 journalists without charging them.
The report concludes that the only way to ensure greater safety for journalists is for other journalists constantly to speak out about what has happened to their colleagues.