It was an ambitious undertaking to cram more than 100 years of experience of war correspondence into the ceremonial Banco Court at Brisbane’s Supreme Court building for an hour-long discussion of armed conflict and the media.
Peter Greste, Tim Page, Michael Ware and Cindy Wockner rose to the occasion, running only half an hour over time to include some questions from the floor, in a discussion moderated by Tara Gutman from the Australian Red Cross.
The focus was International Humanitarian Law, which provides protection to journalists, recognising them as civilians in conflict situations. It’s a concept that is increasingly under threat.
The evidence was before the court – Greste was still waiting for the outcome of his Egyptian trial in absentia on terrorism charges. Ware is the only foreign correspondent to survive being kidnapped by Al-Qaeda in Iraq and has recently documented the toll of his experiences in the film Only the Dead.
Page, who still carries the physical consequences of his time covering the Vietnam War, agreed that rules of war were fantastic on paper. “But when you come to a bunch of goons at a roadblock, holding up the Geneva Convention is not going to do a lot for your personal safety,” he said.
“Wars are feral and groups like IS have no respect for rules, no respect for the media, because they don’t believe the media would respect their point of view. In Vietnam the role of foreign correspondents was respected because we were largely seen to be impartial.”
Ware agreed: “In most recent conflicts there has been a shift in the tectonic plates. More so than ever before journalists are being perceived by the different players as legitimate military targets.”
Greste said the serious erosion of respect for journalists was not limited to IS.
“In a lot of respects what happened to us in Egypt is an example,” he said. We were regarded and treated as propagandists for a terrorist organisation and this is new. I think it is connected to the abstract nature of the War on Terror. Governments are targeting journalists in ways they haven’t in the past.”
Would a badge help? Gutman said there was currently discussion among human rights lawyers about a possible emblem for foreign correspondents, similar to the Red Cross and Crescent.
“If there was an emblem I wouldn’t wear it,” Ware said. “It would increase the likelihood of targeting. Also, if I’m a civilian in a war zone why should I have a symbol that distances me from other civilians?”
“As a photographer I already looked like a walking Christmas tree so I don’t think it would have made a difference to wear a badge. But I was never targeted. If anything wearing a camera guaranteed my safety,” Page said.
Page was wounded four times, once by ‘friendly fire’ in Vietnam. His war ended when he jumped out of a helicopter to help load the wounded and the person in front of him stepped on a landmine. He was pronounced dead at the hospital and required extensive neurosurgery, spending most of the 1970s in recovery.
News Corp’s Wockner has covered major stories, many in Indonesia including the Bali bombings, the devastation of Aceh in the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and the executions of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.
She pointed out the problem wasn’t the rules. “If we are talking about a way to protect journalists the rules are there they just need to be enforced. The question is what shape does that take?”
It’s a question asked as the shape of journalism and the way it’s consumed is itself undergoing a seismic shift.
“These days social media has changed the way we see and visualise conflicts,” Wockner said. “What we are talking about now is not the traditional newspaper. That’s not where most people are getting their news from, particularly in the current Isis conflict where everything is being uploaded constantly.”
At what point does a journalist step out from behind the mantle of civilian observer and declare a war crime?
“I would feel very uncomfortable describing something as a war crime,” Wockner said. “It is our role to bear witness but as a journalist should you be saying there are people who should be indicted? A court of law is the only place qualified to determine that.”
Greste agreed. “At what point does something become a violation? We are not lawyers we are journalists.
“In Afghanistan we came upon a massacre and it was quite clear from the location who was responsible and we called it out as a war crime. We got death threats because of that.
“The people involved could live with the massacre but accusing them of a war crime changed the dynamic and we had to work alongside these groups so it wasn’t helpful.”
Ware, who described himself as “the worst kind of war correspondent – a failed lawyer,” also questioned whether it was incumbent on journalists to call out war crimes. “We all struggle in the field with what we have witnessed and the moral conundrum to continue recording or to intervene. That is something I continue to struggle with,” he said.
“But the use of ‘war crime’ – that’s a very potent form of words and should always be used very, very carefully.”
“Most crimes of war make great photographs,” Page said.
“They show an absence of humanity and all the things we respect. As a photographer it’s your duty to be there. Much violence happens in a war and we only manage to get a few shots of it.”
What shots are acceptable and how do journalists decide in a world where their role as a filter of the worst atrocities is over?
“There is a limit,” Page said. “There is a way of making a hardcore picture into something more meaningful but I don’t think it does any good to publish images that are just disgusting.”
“It’s desensitising,” Greste said. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be showing war in all its gruesomeness but we must be aware that it does have an impact on society and every journalist, every editor has struggled with it.”
“We are seeing really ghastly images – the most recent example was the little boy with the severed head,” Wockner said. “But it raises the question of what is palatable and how much do we hide what’s going on?”
Ware agreed, pointing to the challenge of reporting on the infamous beheading videos. “How do you represent that beheading without crossing the line? Every broadcaster has struggled with that and most have dealt with it by showing a few seconds and then cutting away. The challenge is to represent the horror of it but still have regard to human decency.”
The challenges are compounded by the constrained economic circumstances of traditional publishers and broadcasters but while editors may struggle with how certain images may impact the bottom line, it’s not a question which has a place in the field.
“We are not thinking about how the company pays the bills, we are just getting on with the job,” Ware said. “When you are out there it is your humanity that is driving you, not business.”
“As reporters we are here because we believe in the principles of openness,” Greste said. Of course there is always room for debate but we need to be able to do our jobs for a free and accountable society. Whether it helps or hinders is up to the academics to decide.”
Peter Greste is an Australian journalist and Peabody award winner. He was released in February 2015 after being held in an Egyptian prison for 400 days for crimes he did not commit. As your Girl Reporter was going to press he was still waiting, in absentia, for a verdict in his trial.
Peter Greste – the man behind the headlines – The Walkley Foundation, 12 April 2015
Tim Page was recently named one of the 100 most influential photographers of all time, having covered Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Afghanistan, East Timor and other arenas of conflict in a long and distinguished career. In April this year he gave an interview to the ABC:
Photographer remembers Vietnam War 50 years after Australian troops arrive – ABC News, 29 April 2015
Michael Ware is a former war correspondent for CNN and TIME, now writer and producer of film and television, including war documentary Only the Dead.
Michael Ware opens up about his experiences in Only the Dead – News.com.au, 4 June 2015
Cindy Wockner is national investigations editor at News Corporation Newspapers Australia and has been its boots on the ground in both Indonesia and Nigeria. She was among the first foreign journalists to arrive in Aceh and her reflection 10 years on from covering that disaster is well worth a read:
Journalism matters: Reporting from the ruins – Courier-Mail, 12 November 2014
The Brisbane event Pen and Sword: Media and Armed Conflict was one of two panel discussions organised by Red Cross Australia to coincide with the publication of its Red Cross IHL magazine Pen and Sword: Journalism and IHL
© Sally Baxter 2015
This post was also published at the Australian Independent Media Network
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