The following article was published on ABC’s The Drum, one of Australia’s largest news, politics, opinion and analysis websites:
With a war that has drawn distinct global lines between “the West and the rest”, journalists are now, more than ever, faced with the ethical dilemma of what to report and how to report it. Writes Reuben Brand
As I prepare to film a documentary and work as a freelance journalist in the Middle East and South Asia, the ethical questions of what to report and how to report it constantly arise.
Our myopic media moguls relentlessly force feed us with the age old “us and them” scenario, “good vs. evil,” the biblical battles of yester year – This archaic style of reportage has reached a crescendo that should not be topped and for myself and other like minded journalists the sanitisation of news and the constant rhetoric that accompanies it has reached a critical mass.
Since the US led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, 222 journalists and media assistants have been killed, 14 currently remain kidnapped and two are still missing. So why do it? Why put yourself in harms way? Simple – to tell the stories others won’t.
Of course these figures pale to insignificants when placed beside the number of innocent civilians brutally murdered by occupying forces. According to ORB, an independent UK based research company, the current death toll in Iraq alone is well over 1.2 million and counting. Not to mention Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan or anywhere else the US or friends thereof seem to be.
It’s easy to ignore a number when there are no names or faces attached. But a number or “collateral damage” is someone’s mother, father, sister, brother – this is not collateral damage, this is corporeal damage. Murder.
The Middle East and South Asia, I believe, needs to be fully documented. From the thousands of innocent families, displaced and desperate, to those taken into custody on no charge and imprisoned in concentration camps like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, where they are systematically tortured and humiliated.
The realities of war should not be sugar coated for western consumption by media corporations with partisan persuasions. War is ugly and vicious, but some coverage, like our friends at FOX News, reports it as sport, or entertainment on a game show. Perish the thought of ruining someone’s dinner by showing a bloodied body on the six o’clock news.
One major problem facing journalists who want to document the truth of these ongoing conflicts is safety. In most conflicts, a journalist who wants to get close to the front line without the threat of being an easy target must first become heavily embedded within the occupying military force.
Of course embedding gives journalists access to the tip of the spear, to areas otherwise impossible to reach, but it will no doubt entail censorship in what is reported on. The journalist will go where the military wants them to go and broadcast the stories that paint the invasion or occupation in a good light. As a result, you, the audience, only see what the military wants you to see. Nothing.
According to a report released by Reporters sans Frontiers (RSF) the number of journalists killed in the past five years has risen dramatically by 244 per cent. Of the 86 journalists that were killed worldwide in 2007, nearly half of them died in Iraq.
“The Iraqi and US authorities – themselves guilty of serious violence against journalists – must take firm steps to end these attacks. Iraqi journalists are deliberately targeted by armed groups and are not simply the victims of stray bullets. – The government displayed alarming inertia and has not yet found a way to stop the violence, except for allowing journalists to carry arms to defend themselves,” states the report.
RSF also said that armed groups target journalists who sympathise with their rivals and those who are connected with foreign media outlets.
“No country has ever seen more journalists killed than Iraq – more than in the Vietnam War, the fighting in ex-Yugoslavia, the massacres in Algeria or the Rwanda genocide,” said RSF.
Similarly, journalists working in the occupied Palestinian territories face the constant threat of being shot by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) as well as rival political factions striving for power. One such incident caused the death of Fadel Shanaa, a 25 year old Palestinian cameraman, who, whilst filming an incursion by Israeli tanks near the Al-Barij refugee camp was shelled by the IDF.
According to RSF “The behaviour of Mr. Shanaa and his assistant, Wafa Abu Mizyed, should not have caused any confusion. Their car was clearly marked as a press vehicle. Their flak jackets also had the word ‘Press’ written on them.”
The Israeli soldiers responsible the Mr Shanaa’s death have not been prosecuted. Five journalists have been killed by the IDF in the past decade, including British independent film maker James Miller in 2003, whose family continues to campaign for justice. Again, the IDF decided not to prosecute the officer responsible for Mr Miller’s death.
B’Tselem, the Israeli information centre for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, has initiated Shooting Back; a citizen journalist programme. Launched in 2007, Shooting Back is a video advocacy project, in which over 100 video cameras have been distributed to Palestinian families living in high conflict areas.
The aim of the project is to capture, on film, the violations of human rights that Palestinian’s endure on a daily basis by the IDF and settlers. In one case an elderly Palestinian couple, whilst herding their goats, were maliciously attacked by a group of Israeli settlers and badly beaten. Before fleeing for help the couple’s daughter in-law caught the attack on one of the cameras supplied by B’Tselem.
The footage of this attack and many others like it are now being exposed to the international community in an attempt to redress such incursions on basic human rights.
But of course there are those who wait, desperately trying to set up a scenario, get the scoop or take the shot that will springboard them to fame. Kevin Carter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his photograph of an emaciated Sudanese child crawling helplessly towards a United Nation’s food camp.
The camp was over one kilometre away; a carrion starved vulture sat stalking the child, waiting for it to die. Carter himself waited for around 20 minutes before taking the shot, ensuring the vulture was close enough to get maximum impact. The fate of the child remains unknown as Carter left the scene as soon as the photo was taken; he then sat beneath a nearby tree, smoked a cigarette and wept.
The ethical question arises as to why he didn’t help the dying child? It is the journalist’s dilemma, as Carter was well aware of and points out as he describes his own anguish whilst photographing a horrific execution early on in his career.
“I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures, [and] I felt that maybe my actions hadn’t been at all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing to do,” said Carter.
“His job as a journalist to show the plight of the Sudanese had been completed, exceeded, in fact. The bottom line was that Lifeline Sudan had not flown in Kevin and João to pick up or feed children – they were flown in to show the worst of the famine and generate publicity”, said Greg Marinovich, colleague and close friend of Carters.
Consequently three months later Kevin Carter committed suicide due to acute depression.
“I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain, of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners… I have gone to join Ken [colleague and friend of Carters] if I am that lucky”, said Carter in his suicide note.
So what ethical boundaries are journalists justifiably allowed to cross in order to pursue a story when the loss of civilian life reaches such morbid heights? In the case of the documenter and the documented, should a journalist put aside their notepad and camera in order to help someone in direct need? Or should they continue to document what they see? In this situation, does the end justify the means? – whereby the incident, once broadcast or printed, is used to help a far greater number of people by educating and showing a reality that would otherwise go unnoticed by the international community.
The questions of ethical judgement are all subjective and only answerable by the individual, but if the people of the world are kept blindfolded and evidence of continual human rights abuses and violations are not documented, then those responsible, the individuals, administrations and regimes held accountable, can never be bought to justice.