Why War Reporters Go Solo, Despite The Risks

Feb 23, 2012
Originally published on February 23, 2012 5:26 pm

War correspondents have always been at the short end of the actuarial tables. Life insurance salesmen do not pester them. No war is safe, and no correspondent is bulletproof.

But the rules of the game have been changing, and the recent deaths in Syria of two prominent correspondents, Anthony Shadid of The New York Times and Marie Colvin, an American working for Britain's Sunday Times, show how this line of work has grown even riskier.

One of the unfortunate truths of modern war reporting is that many conflicts can only be covered by going solo on the rebel side, which leaves a reporter even more exposed and vulnerable.

Historically, most wars were fought between national armies with well-defined battle zones. War correspondents often worked closely with one army. In World War II and Vietnam, American reporters often wore American military uniforms and traveled to and from the front lines with U.S. troops.

This even carried over to America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where correspondents embedded with U.S. forces.

For the reporter, this meant access to the troops, the protection of their superior firepower, relatively safe travel, and the promise of instant medical care if required.

Different Kinds Of Conflicts

But most conflicts aren't like that anymore. In Syria, as with the other Arab uprisings, government forces have been battling ragtag groups of rebel fighters. And for a correspondent trying to cover this battle, there's only one real option — go with the rebels.

That's where the story is, even if the risks are greater.

The Syrian government has generally tried to keep foreign correspondents out of the country, granting only occasional visas to journalists and providing brief, highly orchestrated tours that offered no real insight into the state of the fighting or the mood of the Syrian people.

In contrast, a reporter who links up with the rebels is a free agent, able to go wherever his or her instincts lead. But they have to do so without a safety net. Shadid and Colvin both entered Syria like smugglers, slipping across the border with help of the Syrian opposition.

Colvin, 56, a war reporter for more than two decades, wore a black eye patch, a constant reminder of a shrapnel wound in 2001 from Sri Lanka's civil war. She was well aware of growing risks.

In a speech last year, she said, "It has never been more dangerous to be a war correspondent, because the journalist in the combat zone has become a prime target."

Shadid, 43 and a fluent Arab speaker, also understood the dangers. He was shot in the shoulder in the West Bank in 2002 and was seized by the Libyan army just last year.

Changing Rules

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 stated that journalists captured while accompanying an army were entitled to the same protections as soldiers and were effectively prisoners of war, noted Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

After the Vietnam War, the Geneva Conventions were updated and modified to say that journalists working independently were entitled to the same status as civilians.

"International humanitarian law has acknowledged that journalists operate in both capacities," said Simon. "But today, the predominant way journalists cover wars is to go independently."

Drawn To The Front Lines

In Syria, both Shadid and Colvin were drawn to Homs, where the Syrian military has been shelling civilian neighborhoods in hopes of crushing the rebellion. It's an incredibly dangerous place to be, but it is precisely the kind of places that Shadid and Colvin sought out throughout their careers.

Both built their reputations telling the deeply personal tales of ordinary people trapped in extraordinary conditions.

In Colvin's final story, published Sunday, she described the hellish scene in Homs.

"They call it the widows' basement. Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs," she wrote. "Everyone in the cellar has a similar story of hardship or death."

There is no way to get these front-line stories by traveling in a pack. But it also means the reporter is extremely exposed.

Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed when a shell struck a house in Homs that the opposition was using as a makeshift press center. Because the fighting has been so intense, her body remained in Homs on Thursday amid efforts to find a way to send her remains home.

Shadid spent a week in Syria, and was being taken out by Syrian guides on horseback, because traveling the roads by car was considered too dangerous. The horses apparently touched off a fatal asthma attack. There were no medics to help, no helicopter to whisk him away. A photographer working with him carried Shadid's body across the border into Turkey.

A More Dangerous World

The deaths only reconfirmed the fact that the Syrian fighting has been particularly dangerous and difficult to cover. Western journalists have been able to catch only occasional glimpses. Those who have ventured in have stayed for only a few days.

As Western reporters struggle to reach Syria and other war zones, coverage is increasingly supplied by local residents using social media. In Libya, endless streams of tweets provided tidbits on the fighting last year. In Syria, many have put their lives on the line to take video footage and post it anonymously on YouTube.

Seven journalists have been killed in Syria since the uprising began nearly a year ago, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. And last year, 29 of the 46 journalists killed were in Muslim countries where wars or unrest were taking place.

A quick scan of war zones, from Syria to Somalia to Afghanistan, shows the world is not getting safer for journalists trying to report on these conflicts. But it's a reminder of the risks Anthony Shadid and Marie Colvin were never afraid to take.

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