The daring escape of New York Times reporter David Rohde from Taliban captivity reminded everyone just how dangerous it is for journalists to venture into regions of conflict. So what is the best way to prepare for reporting conflicts? SAJA blogger Gayathri Vaidyanathan asked three journalists with extensive experience in South Asia and other regions of the world for their views. These journalists also are among the line up of panelists at SAJA’s 15th anniversary convention to be held this weekend.
Daniel Lak, a Canadian film maker and consultant, was with the BBC Foreign Service in Afghansitan-Pakistan region in 1995. As the Taliban and the Afghan government battled it out, Lak and other journalists wanted to interview the Taliban. They walked up to the government troops and requested a ceasefire.
The reporters requested the troops to withhold fighting, Lak recalled in a phone interview. Then, the journalists ran across the frontline waving white flags. The Taliban fighters did not fire. When the journalists reached the rebel front and looked behind the guns, the fighters were having lunch.
“We asked harsh questions — like, are you terrorists?” Lak said. “Another guy asked, ‘why don’t you kill us?’”
The Taliban fighters were shocked. “Guests are sacrosanct” in their Pashtun culture, they said.
One fighter grabbed fruit candy, and threw them in the laps of the assembled reporters.
“We are like this candy,” he said. “If you take off the wrapper, we are sweet.”
Lak noted that reporting was safer in those days for foreigners, recalling numerous instances in South Asia, where the mask of terrorism often hid human dignity.
However, militants now have better access to the public through their own media networks and foreign journalists have become expendable, he said.
As a result, it’s become essential to be attached to a news organization that can equip and evacuate you. He also stressed the need for the most expensive hostile environment-training course for foreign correspondents.
Michael D’Souza learned to walk the minefields the simple way—by carefully walking in the footsteps of the man ahead of him. D’Souza, a producer and senior writer at CBC’s The National, was a foreign correspondent and covered several conflict zones over the span of his 33-year career in journalism.
The important thing is to tell the news, and not be the news, D’Souza said.
"And be prepared to be gagged by the horror of it all,” he said. Certain memories are burned into his mind like that of a young boy with a shrapnel hole in his back in Juba, Sudan.
Despite the danger, journalists are privileged to tell these stories and get paid to do so, D’Souza said.
He noted that American journalists alone are not enough to tell these stories. Local reporters provide the context to make global events relevant to people’s lives.
These local reporters are courageous, and not sufficiently recognized for the work that they do, he added.
John Stanmeyer, a photojournalist with VII photo agency, whose work is published in Time and National Geographic magazines, says nothing in life prepares one for conflict like being in the field. True to that, Stannmeyer has photographed in over 60 countries and in all of Asia, except North Korea.
Ahead of each assignment, Stanmeyer says “I do as much research as possible.”
“Every day, I read numerous news sources so, on average, I feel somewhat up to speed on a majority of the global issues,” he added.
But nothing can replace the basic instincts of a good journalist and curiosity. Despite his having seen the worst conflict zones, Stanmeyer says he’s not jaded.
“I've learned that humans are one of the weakest and at times the most dreadful species on our planet, but humans also have tremendous ability for the greatest love and compassion,” he said.
And it is that compassion that should drive young journalists to tell these stories of conflict.
“You should do this work, not for yourself, but for others,” Stanmeyer said. “Remove the "I" and "me" from your vocabulary and function for the greater purpose of "them" and "us.”