Reporting from conflict zones: Journalists share their experiences

In November, the Canadian Red Cross, in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights, hosted From the Frontlines. The conference aimed to inform journalism students about the importance of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) when reporting from conflict zones,  and give them a chance to hear from journalists with first hand experience in the field.

During our two panel discussions – “Reporting from Conflict Zones” and “Reporting from the Middle East” – journalists Ray Homer, Lisa LaFlamme, Laura Lynch, Grant McDonald, Zein Almoghraby, Sylvène Gilchrist and Tara Sutton described their experiences working in some of the world’s most dangerous areas.

The panel discussions ended with a few unanswered questions from our audience members. Ray Homer, retired ABC senior producer; Zein Almoghraby, senior program manager with Journalists for Human Rights; and Laura Lynch, journalist with CBC The National, graciously provided us with their perspectives

What are the impacts of new technologies and social media on reporting?

Ray: The greatest impact is the speed at which information can be spread around the world, particularly unverified and/or false information, which is the most serious issue for journalists.

Zein: Unchecked reporting through social media has resulted in many serious problems, especially in conflict zones or fragile societies. When looking into social media reports two main elements should be kept in mind:
  1. What is the credibility of the source; has this sources previously reported accurate information on several events?
  2. How reasonable is the information itself? A video or any piece of information contains many elements that could be easily and logically tested. A journalist should always work on developing their personal knowledge of the country where they’re working, which can help with verifying information such as this. Also, working closely with local journalists and civic activists can provide new sources of information.   
Were there any cases of IHL violations committed by Western states during your reporting abroad? If so, how did you cover it?

Ray: Yes there were IHL violations. Coverage involves questioning the violators to establish facts and accountability; travelling to the location of the violation if possible to seek first-hand information; finding and speaking to eyewitnesses; and obtaining documentation and/or visual evidence.

Zein: Yes, and it was very clear to the Syrian reporters that they shouldn’t even consider practicing self censorship for any reason, as long as they are sure of the information and they are reporting it in an accurate and professional way. As Journalists for Human Rights, our job is to empower journalists across the globe, and if we restrict journalists then human rights is doomed.

How do you handle being in such dangerous places for long periods of time? How do you ensure your own well being in the long term?

Zein: Mental health is the biggest threat to journalists working in conflict zones.

Witnessing atrocities or reporting these incidents leaves its mark on a journalist’s memory. Working closely with local journalists who are facing challenges such as securing food or housing for their families is also a burden on an international journalist who doesn’t have to deal with these challenges in their lives, which increases the sense of guilt.

To address this issue we are very keen on providing support to our journalists through creating networks and groups for that purpose. I’ve witnessed that breaking the culture of overrated confidence for both genders is the main challenge in this case. Journalists, international journalists, and specifically those working in conflict zones, are unlikely to express their feelings and talk about what they are going through on an individual level. So, the problem has two layers, a cultural one created in their home countries, which can be only addressed there in that culture. The second is in not realising the importance of addressing mental health on the field. 

Creating support groups that include other journalists and simply opening the space for a conversation solves a lot of a very crucial problem. However, it shows how many things need to be addressed locally and globally. 

Ray: Advance planning & research including advice from trusted locals and experienced colleagues.
  • Knowledge of location including current situation, history, culture, geography.
  • A safety plan including constant awareness of surroundings, location of safe refuge, evacuation strategy, regular communication with others about what you are doing and where you are going, reliability of vehicles for local travel.
  • Health condition and blood type of team members, first aid knowledge, location of medical facilities, travel vaccinations.
  • Family/friend aware of location of personal documents, will and insurance information.
Laura: I am honestly not on the front lines a great deal but I have spent a lot of time in places that are risky.  To an extent, you have to be fatalistic or I think you would go off the deep end.  You take all the precautions you can, you take some comfort in the training and experience you have.  And then, when you can, you take down time.  Read fiction unrelated to where you are.  Write a journal. Exercise. Mediate.   

You can watch the panel discussion here

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