By Ed Lingao
Ed Lingao was right smack in Baghdad, Iraq when the United States unleashed its “shock and awe” campaign during Operation Iraqi Freedom to bring down then President Saddam Hussein. He was also deployed in Afghanistan where he and his team were held up by armed men, and has also covered wars in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao. He prefers to call himself as a journalist who “had some experience covering conflict here and abroad, made many many mistakes along the way, and still learning every day” but does not remember how many wars he has covered because to him, the country seems to be “in a state of perpetual war interspersed with brief periods of peace talks.”
He has moved from print to broadcast to multimedia over his 27-year career, won the Marshall McLuhan Award, the Red Cross Award for Humanitarian Reporting, and is an Outstanding Alumnus of the University of the Philippines. The murder of American photojournalist James Foley has brought to the fore once more the dangers for journalists covering conflict. Foley is not the first nor the only reporter killed in the line of duty. In the Philippines, 32 journalists and media workers were killed in November 23, 2009 while covering a simple event – the filing of a certificate of candidacy by a gubernatorial candidate in the province of Maguindanao.
In the United States, a debate is raging after policemen arrested some journalists covering the protests triggered by the killing of a civilian by policemen in the city of Ferguson, Missouri. Amid these interesting, and fatal, developments for the press, Ed Lingao shares with us his thoughts.
IN NOVEMBER 2010, Marie Catherine Colvin of The Sunday Times stood before mourners at the St. Bride’s Church in London’s famous Fleet Street to talk about two things that seem to run in direct conflict with each other: the danger of covering wars, and the urgent need to cover wars. The venue could not have been more appropriate, and the occasion all the more so. It was a religious service for journalists who have died covering conflict since 2000.
St. Bride’s is also known as the journalists’ church, with a link that goes back three or more centuries with the first printing press in Fleet Street being setup in the church courtyard. Many journalists have tied the knot there, and many a newspaperman would go there to seek succor after dealing with evil editors or senseless reporters.
Then there was Colvin herself. Photos taken from the memorial show Colvin at the lectern, stern and grim-faced, dressed simply in a black dress offset with pearls. She glares at the camera with her one good eye; the other is an empty socket, covered with a leather eyepatch that presents a stark contrast to her fair but weathered face and dirty blond hair.
Eyepatch? Those who appreciate the newspaper and the written word know Colvin as a war reporter’s war reporter, a newspaperwoman who has jumped from war zone to war zone without the benefit of the long logistical tail, tons of equipment, and gaggle of support personnel that accompany most modern broadcast war correspondents. She just goes in alone with a translator or a guide, armed with a mission but without the trumpets and the fanfare. In 2001, Colvin lost her left eye when a Sri Lankan soldier fired a rocket propelled grenade at her while she was covering that country’s civil war. Badly injured and in need of medical assistance, she still trekked the jungle to meet her deadline.
A year before, she barely made it out of Chechnya alive, crossing 14,000 foot mountains just to escape to Georgia. A year after Sri Lanka, she was being treated for post traumatic stress disorder. Then she went out into the field again. On that November evening, Colvin spoke of the important work done by those who go into harm’s way to tell the story of conflict, and to tell the story of people. Hers was a message that struck at the root of journalism and how, in the end, we all explore our world, no matter how dangerous or uncomfortable, in order to change it. But in many respects, it was Colvin herself, just by the mere act of standing there, who was already the clearest and dearest message of all.
“Despite all the videos you see from the Ministry of Defence or the Pentagon, and all the sanitised language describing smart bombs and pinpoint strikes, the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers children,” Colvin told an audience of journalists, newspaper editors, and families. “Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without giving prejudice.”
“Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices,” she added. “Sometimes they pay the ultimate price. Tonight we honour the 49 journalists and support staff who were killed bringing the news to our shores.” “It has never been more dangerous to be a war correspondent, because the journalist in the combat zone has become a prime target,” she added. At no time do her words ring more true than now.
The murder of James Wright Foley by Islamic State (IS) militants earlier this month puts into sharper focus something that had long been felt and understood, although largely left unwritten and unsaid – somewhere along the way, the threshold had been crossed. Journalists are no longer observers who are, at times, caught and killed in a crossfire. In war, in conflict, in combat, journalists are, more and more, becoming targets, victims, sometimes even weapons of war.
Of course journalists have always been potential targets; the power of the written word has always been both a curse and a godsend. “In America, the President reigns for four years, and journalism governs forever and ever,” Oscar Wilde once said. More recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who used to head the KGB, was more straightforward: “Journalism, as concerns collecting information, differs little if at all from intelligence work. In my judgment, a journalist’s job is very interesting.”
Foley of course was not the first journalist to be targeted. Not even Daniel Pearl was the first. Pearl, the Wall Street Journal’s South Asia Bureau Chief, was beheaded by Al Qaeda militants in Pakistan in 2002. In the past, however, journalists were either victims of crossfire, or because specifically of what they wrote, or how they wrote a piece.
But more and more, as states and non-state entities do battle online and in the field, journalists are now being targeted simply because of what they do and what they are – witnesses to war whose deaths would amplify the propaganda line. Pearl and Foley were not killed because of their writing; their deaths were meant as a message, as a weapon of propaganda, as a means of leverage.
To those who cover conflict, the message is clear – try as you might, you are not likely to be seen anymore as an observer or a neutral reporter. You may, in a manner of speaking, now be viewed as a combatant, an easy and soft target, who rushes to places that people are trying to leave, who fight for a seat aboard vehicles, ships, and airplanes going one way while everyone else is fighting for a seat in the OTHER direction. “We always ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery and what is bravado?” Colvin asked.
The few war reporters who matter know that it is neither bravado nor bravery that drives these people forward. Bravery and bravado are for the war tourists, who jump from conflict to conflict looking for a quick adrenaline fix, with just enough time to get a nice selfie in the frontlines. To be sure, some war correspondents have adopted what almost appears to be a blasé attitude towards danger and death. But it is an appearance that misleads.
Anthony Loyd’s journey through war-torn Bosnia is chronicled in his book, My War Gone By, I Miss It So. Yet Loyd’s book is far from a longing for bloodshed and misery. It is a devastating condemnation of the first war he would cover, where he watches dogs fighting over a man’s brains on the roadside. Loyd would go on to cover more wars; more recently he was also held hostage by IS militants, and was deliberately shot in the legs to prevent his escape. Fortunately for him, he was rescued by another group of Syrian rebels from the Islamic Front.
Foley himself was also kidnapped before, in 2011, while covering events in Libya. He was held for 44 days before he was freed. His editors were hesitant to send him back to the field, but he insisted. “But he was chomping at the bit to be back in the field and wanted to be back in Libya. I really didn’t want him to, but there was no way to stop him,” said Phil Balboni, CEO of GlobalPost.
And so, Foley dove right back in. One year later, in 2012, Foley would again disappear but this time in Syria. He would only resurface in August this year, only this time to die in front of the entire world. Many war correspondents have difficulty explaining why they do it, why they persist in going back. Some even seem afraid to know the answer themselves.
Michael Herr, in his book Dispatches on his coverage of the Vietnam war, captured it perfectly when he wrote: “How many times did someone have to run in front of a machine gun before it became an act of cowardice?” “Why do I cover wars? I have been asked this often in the past week. It is a difficult question to answer. I did not set out to be a war correspondent.
It has always seemed to me that what I write about is humanity in extremis, pushed to the unendurable, and that it is important to tell people what really happens in wars – declared and undeclared,” Colvin explains.
Robert Fisk of The Independent writes with ambivalence of his profession, and how it makes one want and hate to be in the frontlines at the same time. More importantly, he writes of how overly romanticized war correspondence has become, how the adventures of journos have become more important than the lives of the people they cover.
We see this in the Philippines too. Too many people want to cover wars and firefights, when they should learn to cover first. Too many want to see death and destruction when they have no appreciation yet of life and its value. And far too many can identify the make and type of firearm and weaponry, yet cannot identify with the numbers of dead, wounded, and displaced.
“My job is to bear witness,” Colvin said after her horrific injury in Sri Lanka. “I have never been interested in knowing what make of plane had just bombed a village or whether the artillery that fired at it was 120mm or 155mm.” “We have grown so used to the devil-may-care heroics of the movie version of “war” correspondents that they somehow become more important than the people about whom they report,” Fisk writes. “Hemingway supposedly liberated Paris – or at least Harry’s Bar – but does a single reader remember the name of any Frenchman who died liberating Paris?”
In the end, journalism, and more importantly, war reporting, is about reporting on the life of the ordinary man who is caught in conflict. His is the story people like Colvin, Fish, Herr, and Foley go to the ends of the earth to write about, and to die for.
Interestingly, Foley himself was also an “every man” of sorts. He was a former teacher, who found his way to journalism, and eventually found his way to conflict journalism. He was not a big-name correspondent or network anchor. He was a freelancer, someone who lived from day to day in the war zones, hoping that some media outfit would pick up the tab and pay for his next meal.
And so, in 2010, Colvin spoke of sacrifice and responsibility, of journalists driven by obsession to watch and observe the things that they in fact really hate to see. “Many of you here must have asked yourselves, or be asking yourselves now, is it worth the cost in lives, heartbreak, loss? Can we really make a difference?” Colvin asked the assembled crowd. “I faced that question when I was injured. In fact one paper ran a headline saying, has Marie Colvin gone too far this time? My answer then, and now, was that it is worth it.”
Two years later, Colvin would be killed by a Syrian artillery shell in Homs, and buried in a shallow grave. And now, more than ever, her words ring true.