Fear and objectivity in conflict reporting


In the Third World, they fear the media. So it’s good not to look too professional. If I’m in the same shit as them for a week, anything is possible. 
Itai Anghel
Itai Anghel is an Israeli documentary filmmaker who has reported from conflicts in the Balkans, Caucasus, Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.
Tall but unassuming, his style of reporting is low-key. He seems acutely aware of his surroundings and how much reporters can affect the people they cover. He travels alone, casually dressed, with a digital camera. A camera which saved his sanity in Fallujah, allowing him to focus on audio and framing when his mind was full to bursting of violence and death.

His emotional intelligence is impressive, feeding into—or perhaps from—a basic empathy with his subjects, especially if they are vulnerable or traumatised. He rejects false claims about objectivity, but insists on responsible reporting, documenting all sides as accurately and fairly as humanly possible. Criticism from all sides means a good job done, says Itai.

Most of all he paints journalism as a calling, a vocation. Especially conflict reporting, where the harder the job, the bigger the moral reward. The harder the story, the more good may come of it, he believes. A native of Tel Aviv, Itai was one of a dozen speakers at the MICS media conflict workshop in Israel in June 2010.

HH: Tell me about your first assignment in a conflict zone. How did you prepare yourself both physically and mentally?

IA: I didn’t really plan my first assignment, I just knew I wanted to be there. It was a dream for me going to the field for the first time. As a young man of 22 years of age, I’d been watching and listening to correspondents for years; and then I realised this is what I’m going to do. So I went to Bosnia. I didn’t have anything planned, I just wanted to be there and figured everything would be fine once I reached there. I improvised all the way, I went alone, I worked by myself. When I arrived a missile dropped close by, very close to me actually, and I became completely paralysed. I thought this job doesn’t suit me; it was very painful to admit. I was so afraid, I had tears in my eyes, then I dug myself into the ground and when I opened my eyes again I saw another correspondent just standing without any fear and I realised I really cannot do it and I really wanted to go home and live an ordinary life. I was very frustrated but leaving Sarajevo was much more dangerous than staying inside and because I didn’t have any other possibility I stayed and little by little, day by day I gained some confidence. I managed to work and then I gained confidence of being able to do it. So I was lucky that I couldn’t move or run away from there.

HH: So growing up in Israel, with the conflict there, didn’t prepare you for Bosnia?

IA: No absolutely not. I live in Tel Aviv, which is some sort of island within this conflict. Of course we have our problems, we have had suicide bombings but they came later. You live in this place of conflict but you don’t really feel it. Most of the people do not really feel it, they just know it. If you go to the army and you are engaged and unfortunately you have to suffer from an explosion then you feel it but overall your life is fine. You cannot be prepared for something like this [Bosnia]. I think even being experienced doesn’t make you really prepared.

HH: Had you already done your military service before going to Bosnia?

IA: I did of course, luckily for me. I considered it luck. I was at the army radio station. Just imagine when you are 18 years old you have to go on military service. Most people are working on this radio station are very young (18-21) which make them very quick, very motivated, very open-minded. Sometimes the army itself thinks about shutting down this radio station because people speak so openly. It was very good experience to have this for three years. Actually the most prominent Israeli journalists came from this radio station because it makes you very experienced. That was my duty in the army, I had nothing to do with combat. So, yes, I was in military radio from 18–21. I finished when I turned 22 and then did some freelance work. I was still working for that radio station and some newspapers and then came the Balkans.

HH: Journalists are targeted more and more in conflict zones, according to Reporters Without Borders. Why is this?

IA: From my first experience in Bosnia, the number was horrifying. There were 21 journalists killed in just a few months. And then I realised they were not just caught in the crossfire but were executed. The Serbs realised that in the eyes of the world they are seen as the bad guys and for them it wasn’t very clear because as far as they were concerned the Balkan war was a continuation of World War II – the Serbs were the partisans and the Croats and Muslims collaborated with Nazis so they thought ‘how come as a Serb I have a bad image?’ They think the people who create that bad image are the journalists, so they have to be punished and journalists were executed because of this. It was shocking for me to understand. And then you realise little by little that is not that you are journalist and you are neutral and respected by all sides. Nowadays of course it becomes even a bigger problem because some people offer a prize, including Al Qaeda. When I was in Afghanistan and the first time I came to Iraq, it was common knowledge that they offered 50,000 for anyone who kills a journalist because for them journalists are identified with sort of normal Western life.

HH: But that’s strange because Al-Qaeda use the media as much as regular armies. Robert Fisk interviewed Osama bin Ladin a number of times.
IA: I don’t think it’s a big plan by an organisation with hierarchy. Anyone can decide that he is Al-Qaeda and decide what is good for Al Qaeda and take responsibility for an explosion he committed. So I don’t think killing a journalist is something decided by a big leader and goes to every soldier in the field. But some people see killing a journalist as part of they duty because most people in Al Qaeda naturally don’t like Western media. If by chance Al-Qaeda decides to speak with certain journalists, everything will be different for them, but the normal situation is very, very scary. Today going to Iraq with all the terrorists is something very difficult to do… It is kind of a death to journalism because you cannot walk or investigate freely. Just the fact that you are walking in some of the streets or towns risks your life. So you will not do the documentary the best or normal way because you will be afraid for your life.

HH: You painted a picture of big professional crews as being arrogant. Does this make your life harder when reporting from the field?
IA: It does not make my life harder, it’s making their life harder as far as I can see. They are coming in very big crews. They think this is the way you have to work, you have to organise yourself because everything is very complicated, you need a very solid infrastructure. But those big crews from big networks some of them have the feeling that they ‘own the conflict’. They know what soundbites they want to get, what style of documentation needs to be done; and they’re coming with very big crews, luxurious suites and equipment and sometimes it alienates them from their surroundings because people don’t like media in the Third World. They are afraid of the media because you have an army, militias, submilitias, gangs, you have people who are freed out of prison because they have the guts to engage in a war. So with all these people surrounding you, you want to be very careful what you say. So people are very scared of the media. And especially when they see like a crew of seven or eight people (correspondent, cameraman, assistant, translator, bodyguards). I work alone and by working alone, the advantage that I have is that they don’t consider me as a professional media. I don’t look like serious or professional. One man with jeans and a T-shirt and a small camera, the size of two packets of cigarettes. We know that digital cameras this size are very good now and provide very good quality. In the Third World it doesn’t look like a crew that will broadcast on a network that the whole nation will be willing to see. So they are willing to speak much more with me than with other crews, because my presence is very small and I’m not threatening like other crews.

HH: Radio is the dominant medium in Africa. How important is it to know the media landscape in conflict reporting?

IA: Now it is radio, because everybody has a radio in Africa. It’s the best means of communication for the good and for the bad and even for the worst. The genocide in Rwanda was planned in a way that a big propaganda occurred before the real massacre. And the propaganda was broadcast from a radio station that was created especially for this massacre by the Hutu militias. It was called ‘Radio Mille Collines’ (‘A Thousand Hills Radio’) and everybody was listening to it and it was very smart. They provided the best songs which that can be heard in this region so everybody listened to these songs – and between this songs there were voiceovers from people encouraging the Hutus to prepare for the day of justice, in which they would kill all the Tutsis. They didn’t do that in TV because they knew that a large share of the population didn’t have a TV but they knew that everybody had a radio.

HH: I was critical of MICS for being one-sided and not giving a platform to the Palestinians. They say 3 were invited, but that they cancelled. But in any case, 3 out of 12 still would not have been enough. How important is it to speak with all sides for a balanced account, especially in conflict?

IA: It’s a necessity. You are absolutely right. If only one side was presented it, that’s not the way how to do it… I don’t know why those people didn’t come or if they was really a plan to bring them over. It is not serious just to hear only one side, even if you have an Israeli who thinks he knows how to represent the other side or what is best for the other side. This is being very arrogant—you cannot do it. You have to get the other side, especially in a conflict. I mean it’s a necessity and you cannot really speak about a conflict, place or environment of tension without listening very carefully and very in-depth to all sides involved, especially when you have the Israeli-Arab conflict, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you cannot learn about it when there is not a Palestinian speaking. Absolutely not.

HH: The impression I got that was that MICS assumed the foreign media is biased already, so this was an opportunity to rebalance coverage and give a robust defence of Israeli policy. Do you think that’s constructive?

IA: Personally speaking I do not think this strategy can work because journalists, especially you journalists. The group I saw is not naïve. You are intelligent and clever people, who tend immediately to go against something like that, to be suspicious. If it was something done deliberately, it’s a big mistake, a grave mistake. You know that something is missing. Of course there is a sense in Israel that the world is against us. Some of it can be justified, even I think so, in a way, but a lot is an exaggeration. So unfortunately now we are living in a time when people are losing hope and journalists in general are losing credibility and the foreign media seem to be ‘the enemy’. No-one is willing even to listen to the foreign media in Israel. I hope it will change because it was not like that a few years ago. But now it’s the most horrible time in this regard. But even in Israel, some of us Israeli journalists are trying to bring a different picture. The Israeli majority doesn’t have any patience to hear another side. People are so frustrated and the atmosphere is so bad and the gut feeling that everyone’s against us is so exaggerated. I do not see any possibility for people to open up and hear and think and reflect. I really hope it will change, but I cannot see it happening in the near future unfortunately.

HH: Another Israeli journalist, Ron Ben-Yishai says that ‘Objectivity is a dirty word’. Do you agree? As an Israeli is it possible to be objective about ‘your conflict’?

IA: I do not think it’s a matter of being Israeli or Norwegian or Hutu or Tutsi. Think about the word ‘objectivity’—something has to be a completely objective point of view; but you cannot say point of view because objectivity is something that has to be scientific, like a machine. Something without being involved. I don’t believe in it and I’ll tell you why. If you are journalist and it is in your blood and you care about people so you want go and risk your life and make great efforts working in those risky places, you go there because you believe in it. So already you are human being because you have a personality. You cannot be objective any more, because you feel, you can like, love, hate or detest people; this is not objectivity. But what you can do is to collect everything from all sides because you can find the good and the bad inside a) and the good and the evil inside b) – you will find everything in every side. I do not believe in black and white. So once you have everything and you pick up everything and you really interviewed everybody than you can see the side, organised stuff and then you don’t have objectivity but responsibility. Responsibility to have a balanced account of what you heard and what you saw. Obviously every side and everybody will contradict you; they will say no, no, no, you were too in favour of this side and not for me. But when these complaints are heard from both sides, especially in a very tense situation—whether it is in Israel, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan or Iraq—then you are doing a good job. But you will never do a job in which one hundred percent of the participants in the conflict will say: ok this it, this is the case. It will never happen. So it’s more about responsibility than objectivity, and that means doing your best to represent all sides involved.

HH: Ron Ben-Yishai also said that the “presence of journalists among fighting forces usually reduces atrocities”. Is that true in your experience?

IA: Yes, I can imagine. Obviously, no soldier and officer will act like in the Wild West, when you have camera on him of course. He’ll be very cautious, but you have one embedded journalist out of three hundred platoons, so it cannot make a big effect apart from this specific platoon. It cannot really change the reality of the conflict or behaviour of soldiers or an army in a conflict. Only in a very specific place when you there with a camera.

HH: So did you feel your presence in Fallujah made the US soldiers hold back, for better or worse?

IA: To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t know. I cannot read their thoughts, I cannot understand if they were up to something or if they held back so that my camera wouldn’t get it. You never know. But I don’t think we have to exaggerate in this sense, I don’t think that reality is black when it hasn’t got a journalist and then everybody is taking advantage of the situation and going to slaughter everybody and when is there camera on everything is clean and white and polished and pure. It can work in a specific manner, time and place, but that’s it.

HH: Do you have any positive stories? For example peace-building or development work turning things around in war-torn countries?

IA: When you report a negative story, you might help bring it to a good end because reporting bad stories makes people think and reflect. One of the most negative stories I have done was about women being raped in Congo, which made Israelis who saw the series of documentaries I made to do something. A big rock concert was held in Tel Aviv and a lot of money was raised, and every year we go with a group of the best Israeli gynaecologists over there to set up clinics, to do operations every year for one month. So our of negative reporting you provide something good. I really believe in it. It’s not a problem for me to go out and write positive stories (I wrote stories about windsurfing here and there). But I really believe while I’m still young and I have this mental and physical strength, a basic strength, I should devote myself to more difficult places because I’ve chosen this profession. There is certain period when you can do it, you won’t probably do it when you will have family and children to care of. There is a period in life when you have to go for your big adventure. And if you happen to be a journalist then just go to these places. You will find that things are very difficult to see and very difficult to absorb but this is your time. This is a very important job and it can really change the way people think. You are not going to change the world but you are going to change some of it. And some of it might mean that a few hundred people might live instead of die. So just go all the way. You’ll be grateful to your decision in the future.

Image by Noxstar on Flickr