The world is as dangerous as it has ever been for journalists and war correspondents. Kidnapping, murder, and torture are the risks facing those trying to get us the information from the front line. How hard is it being a war correspondent? What are the issues that face the reporters who put their lives on the line to get the story?

In this panel discussion, Maria Armoudian speaks with Carol Williams, Terry McCarthy, Claudia Nunez, and Mark LeVine about life reporting from the danger zone.

Carol Williams is an international affairs analyst and former senior international affairs writer for the LA Times.

Terry McCarthy is the President of the American Academy in Berlin and a former foreign correspondent for ABC and CBS News

Claudia Nunez is an Editor at Human Rights Watch and an investigative reporter.

Mark LeVine is a Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of California, Irvine. He is an expert in Middle East history and culture.


This discussion has been edited for clarity and length 

Maria Armoudian: Carol Williams let’s start with you.

CW: I would like to start out by saying that I think there is this misconception that war correspondents are adrenaline junkies who are drawn to these dangerous situations. I think in ninety-nine percent of cases, this is not the case. Most of us went overseas to cover geopolitical stories. I went to the Soviet Union in 1984 to cover the superpower relationship and the arms race, and then I went to Berlin and covered the Eastern Europe pro-democracy revolutions, the opening of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution, and then the LA Times hired me in 1990 to cover Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the political changes. The first story that struck me was Yugoslavia, it was overlooked because it hadn’t had a revolution. Tito had died about five years earlier, the nationalist leaders in the member republics of the federation were stirring up age-old sentiments and resentments from World War Two. I had expected to be covering a political story and brinkmanship that was being conducted in the Yugoslav presidency. But it became apparent pretty quickly that this was going to get ugly, there was going to be conflict. But it was so unimaginable at that time, there had not been armed conflict on the continent of Europe since WWII and I remember telling my editors that I was expecting the breakup of Yugoslavia and that it could even become violent, and they looked at me like I was insane. The concept, the idea that people could be shooting at each other in this modern era was just unimaginable. And for that reason, when we started covering these local rebellions and spats between armed factions of Serbs and Croats, Croats and Muslims, we didn’t know what to expect, we presumed that we were perceived as neutral observers of the conflict and not aligned with any particular party. Things can change so quickly.

It is such a work in progress how you operate in areas that are in chaos. The people who live there don’t know what to expect from day to day, so you really have to be on your toes and make a daily, hourly reassessment of what is the best way to proceed and not put yourself in danger, because most of us are not inclined to go and get between two hails of bullets. It is also not the best way to cover the story. I think most of the stories I got that I felt were most insightful were not on the frontlines; they were talking to victims and refugees and people who had been pushed out of their homes…Those are much more moving stories, they give you much more insight into the conflict and the consequences of it than just watching two groups shooting at each other.

Every conflict is different, you can’t really practice or compound your experience and take any guidance from that. The conflicts that are going on now, the journalists, they are prizes. If the insurgents can grab you and make an example of you then that is a feather in their cap and it makes it very difficult to do your job when all sides regard you as fair game. Another problem I think journalists have in a security sense is in order to get access to the military’s operations, you usually have to embed with them. You are in bed with the military. How do you have a neutral stance when you are operating and moving around under the protection of, say, the US military. That said, it is often the only way you can get access and it is probably a safer way than taking your own car and driving around behind Humvees and Armoured Personnel Vehicles.

MA: How long were you in Iraq for?

CW: I made about I would say six or eight trips of a month to six weeks, between 2006 and 2007. All together it was about a year.

MA: Terry McCarthy you were also in Iraq and you also embedded part of the time.

TM: In Iraq I came in unilaterally which meant driving after the troops in our own car from Kuwait. I nearly got killed then. In Afghanistan I was embedded and nearly got killed then. So I am not sure what is safer. You’re in a warzone. I would like to do a quick arc of my career just to show you how I think the position of war correspondent has changed. I started out in 1985 in Central America and the big stories then were Nicaragua, the Contras and the Sandinistas, and the civil war in El Salvador. We used to have tea shirts which said [in Spanish] “Don’t shoot me I’m a journalist.” But it was kind of a joke, because there was no question in those days that anyone would shoot a journalist, because we were independent. In the morning you could get in your car in San Salvador and drive up to the highlands and you would meet the rebels and then you would drive back in the afternoon and you could meet the army, and there was never any threat to you. And so as I went through my career and I went to Asia and there were a number of conflicts there in Sri Lanka and Cambodia and Burma, and again we were still seen as outsiders. That all changed I think first probably in the Balkans, where the Serbs started targeting journalists. And then after 9/11, in Iraq and Afghanistan it just became extremely dangerous for us. So then you got into this situation in Afghanistan where you pretty much had to be embedded and if you wanted to get anywhere outside of Kabul. You couldn’t go on your own because you would be kidnapped pretty quickly.

I spent a lot of time in 2010 with one battalion of Marines who very conscious that I was their captive reporter. There is value in that to because we spent about four months with them on the ground in Helmand Province, the most dangerous province in Afghanistan. The IEDs are pouring across the border from Pakistan and they are all over the place. We had three guys killed on camera and another guy who lost his legs. Because we had been with them so long they let us go right up to the front. And this was very disturbing footage as you can imagine.

We bought it back and we had to fight very strongly with our senior producers in New York to show some of this because the American media does not like to show dead or dying Americans. You can show dead Iraqis or dead Taliban because they are somehow alien. But we don’t show dead Americans. In fact, for the longest time you couldn’t even show the coffins of dead Americans. We eventually won that argument, we had to pixilate some stuff, the guy who lost his legs was heavily pixilated, but the reason we fought that hard was my notion that whatever you think about the right or wrong of fighting, you should always remember that any time you declare war there is a very real human cost. There is no such thing as a clinical sanitised war. Donald Rumsfeld seemed to think you could do this, in and out, surgical strikes and no one gets hurt. When America declares war, it must be remembered that Americans are going to die and that was the point of insisting we show these casualties. We won that argument, and it was one of the stories we won an Emmy for. I was pleased about that because we needed to show people war is bad and people die. Sometimes wars are unavoidable, some wars are justified, but it comes with a cost and the fundamental reason for war correspondents doing what they do is to remind people that there is a human cost to whatever conflict we have.

MA: Let’s see what the contrast then is in Mexico. Claudia Nunez how does your experiences contrast?

CN: I am not a war correspondent and there is no official war in Mexico. But when you say we have a War Against Drugs, then you have victims. In my case, I think unfortunately journalism is dying in Mexico. The press is victimised. I don’t even recognize my country when I have to work over there. One of the most touching experiences I had was actually in 2011 where I was covering a story on the connection between a Native American indigenous tribe on the border, and drug cartels. This is not just about immigrants, this is not just about people from Mexico, this is an international business, this is a business that involves Native Americans, Americans – this is an international phenomenon. I was covering that story and I received a phone call, and that phone call was my mother and she told me that she was in a hotel with my dad and my sister – my father is a journalist. They were hiding because my dad had received death threats. My own family is living this situation. There is no border anymore, it is something that is touching every single family in America. I have interviewed kids in LA who have received death threats from the cartels. This is something that is happening in every single neighbourhood.

MA: Your family are journalists in Mexico, are they covering the War on Drugs and is that why they are under threat?

CN: In Mexico, especially the local media outlets are the ones who are targets. Still there is kind of a line between journalists from the mainstream media, and local journalists and unfortunately the local ones are more vulnerable because they don’t have any kind of protection. This is something that is actually an internal debate, how can we ensure the journalists remain alive when you have this situation.

MA: Mark LeVine, you have a completely different situation as a scholar.

ML: First of all, I think there is an issue of trust if you are a Westerner going into Iraq or going into Pakistan and you want to help uncover the reality and share it with the world But of course, you are putting a lot of peoples lives in danger that are working with you. I have been dying to get back to Iraq for years but all of my friends there say ‘Please don’t come it is too dangerous’. I sympathise because I remember how bad it was being there, but of course, what does that do to the story if you can’t get back? One of my experiences as a scholar is to try to bring my background as a historian into studying the contemporary events we are experiencing to try to bring a deeper view…But you have to be there to see it, you have to be on the ground to see it, and what has changed in the last few years is the difficulty of even getting there. In 2010, I showed up in Bahrain without a visa, they looked at me a little funny but let me in and that was when the Saudi’s invaded. And I went back in 2011 and I spoke to the Bahraini embassy before I left and they said ‘No problem you don’t need a visa’, and I landed and went to the border control and that was the end of that. I didn’t get out of the airport. And so technology is making it much harder. I can’t get back into Iraq, every single government in the region can very easily find out who you are, so if they don’t want to let you in you are not going to get in, and if they do let you in then you are being monitored. So your freedom to move is constricted. It is much harder now to do the work that I think journalists desperately need to be doing.

Some of that role is being filled by local citizen journalists with the rise of smartphones, but they are just ruthlessly targeted by security forces. Citizen journalists are completely at the mercy of police, while as a foreign journalist you might get threatened or beat up, but generally they shoot, arrest, torture local journalists with impunity. So it seems to me in some ways that the regimes right now in the Middle East anyway have the upper hand in their ability who can go there and who can get out the story. I don’t think I can ever cover a place like Egypt or Bahrain or Syria as well as a local person can, but it is true that the story doesn’t get out as ubiquitously, it doesn’t get nearly the attention when it is just a local journalist trying to bring it to a foreign audience.

MA: What about developing new sources if you are just dropped into a new place? This sounds like something you had to do Carol a few times, move from place to place. How do you find sources that you think are telling you the truth and to gain their trust and then did you completely avoid things and miss the story for your own safety?

CW: I think in the Balkans, because I was able to start covering that from the very beginning, I developed sources from mutual friends. The Associated Press had a network of in-country nationals who are their main correspondents, they put me in touch with people they knew who could translate for me or drive for me or guide me to people. And at least at the beginning before it became a shooting war there were intellectuals and historians and people who were the voice of integrity on each side. So I was always very confident of the reliability and trustworthiness of the people I worked with. I went to Afghanistan a few times when it was under Soviet occupation, but when I went right after the US invasion in the end of 2001, I just inherited a translator and a driver and a housekeeper. But we went through a few people who I was always a little uncomfortable with because I hadn’t vetted them. The guy who had come in with the US invasion had a bad reputation… Even back then there were ulterior motives for getting inside of a Western news operation. You kind of work through it and there tends to be a community of foreign correspondents that always end up in the same hotspots, and if you were having a problem you could work with your friend from the BBC or the Boston Globe, and figure out what to do instead. There have been circumstances in both Iraq an Afghanistan where journalist’s assistants, or fixers, were working for the other side and basically informing the insurgents where they could be found and there were some kidnappings that occurred because there was not a good bond of trust. But for the most part, there are always a whole lot of people in these chaotic areas who want work and for the most part they are reliable and you have common interests in getting your work done.

MA: Terry McCarthy you talked about hearing about a massacre and not being able to go there because of safety issues. How do you verify that? And if you don’t verify that you can’t report it. How do you deal with trusting sources, developing trust, verifying this information when your life is at risk?

TM: I think one of the great problems that has emerged in covering wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan is precisely that lack of access. There were many stories that we could not cover as Westerners. Probably the greatest unwritten story about foreign media coverage is the function of these fixers. Some of them are less reliable, but in general we cannot function without them, and there were times in Iraq where we just couldn’t go to places and our local staff would go. I was at ABC at the time and we lost a cameraman and a soundman precisely for that reason, that they had gone out and got caught up in something and were killed. You see the Western bylines but behind those bylines are many locals who can be incredibly brave and who are motivated sometimes by money, but also a lot of these people they really want to get that story out because their country is going through tremendously tough times. You are seeing the same thing happening in Syria now where Syrians are passing information out because they want somebody to help them fix it and they know that their own government is not going to do it, be it Assad, Al-Qaeda, or whoever. And so they come, very bravely, to Western news organisations to help us out. I have huge respect for all these local fixers whose names are never known but without whom we could never get you the stories that you have seen. So I have a lot of time for local fixers, they are the people that save your lives and I have gone through situations where without a local fixer something very bad could have happened. They understand the local situation and if you don’t listen to them you are foolish. All I can do is take off my hat to those many thousands of unnamed men and women who have helped us to get stories out of some very dangerous parts of the world.

MA: Claudia Nunez you are from Mexico, do you face a similar situation?

CN: I feel privileged because I am an immigrant myself so I know the issues, I know the places, I know the people, I know the language, and I know what is beyond the language. I don’t use fixers, I go directly to the communities. When somebody tells me you need to go to this organisation, I avoid that organisation, I go to other places because that is the only way you can get the reality. I know this because a lot of my colleagues, when they report it is the same source of information because it is the same fixer. But when you know the language and the people you have this huge advantage around what is happening. I feel privileged because I work for Hispanic media and it is a very particular situation because I am telling the story to someone who is already an expert on that issue.

MA: Doesn’t the international community owe the profession of journalism some kind of protection? But if you take that protection it is kind of like the embedded issue? Do you then sacrifice some aspect of your independence?

ML: The United States was targeting journalists right, they targeted Al Jazeera bureaus. The Israeli Government, so-called civilized governments have targeted journalists and targeted for arrest, targeted for death. How are we going to speak to this idea that you need to defend journalists when we are not defending journalists? In fact, we are making their lives much more difficult. So I think there are rules that exist, there are organisations around the world who are documenting the abuses against journalists. The problem is there is a conspiracy of the powerful globally, that is whether it is governments, non-state actors, terrorists, narco-traffickers, it is in no one’s interest to protect journalists because they are just pains in the ass who keep the powerful from getting away with what they are trying to get away with. I don’t think we can expect anything. I think the increasing corporatisation of journalism has made it harder to be protected and harder to get the stories done. I am very lucky as a scholar that when I have gone to Iraq or Palestine, I am going to look at a story I want to do and I am not on a deadline and I am not on an assignment usually from someone else, so I have a luxury that I am sure my colleagues didn’t have and that allows me to search out the people who aren’t being found and who aren’t being spoken to, and that perhaps makes it easier to negotiate new contacts and not fall into the same traps. But I don’t expect any government or any body to do anything more than pay lip service.

CW: Any journalist would claim that we are able to get to every story. Everything is a calculation and a trade-off, you know you have to weigh the risk against the potential benefits. If you are going to drive through 100 miles of dangerous territory to go interview a poet about how culture has changed in the midst of war it doesn’t make any sense. You just think outside the box. You know if you want to go from point A to point B and in the middle it is very dangerous maybe you take three times as long to drive around and go through areas where there is less risk. In terms of being under government cover and protection, I have to say the most miserable experiences in my reporting life have been embedding with the US military. It is constant censorship: who you can talk with, what you can ask them, who is standing around and listening to what they say and intimidating them from saying what they really think, it’s not worth it. You go through all of this restriction and torture basically to get nothing. I find it very aggravating…The military has an army of people whose job it is to control everything you see and hear and think when you are in their presence and it just seldom results in anything valuable. But if you do have the opportunity to really drill down and spend some time with the foot soldiers, the people who are fighting the war that we have declared there,  I am sure that is much more valuable.

MA: What about some kind of international effort. What if there was some way of providing journalists protection through an international body of some sort? Would that be more acceptable?

CW: I don’t see it, I mean look how ineffectual the conventions against torture and human rights councils are. I mean these have much broader mandates to protect the rights of refugees and the displaced and political opponents. I don’t see any functional bureaucracy coming out of an internationalised effort to protect journalists. I think the Committee to Protect Journalists, they serve as a good voice, they spotlight abuses and targeting and jailing and killing of journalists, but they are basically powerless to do anything more than call them out on it.

MA: Terry you have mentioned how much things have changed and interesting that you are from Ireland because I have spent a lot of time there and that was a place where journalists interviewed paramilitary leaders and the government all the time and I think only one was killed during the entire Northern Ireland conflict.

TM: I would be with Carol. I don’t really see any help in getting governments involved in some kind of treaty to protect journalists. After all, half of the members of the UN would have no interest in the free press whatsoever for starters. Journalists generally do their best work in the cracks between the walls. Once we start getting regulated a little it will all go out the window. The flipside of that is the truth will out. Probably the most dangerous country in the world for journalism right now is Syria and yet the amount of information that is coming out from a country that is literally under siege is remarkable and it is coming out mostly from ordinary Syrians who are brave enough to go out on the streets with their iPhones and take some video and then post it on YouTube. That is the heartening thing to me because it shows me that even in the most oppressed repressed countries who have no history of a free press, the ordinary civilians, they want to get that news out and I think that is where we need to operate. It is always going to be slightly in the shadows away from the control of whatever government body wants to put their official version of what is going on out there.

Ireland is interesting. If you compare Ireland to Syria, I think the reason why no journalists were killed in Ireland is because for all the hatred that existed between those two communities in the north, they have a very long tradition of a free press. And so the idea of the paramilitaries on either side killing journalists would immediately alienate the general population on whose support they rely. When you go into some of the countries where we are seeing conflict now, they have no history of a free press. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria there is no tradition there of a free press and so the value of journalism is they expect journalists to be representatives of their government. And similarly, when we come there as outsiders, they think we are representatives of Western governments so we are fair targets. So I think it kind of depends a lot on what the local understanding of a free press is and how journalists can then operate in that situation.

MA: Claudia Nunez?

CN: I just want to make a comment about protection and the situation in Mexico. I interviewed the head of the state police department to get his opinion on a mass killing involving eighteen deaths. So I went to interview him and I was in front of him and before my first question he showed me his boots and he said ‘Do you like my boots?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, nice’. And he said they belonged to a guy he just killed. So he grabbed the boots from a body and he was the head of the state police department. On the other side, I did a story about human trafficking in San Jose. When I talked to one of the victims, she said I am so afraid and didn’t want to collaborate with the FBI and I said ‘Why not? You can apply for a human trafficking visa, you can be here legally’. And she said, ‘When I was crossing the border, I was hiding and I heard how the trafficker paid the border patrol to make sure that the people being trafficked got across. And this officer said ‘Yes, no problem. How can I trust if I hear this American official working with them?’ So narco-trafficking is a business and you don’t want to mess with this business. Either it is American authorities or Mexican authorities and there is corruption on both sides of the border. And the number of cases of corruption are growing on both sides of the border so we have a serious issue here.

In terms of social media, yeah, it is really important. The tricky part with social media is that there is no education, there is no protection, I mean people just go and click and make some comments and now they are the targets of the narco-trafficking. When people think of a narco guy, it is somebody uneducated. That is just a myth. These people are involved in technology, big business, people who know how to track information. So even now people who want to share, they have no special training around how to protect yourself when you post something. I think Mexican citizens need something like that urgent. Journalists, we don’t have that available, I don’t even get any training, I need to go and ask somebody who can help me post something in a secure way. Journalists are now even facing a situation where their Facebook friends are part of the narco-trafficking so you have people involved in your own social media network.

MA: Is PTSD an issue?

TM: I think it is a good question. Without trying to elevate the role of a foreign correspondent because PTSD is something that is widespread amongst our military now, I think it hasn’t really been looked at enough. A lot of journalists do have some problems and I think we have hidden them a lot. You know this cliché of the hard-drinking hard correspondent, a lot of the time I think you can look at the roots of that abuse of alcohol and sometimes drugs from what they have experienced. And, of course, as Carol said, you don’t go into this job to be a war junkie. But the flipside to that is you become one, because once you have done a few wars your bosses think he or she gets it, so next crisis, put her on the plane and fly her in, so you accumulate over the years a bunch of wars and yet you are meant to be indestructible because you are not being shot at, you are not a soldier, you can just check out of your hotel and fly to the next war. I think a lot of journalists probably don’t even realise what they are struggling with. Divorce rates are very high for foreign correspondents on top of alcohol and drug abuse. I think a lot of that might come from that. How do you approach that? I don’t know, I think you have to look at health programs because there is no veterans administration for journalists. But you are right to point it out, it is a serious but really unremarked and silent problem.

MA: What about how these emotions work within your profession? Do they motivate you to do a different better job?

TM: Briefly for me, I will tell anyone who wants to listen that war is terrible. Don’t ever think otherwise. It may be necessary sometimes, but glamorising war? The things that I have seen over my career make me want to never see another war again. I know there will be more wars but that is what motivates me is that you need to understand that war is the worst thing in the world and we should do everything we can to negotiate up till the last minute before you pull that trigger. It is not a solution to anything.

CW: A point I would add is that I did actually find it motivational when I witnessed some of the most horrible things that were done to children. In Sarajevo, the Serbs would shoot into schools and hospitals, little six-year-old kids seeing their teachers blown up in front of them, ending up in hospitals with some fighters talking about how they were going to go and kill, you know just being engrained with this violent outlook from a very young age. I never felt so relevant in my life as when I was covering the Balkans because the world was trying to turn its attention away from that conflict. It got very little press in the first couple of years and the bad guys, the ones who were going after the most innocent and helpless targets did this with impunity for the most part. I mean, there was a core of us that felt like we are going to stay here, we don’t care how damn dangerous they make it for us because the world needs to know what is going on here, you just can’t turn your back because there is not a convenient solution. The role of a journalist in that kind of circumstance is unique and it is very empowering. Those things were difficult to see and experience but they kept me there.

ML: Yeah, I would just say you become less nice of a person. Being in Iraq, for example, that was history being made for me as a historian and I thought I had literally a professional obligation to be there and to try to understand it from that unique point of view. So I thought somebody had to be there who was a historian to help document what was happening real-time regardless of the risks because that is your job. War is bad, war is horrible, the blood, the smell, everything is horrible, but try telling that to someone who plays video games? I try telling my son that violence is horrible and I have seen nothing compared to what so many other people have seen, but everything they are exposed to is the exact opposite, that violence and blood and death is good and it makes you powerful and it is cost-free. And, of course, if you are living in these countries, you don’t have to be told that, but I think so many people in the US, for example, don’t get it so I think that is one of the most important things that makes it relevant. It isn’t just that you are telling the story of those whose voices are being snuffed out, but that somehow you can get some people in your own culture to understand the implication of what is being done in your name. But you are going against a massive conspiracy that unites the military and corporations to create this image of war and violence as if it is cost-free for those on the trigger end. And I don’t know how you do that but I know it is really important.

This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.

For more of our audio and visual content, check out our YouTube channel, or head to the University of Auckland’s manuscripts and archives collection.

For more on this subject, you can check out Maria Armoudian’s book “Reporting from the Danger Zone” here.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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