Tuesday, May 25, 2010

'Outsourcing danger' – the conflicted challenges facing war reporters

Keynote address by Shooting Balibo author Tony Maniaty, a former ABC television journalist and now senior lecturer in international journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney, at the War Reporting seminar at AUT University.

By Tony Maniaty

Anyone remotely sensitive who watches the film Balibo comes away surely with a sense of anger, about the injustice visited upon the people of East Timor, about the invasion of sovereign states - whether East Timor or Iraq - and about the cruelty that human beings visit upon each other in the quest for political and economic power over their neighbours - and for something worse, national insecurities posing as military might. This syndrome is not confined to a misguided Indonesia and a helpless East Timor three decades ago; it still happens, and our own nations are sadly party to it.

At another level, all of us here can only reflect soberly on what happens when young Western journalists - in this case inexperienced, yet strongly motivated to “get the story” - veer towards the inexplicable in the intensity of their actions. To get the story, to stay to bitter end, no matter what. Is a story worth dying for, is any story worth the risk of likely death?

If we say no, we hand over the conduct of warfare to those without morality, without limits, without law. War without independent witness is war without mercy; the very presence of the media ensures to some degree that war is modified, to standards that are hopefully less than barbaric.

Yet saying no - that no story is worth the ultimate risk - will save the lives of journalists and other media workers; does our role stop there, should that alone be out focus? Do we delude ourselves that journalists can stop violence, or stop wars? Maybe our job is much clearer than we imagine: to observe until observation becomes lethal, and then withdraw. Isn’t that enough?

If we say yes - that some stories are worth dying for, or at least risking death for - we enter another ethical minefield: we encourage enthusiastic young men and women to go to war, to the very edge of danger, to observe events which they may not even be able to report - because they will be killed trying, a swirl of impressions and observations forever locked in their heads, unheard and unwritten and without impact, told to nobody. No audience will hear the beauty of their cause.

Quagmire of ethics
Is there anything harder than negotiating this quagmire of emotions, of dangers, of ethics and responsibilities? Even the average soldier has an infinitely clearer mission - to defend or to attack with arms, as they are highly trained to do - and yes, at a high risk of death - on behalf of the nation that sent them into battle. No questions, no ambiguities.

Does any journalist go into battle with such clear codes, such a strict framework of behaviour? For us, war is a blur, something not to fight but to report and to survive; we are civilians in conflict more often with ourselves, our distant employers, our unseen audiences. War rages all around us; war itself is neutral; it does not care whether we live or die. Is it up to us to save ourselves? That, certainly, is the greatest ongoing challenge we face: simply staying alive. But within that, there are many others.

Seventeen years ago I discussed with the then-film student and future film director Robert Connolly my own conflicting experiences under fire, in East Timor: what happened to me first in Balibo, then in Dili, trying to decide whether my own relatively short life - I was then 26 - was worth sacrificing for the story.

Of course morality declares that I should also have been equally considering the fate of the East Timorese, since my reporting of their eventual fate might well have changed their fate - or perhaps not. Indonesia had drawn up invasion plans; they would invade, no matter what I said; when they hit Dili they would search me out, and take me out.

If there was any doubt about that - and I had no doubt, from the moment the Balibo Five were murdered - it was all to grimly erased with the assassination, the morning after the invasion, of the sole Western journalist in the territory, Roger East.

Timorese misery
If I had remained, I too would have been dragged out to the Dili wharf and shot through the head. But by then I was back in Sydney, back in the safe and relatively comfortable world that was mine and not theirs - not the misery of 25 years that was to befall the East Timorese - but in Australia, in which I had been born and to which I was connected. Was my allegiance, my responsibility as a journalist to the struggle in East Timor - or to Australia, or to the Australian Broadcasting Commission which employed me?

How many allegiances can a person have and still be true to any? Self-interest took over: the desire for life triumphed over any question of death. For which I was attacked from multiple quarters, including from within the ABC itself. Yes, you should have stayed, even if it meant dying. And I still grapple with that sad allegation.

Which raises another ongoing challenge: how to change a news culture that in many quarters still encourages and even rewards high-level risk-taking - especially when it works - but mourns the tragic loss of colleagues when it fails. I think that as journalists, as a profession, we have to decide once and for all which side of that equation we are on, and stop sending out mixed messages - especially to younger colleagues, eager to make a name for themselves and largely unaware of the dangers they face in war. The values created by Hollywood and Hemingway need to be rejected, unambiguously.

In 2008, in Balibo, it was hard for me to stand in the space where they were killed and not be shaken to the core by this realisation – that our decision to pull out under fire may have saved our lives, but that we too might just as easily have been overwhelmed by Indonesian-led forces as they were, and that we too might just as easily been trapped, and been doomed to die.

Back then we were all young, quite inexperienced in war reporting, sent by managements to a conflict zone without training, without protection, without a clue really. None of this had been carefully worked out by us; what happens when the Indonesian commandos come over the hill, guns blazing? So why were we still in Balibo, other than waiting for the enemy to arrive?

Digging deeper
Digging deeper, it comes to this: having come so far, under such duress, we were unwilling to turn around and head back to Dili without a reel or two of men in action, men under fire, even men taking aim and shooting would do. And yet a full-scale Indonesian attack was not what we wanted; that would leave us all dead. We wanted, like most war correspondents, to get a good story, the beginnings of something bigger, and get out alive. We wanted to place ourselves as close to the precipice as possible without going over.

As it happened, that opportunity did not arise: five days before the Balibo Five died, our team had been shelled with artillery, hunted by an Indonesian helicopter gunship, we had survived a head-on collision with a truck, some of us had been badly injured, our camera gear was smashed, our TV reporting mission was in total disarray, and we were still twelve hours from Dili with no help. To say we were rattled would be a slight understatement.

After all that, I had no illusions about the murderous fate awaiting me at the hands of any invading Indonesians; I knew they would deliberately track me down, I knew there would be no escape. Even assuming I could flee to the hills, how long in a fractured nation could I survive without being turned in? A few weeks in this tiny, troubled land had been enough to inspire a sense of sorrow and defeat and humiliation at the thought of leaving, but it had not been enough to make me want to die, to give up my youthful life, for East Timor.

These reflections perhaps sound hollow now, three long decades after the event, and indeed some notable figures have, before and since the publication of my book Shooting Balibo, publicly criticised my actions all the way back then. I should have stayed, I should have taken those greater risks, should perhaps have died, I should have surrendered my life for the greater cause of journalism and exposure and truth. But I did not, and I’m alive today to talk about it.

I know the gravity and density of what we, the ABC crew, went through, but I do not know what the Balibo Five went through – or rather, what went through their minds – in those final horrific moments. But we all know that a similar fate has befallen too many of our colleagues in the 35 troubled years since. It’s happened in the Balkans and in Africa, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and again recently it happened in the streets of Bangkok. Journalists, doing their job, cut down.

We are here to change that.

Cold blooded murder
The New South Wales Coroner’s report into the death of Channel Seven cameraman Brian Peters found that the Balibo Five had been murdered in cold blood by invading forces. It also found that the newsmen had mistimed their departure, staying too long to ensure survival. Our challenge now is to fix both of these problems – to apply forcefully the rules of war, the codes of conduct, the International Humanitarian Law that protects war correspondents as civilians doing their job; and to inform and educate media workers going to war, to ensure they don’t place their lives (and the lives of others) at too high a risk. Both of these aims are realistic and attainable, although hard experience also tells us we will never eliminate the high possibility of death facing media workers in war zones.

We also need to recognise that those who cover wars and survive, even those who return seemingly without a scratch, are always affected by the horrors they have seen, that post-traumatic stress is a reality and that journalists are just as vulnerable as soldiers and aid workers. The challenge here is to create trauma-aware news organisations - and especially managements -that do more than pay lip service to personal security at one end and counseling at the other.

Last weekend I attended a workshop in Canberra run by the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma - and too often I heard stories of news managements handing out the business cards of psychologists “in case you need help”. That’s really nothing more than the 1970s equivalent of “go out, get pissed and get over it”, and no more effective. We need a more rigorous, systematic and sophisticated approach to an issue that has damaged many lives, and in some cases, ruined them.

Students’ dream
These days I’m a journalism educator, which ideally should remove me from day-to-day concerns about all this. Instead, I find myself facing a challenge that in many ways replicates what happened to us long ago in Balibo. I’m teaching students who dream of being foreign correspondents, especially war correspondents, and especially television war correspondents. In 1975 such dreams were tempered by harsh realities, even if you were fortunate enough to win the job lottery and score, as I did, a cadetship with the ABC.

To reach the status of war reporter, you had to put in years of hard grind, and when you finally flew off to war, your entourage included a camera person, a sound person and a dozen metal boxes of gear. It might have been dark work, but it was not lonely work; you always had a team around you, you never left each other’s company, and as grating as that sometimes was, you gave each other advice, and protection, and support.

Today, my students can - and some do - circumvent all that rigmarole by walking around the corner, buying a laptop and HD camera and a cheap air ticket to Kabul, and two days later be filming – alone, unsupported - on the frontline. And in this increasingly prevalent scenario are two more challenges facing us. One, we need to inject compulsory safety training modules into our media courses; and two, we need to address more carefully the vexed issue of freelancers, and what I call ‘the outsourcing of danger’. If networks are not prepared to send staff reporters into hot zones, do they have any right to send others there – for far lower pay, without training or insurance or training, without safety gear?

All this points to the conundrum we are in, the inescapable dilemma of all war reporters: are we there to observe, to save lives, to stop wars, to expose, all the above - and then to die? Where is that clear line that defines our role, our moral and professional obligation, even our humanity? By simply doing our job, are we part of the problem or part of the answer, if the answer is as simple as what? Reporting wars, ending wars, preventing wars, exposing wars?

Was ever a job so conflicted with loyalties, to employer and audience and peers and even perhaps nations, an emotional wringer in which the self is everything yet, in the heat of battle, counts perhaps for nothing?

Pictures: Tony Maniaty and the a section of the 200-strong crowd at the War Reporting seminar. Photos: Del Abcede/PMC and a banner from Maniaty's website set in Eawst Timor 2008

* Tony Maniaty is senior lecturer in international journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney, and the author of Shooting Balibo. This is a keynote address he gave at the Reporting Wars: The Ongoing Challenges conference hosted by the International Committee of the Red Cross, New Zealand Red Cross, AUT University and the Pacific Media Centre on 24 May 2010. Maniaty will also speak at the Qantas Media Awards in Auckland on June 11.

Other War Reporting stories on Pacific Scoop
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