Pacific Scoop

Dire challenges remain for Kiwi journalists when reporting war

The Balibo Five: Those attending the Reporting War seminar viewed the movie Balibo depicting how Greg Shackleton (clockwise from top left), Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham, Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters were slaughtered by Indonesian commandos immediately prior to the invasion of East Timor in 1975. Photo: RSF

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Adrian Hatwell.

AUT University hosted a packed film screening and panel discussion last night in Auckland where the practise of contemporary war reporting was examined by a group of industry experts.

Former ABC correspondent Tony Maniaty introduced the harrowing independent film Balibo, which examines the death of six Australian-based journalists in East Timor during the Indonesian invasion in 1975. Maniaty is a survivor of the notorious incursion.

The screening was followed by talks from freelance foreign correspondent Jon Stephenson, TVNZ’s Cameron Bennett, Red Cross legal advisor Kelisiana Thynn, 3News’ Mike McRoberts, and Maniaty about the current state of war reporting here and abroad.

The seminar, organised by AUT’s Pacific Media Centre, was a follow-up to two previous Reporting Wars events in Sydney and Wellington last year, focusing on the challenges faced in international conflict reporting and the safety of journalists in dangerous situations.

The recent deaths of two journalists covering Thailand’s violent protests focused the discussion on the perilous conditions facing reporters in war zones while Australia’s adoption of a new safety code for journalists highlighted New Zealand’s own inaction in that area.

The panel’s general view of the nation’s approach to conflict reporting described a neglected discipline hit hard by the financial crisis and facing an uncertain future.

Stephenson opened the discussion by suggesting that since last year’s Reporting Wars seminars there had been no real progress made towards addressing journalist safety in New Zealand.

“I regret to say this, but our profession has become something of a bad joke,” Stephenson said. “Despite the slogans on the billboards around Auckland it is most definitely not ‘all about the story’… it’s all about the bottom line.”

He said that working journalists were well aware of the financial difficulties faced by the industry and as a result quality, complex journalism had been sacrificed in favour of “infotainment”.

A lack of funding had only worsened the country’s poor culture of war reporting due to a lack of well-trained, experienced journalists, Stephenson said.

“It’s possible we will have another conference like this in a year’s time, there will be more nice words and high-minded sentiments, but if there’s no action such conferences are a waste of time.”

Bennett was more upbeat in his assessment of the nation’s war reporting, acknowledging the difficulties of scarce funding but urging students with a passion for it to stay the course.

“Jon was saying it’s not sexy and fun work but, actually, it is,” Bennett said. “There is no greater adrenaline rush than to be at the absolute cutting edge of the human condition.”

He said that although it is difficult to stay positive in today’s cynical, commercial environment there would always be a place for quality war journalism despite the uncertain future of many news networks.

Thynne, supplying a legal perspective, said previous Reporting Wars seminars had been more successful than other panellists suggested, having raised considerable awareness of the role International Humanitarian Law (IHL) can play in journalism.

She said since the conferences both the International Committee of the Red Cross and Australia Red Cross had been invited to several Australian news networks to provide training on IHL and the protections it can offer journalists.

McRobert’s echoed sentiments that nothing had yet happened in New Zealand to protect the safety of journalists, though he said his recent trip to Thailand showed it to be an international problem.

“I was not surprised that two journalists were killed and five were wounded, it was chaos,” McRoberts said.

He praised Australia’s implementation of a 16-point safety code for journalists and the enthusiasm with which it had been embraced by the industry.

“Why we haven’t set up our own safety code, I’m not sure,” he said. “It’s been allowed to lapse, but it would only take about three calls to get it done.”

Maniaty reflected on his experiences as a young reporter in East Timor and the ways in which the same issues of conflict reporting still persist today.

He said the economic crisis had worked against any efforts to improve the safety of journalists in dangerous situations as well as limiting their ability to report on international conflicts at all.

“It surprises everybody when I tell them there is no major American news bureaus… in Russian any more. They have all closed,” Maniaty said. “That’s amazing. That’s an extraordinary admission of failure in terms of foreign coverage.”

With big networks now brought to their knees there is not enough funds to do conflict reporting correctly, he said.

“You do need the BBCs, the ABCs, the NBCs, to fly in experienced reporters who are paid quite a lot, experienced cameramen who are paid quite a lot, to do real reportage.”

Maniaty closed the panel expressing pessimism for the future of conflict reporting, which most of the speakers seemed to share, saying, “I can see it getting worse rather than better”.

The event also served as the launch of a special war reporting edition of Pacific Journalism Review, which includes papers and reports addressing many of the issues raised in the Reporting Wars seminars.

Adrian Hatwell is a post-graduate communications student at AUT University.

See also, Photo-essay by Jon Stephenson: Under Siege in North Lebanon (on Scoop).