In recent months, one South African photojournalist was murdered, another lost his legs and another television reporter was sexually molested in conflict areas. Michael Schmidt says the industry needs to take better care of its own in a story first published by The Media magazine.
As I write this, I am looking at a picture of my friend, the great photojournalist Anton Hammerl. He was left to bleed to death in the desert on April 5, having been shot by loyalist forces outside Brega in Libya while working as a freelancer to bring us news from the frontlines of a vicious civil war.
In my head reverberates the words of another close friend who shared the terrors of Israel’s Summer War in Lebanon with me in 2006: “Anton was killed for nothing, for a story no-one cares about – certainly not the editors.”
That’s an exceptionally harsh judgment, but it came from someone who, like me, has been more than a little burned-out by experiences of covering conflict. However, it’s not only the dead bodies stacked up in the back of our minds – my own grisly pile totals 1 037 over a 19-year career – that has pushed my friends and I close to the edge of post-traumatic stress disorder.
No, what galls us is how South African journalists who cover conflict are treated so offhandedly by their own editors. I am not aware of a single instance of a journalist employed by a South African media house getting danger pay for covering outright war-zones. I’ve spoken to colleagues who have worked in war-time Zaire/DRC, Angola, Afghanistan, Iraq, ex-Somalia and ex-Yugoslavia. I myself have worked in war-time Guatemala and Darfur. Not a blue cent extra; it’s just like a regular day at the office.
Not only that, but there is precious little else either. Little forethought, intelligence briefings, insurance cover or safety training before entering a conflict zone (we were in Lebanon with a young reporter who was so terrified that she spent her time drugged to the gills with sleeping tablets; her idiot news editor had sent her on the trip as if it was some sort of leisure cruise freebie). Little logistical preparation in terms of safety equipment, transport, sustenance and communications gear – that isn’t paid for by the journalists themselves. Little thought to any escape plan should things go pear-shaped, as they tend to in a war. And little proper debriefing, or access to counselling after exiting a conflict zone.
Partly, we have ourselves to blame. The gung-ho attitude among some of us beggars belief. I’ll never forget during the Zaire War of 1996/7 that toppled Mobutu Sésé Seko when bodies of the slain were literally flowing down a river on the border with Rwanda; the entire foreign press corps was running eastwards to safety in Rwanda. The only fools going in the opposite direction were colleagues of mine, a Namibian and a South African.
We have to recognise, however, that ‘conflict zones’ are not only some booby-trap-strewn backwater of Helmand Province in Afghanistan. In fact, covering conflict begins at home, with service-delivery protests, taxi violence, crime, heck, even the carnage on our roads. You don’t have to be a João Silva to lose a part of yourself in this work.
A colleague at Anton’s wake told me how a news editor had brushed aside her warning that she’d have a nervous breakdown if she attended another funeral. The macho response is: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. But as amply demonstrated by the International News Safety Institute, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders, more journalists have been murdered at home, in their own countries in peace-time while covering ordinary beats such as crime and even sport, than have been killed in war-zones. And yet our editors do not take the threats seriously.
On 18 April 1994, The Star photojournalist Ken Oosterbroek was shot dead in the field. At that stage, the South African Union of Journalists and the Media Workers’ Association of SA had been deadlocked with Independent Newspapers management in Durban for three months over providing safety equipment to their journalists on the eve of the first democratic elections. At the eleventh hour, the IFP was still abstaining from voting and bloody mayhem threatened in Zululand.
Thanks to Ken’s death, within a single day, I broke the deadlock, managing to organise hire-cars fully-equipped with tyre-weld kits, first-aid kits, blankets and extra water containers, a helicopter casevac plan, and for a Pretoria factory to work overtime to produce 40 bullet-resistant vests, which arrived on the very morning of the election. It took the death of one of our own to move management.
Today, via ProJourn, I am organising a group of psychologists who will provide pro bono trauma counselling for our members, have established The Ulu Club for SA conflict reporters, continue to train journalists in covering conflict safely – and am weighing up ways to honour Anton. But we shouldn’t need another Ken to remind our editors that journalist safety is not negotiable.
“You don’t have to be a João Silva to lose a part of yourself in this work.”