/ 6 November 2014

Journalists who don’t matter

Shooting conflict: A Syrian journalist in Aleppo carries a camera and a gun
Shooting conflict: A Syrian journalist in Aleppo carries a camera and a gun

It is 70 years since the Allied forces landed in Normandy on a mission to emancipate Europe from the Nazis. Today, in the nearby French town of Bayeux, D-Day is still commemorated for its importance in World War II.

But a deceiving narrative of European self-importance dominates the story of the war. This European war also involved Europe’s colonies, who have now been whitewashed out of the picture. Ultimately, more than 1.3-million Africans – from South Africa, Ghana, Uganda and 27 other countries – were on the frontline in one way or another during the war.

Seventy years later, still so little is known about or made of these African fighters in a war not of their making. They are silenced by anonymity in the story of the triumph.

In Bayeux a few weeks ago, scores of journalists assembled for the Bayeux-Calvados awards, given to war correspondents working in conflict zones. The parents of James Foley, the journalist from the United States beheaded in August by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant group, were the special guests at the gathering.

Foley’s beheading was captured on video and circulated on the internet. His murder was a shocking reminder of the brutality of the Islamic State. It was a devastating affront to journalism.

His parents, understandably distraught by their loss, addressed the Bayeux-Calvados ceremony with grace. They thanked the community of journalists for its support.

Their son was a teacher, a perceptive man who decided he would put his storytelling skill to use in the field as a war correspondent. The journalists who feel they are following a calling in life are usually the best, and Foley’s colleagues certainly seem to think he was one of the best.

Still, as with the limited narrative of World War II, I couldn’t help but feel some disappointment. With all due respect to Foley’s memory and his parents, and understanding the hardships he suffered before he died, these parents of a slain US journalist were speaking of their loss to an audience made up almost exclusively of Western journalists.

I couldn’t help but wonder: Where were the parents of Leyla Yildizhan, the Kurdish journalist who was killed when shrapnel struck her in the chest on August 8 this year in Iraq?

Where was the family of Khalid Ali Hamada, who was killed on June 15 this year in Iraq’s northern Dayala province, in unknown circumstances? Or the wife and children of Raad Mohamed al-Azaoui, who was beheaded by the Islamic State on October 10 this year?

Will they also get their turn to tell the stories of their loved ones? Will their parents and families get to meet the “tribe of war journalists” as they travel the world in a bid to gain closure?

Hamada and Azaoui are two of 17 Iraqi journalists killed in the past 10 months. Since 2011, 80 journalists have been kidnapped in neighbouring Syria. Unfortunately, even in death, the privilege of superior citizenship, of race, of being a Westerner roaming dangerous lands, offers an unchallenged martyrdom as a reward for white saviourism.

Vivienne Walt, the Paris correspondent for Time, said the Foleys’ presence in Bayeux “really gave the whole event a richer and deeper meaning”. Because the lives of those with the wrong citizenship or skin colour carry less meaning?

There is a degree of myth-making in the way the deaths of foreign journalists in a war zone are presented. Foley, like my colleagues, and indeed like me, choose to go to conflict areas to tell stories, to try to make sense of events for the rest of the world.

In truth, though, this “calling” is only as honourable as that of a backyard mechanic in a chop shop fixing banged-up automobiles. It’s a service in a broken world.

But what of local journalists who start off on the politics beat, or the crime beat, but end up reporting on war because their country is descending into a crisis? We laud those who choose to enter such zones of their own accord, and so we fall prey to that catch of modernity: valuing choice over compulsion.

There is a cancer at the heart of journalism: the huge gulf between the pay, professionalism and dignity offered to Westerners and those who work for them directly. Even though most of their stories would not exist without the initial handiwork of local journalists or fixers, these helpers are seen as disposable.

When Foley met his cruel death, the Western media spoke of the demonic Islamic State, the dangers of journalism as a profession, and the ethics of media houses’ encouraging the use of freelance journalists who enjoy little institutional support or protection. Foley’s death prompted a discourse about the exploitation of freelancers.

But when Yildizhan, Hamada and Azaoui were killed, they became collateral damage, at best – or just a statistic rattled off in a forgettable news segment.

I would be dishonest if I claimed that, in Bayeux that evening, the organisers and speakers did not mention the role played by local journalists in war zones. But they were mentioned in the same way Africans are treated in a discussion of World War II – as a distant, anonymous group of others.

In Bayeux, the names of any local journalists killed in any of the conflict zones were not mentioned.

As it has turned out, Foley’s death has contributed to public support for US action in Iraq, proving once more that some lives are still more equal than others. Even the lives of those who are just there to tell the story.

Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera and the author of Zuma’s Bastard: Encounters with a Desktop Terrorist.