Covering Conflicts

WAR is an intensely partisan affair. So, Press freedoms and code of ethics do not exist, as we define it elsewhere, in reporting war and war-like conflicts.

As a cardinal principle, it is often said that fact is sacred while comment is free. In a war, you are not allowed to report most of the facts and are not free to comment on many of the actions of your own country, whatever be level of press freedoms exist in your country. The situation will be better if your country is neutral or is only marginally involved.

Yet, news organisations will have to respect facts, if it is to maintain any semblance of credibility. It will be the duty of the journalist to report facts about the conflict even if his country is at war. However, facts would be hard to come by. It would be very difficult to confirm many events, especially if one is under pressure to report every hour or two for a 24-hour channel.

But it could always be possible to avoid misreporting like the one made by the CNN, BBC, AP and others while reporting on paratroopers landing at an airstrip at Harir in Northern Iraq. They reported that the American forces seized the airport. However, the airstrip, which was not even an operating airport, was not in the Iraqi hands, but under the control of the Kurdistan Democratic party. There were also other instances like this during the reporting of the Iraq war.

Media Manipulation
Both sides in the war have been manipulating the media amply by their denials. This is a tricky situation. Doubts can be cast on an initial factual report by such denials and these had been used to a great effect during the Iraq war. Reporters covering the two developments from two ends would not be able to properly qualify their report or assert any facts.

Under such circumstances, it is the editors who can at least make some judgments about the relative merit of each of the assertions. They can qualify the reports accordingly. When this is not possible, they can indirectly add weight by controlling time or space allocated for each version.  However, this is fraught with the danger as misjudgment is possible. There may even be criticism that the coverage is not balanced. But, if he does not do this, the manipulator will have the last laugh.

When it to comes to comments about conflict situations, problems multiply. You can make a good commentary only if you have your facts right. (Mentioning your source for your facts can save your face to some extend when your analysis based on wrong facts turns out to be wrong.) If one's country is at war, it would not possible for one to sound unpatriotic. So, you have to restrain your comments. However, if  the country's leaders are taking the country in the wrong direction, patriotism demands that you speak out. Truth is not unpatriotic.

Additional Reading: The Crumbling of the Fourth Estate

Pitfalls of Textbook Journalism

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April 2003. Modified in July 2003
Child victim of war on Iraq
"How is it going to be possible ever to explain what this is really like? All you can say is, this happened, that happened, he did this, and she did that."

Martha Gelhorn

"The principles of reporting are put to a severe test when your nation goes to war. To whom are you true? To the principles of abstract truth, or to those running the war machine; to a frightened or perhaps belligerent population, to the decisions of the elected representatives in a democracy, to the exclusion of the dissenting minorities, to the young men and women who have agreed to put their lives at risk on the front- line? Or are you true to a wider principle of reasoning and questioning, asking why they must face this risk. Let me put the question with stark simplicity: When does a reporter sacrifice the principle of the whole truth to the need to win the war?

"Fortunately such all consuming and threatening war has not been my experience, but this century, our modern 20th century, shows that such wars are not an ancient threat."

Kate Adie, Ethics of  War Reporting

Being monitored

The Iraq war saw a curious kind of qualification of reports by the BBC. The anchor often said that the reports from its Baghdad correspondent were being monitored by the Iraqi authorities (as if the other side does not monitor broadcasts). It is a well known fact that correspondents reporting war from a country under a dictator would face direct or indirect threats. In other cases, the monitoring shows up only when you are denied your accreditation to report from the New York Stock Exchange or when the embedded report is told not to report something “for operational reasons”. Embedding of correspondents often means that they are nothing but glorified public relations officers for the army. The army can easily take them for a ride, if they refuse to. In Iraq, on the other hand, mentors often travelled with reporters to keep an eye on their reportage.