Free Press at Risk: Journalists in War Zones Tell Stories in the Face of Imminent Danger

On September 27, 2012 KPFK sponsored a live discussion on reporting from the danger zone with journalists and scholars who have reported from the world’s most dangerous places at The Los Angeles Press Club, Steve Allen Theater.


Maria Armoudian, host of The Scholars’ Circle, The Insighters heard on KPFK, author of Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World, and a fellow at University of Southern California was the moderator.


She begins the discussion with “71 journalists have died to date just in this year alone . . . and 175 are in prison” from reporting in war zones. She continues with “ethical, independent journalism has a profound effect on decreasing human rights violations, increasing democratic rule, and improving policy. Journalistic coverage can help determine whether political situations lead to genocide or to a peace process. Yet the challenge for independent journalist has become increasingly more difficult in the last decade.”


The panel was compiled of four courageous individuals who combined hold decades of experience reporting from danger zones all over the world; Carol Williams, Terry McCarthy, Claudia Nunez, and Mark LeVine.


Panelist Carol Williams, Senior International Affairs Writer for the Los Angeles Times, has covered the Balkan Wars, the Chechen Wars, Afghanistan, and the Soviet occupation during the 1980s. She tells the audience that it is a misconception that war correspondents are adrenaline junkies. When first arriving at the Soviet Union in 1984 she expected to cover a geo-political story, but soon learned very quickly there would be conflict there.


She states that “Journalists on the ground under those circumstances can quickly go from neutral observer to a prized target by the opposition.”


Terry McCarthy, a former ABC and CBS news correspondent and the current President/CEO of the World Affairs Council, said that when he first began covering danger zones in Nicaragua with the Sandinistas they would wear t-shirts that stated “Don’t shoot me, I’m a journalist.” Later in Asia he began to see journalists being treated as outsiders and in the Balkans journalists were targeted by sniper fire. “But post 9/11 everything changed” and there was no longer a neutral ground for journalists.


Mr. McCarthy recounts an event in 2010 when he was paired up with a battalion of Marines in Afghanistan. “Three guys were killed on camera. One guy lost his legs on camera.” When they returned back to New York they had to fight with their producers to show this footage.


“They don’t like to show dead Americans. We fought hard to get that footage shown because whatever you think about the rightness or wrongness of war. . . anytime you declare war there is a real human cost, and we wanted to remind people [of that].”


Claudia Nunez, award winning La Opinion Reporter that documents human rights violations along the Mexican border discusses how her situation is different from the other panelists. She is technically not a war correspondent since officially there is no “war” going on in Mexico.


“Journalism is dying in Mexico, the press is victimized. There is a connection between the indigenous tribes and the cartels. It is now an international phenomenon. There are no borders anymore, it is touching families everywhere. I have interviewed children in Los Angeles who have been threatened by the Mexican cartels.”


Mark LeVine, Al Jazeera columnist and author of multiple books somehow finds the time to double as a Professor at UC Irvine says “There is a flip side to trust. You have to be careful not to abuse trust, because you are putting a lot of people in danger. I have friends [in the Middle East] who tell me not to go back to Iraq because it is too dangerous.”


On top of this, Mr. LeVine says it becomes harder and harder to gain access to these danger zones because of modern technology. Before, he used be able to travel to places without a visa. One day he arrived at a border patrol and they looked him up on their smartphones . They denied him access to the country.


“They don’t have to let you in, but even if they do your access is restricted.”


Despite the challenges, the panel of journalist agree that government sanctioned groups will not solve their problems of access to information and guarantee protection while on the ground.


“Half of the United Nations have no interest in free press.” Mr. McCarthy adds that “journalists do their best work in the cracks between the walls.”


There is also evidence that local people can have an impact on reporting, especially in the era of social media. All the panelists agreed that Syria is by far the most dangerous place in the world right now, and a lot of information is coming from the local people taking footage on their smartphones.


Ms. Williams says that “Behind the bylines are many brave locals who really want to get the story out because their country is going through hard times and they want someone to help them fix it.”


Mr. McCarthy says that you may not start out as an adrenaline junkie, but you become one after a few wars. Many war correspondents suffer from PTSD, high divorce rates, and drug and alcohol addictions. You are compelled to report on what you see.


Mr. LeVine says that “even the smell of war is awful, but how do you explain the violence of war to a kid playing the latest video game?”


Mr. McCarthy: In the end the goal is “to remind people that there is a real human cost, before declaring war on anyone in the world.”


Our call to action is to garner awareness of the challenges these correspondents face, to expand our knowledge of the fundamental cost of war, and to support the bravery these independent journalists and the local population face to share the story of their struggles, even in the face of imminent death.


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by Heather Martin


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