Some journalists are dying for a good story

The media's changing role is making foreign correspondents a target in war zones, says Jonathan Eyal
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The Independent Online
According to the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists, 1994 was a grim year for media reporters: 115 journalists perished covering world events. If we include a further 15 unexplained "disappearances" of journalists, this is almo st double the casualties of 1993. The dramatic increase in regional wars since the end of the Cold War has clearly contributed to these figures. But so, indirectly, has fiercer competition between media networks and the accelerating pace of technological advances. These developments are likely to intensify the pressure on journalists.

All Western media networks have insurance schemes to cover the costs of injuries or fatalities sustained by correspondents. Managers, moreover, warn their staff in the field not to take "unnecessary" risks: "no story is worth a dead correspondent" is a cliche used in every newsroom. But the reality is that competition drives everyone to take risks. Every network wants to be able to trumpet its journalist's feat in arriving first at the scene of battle.

This fierce competition is not confined to rivals within one medium. Although the electronic media have long had the edge over newspapers - images are assumed to be more arresting than printed words, and round-the-clock satellite television can continuously update its stories on air - the same technological advances that revolutionised television coverage are now beginning to help the printed media, too.

"On-line" newspapers can already be accessed by any subscriber with a computer and modem. Such services may take time to become popular but better printing technology, coupled with mobile telephones and faxes, allow print correspondents to meet later production deadlines and to accompany their articles with the latest colour pictures. Broadcast and print journalists are becoming more equal in the risk stakes.

Yet not all the increased risks taken by journalists are down to the demands of their news organisations; they are driven by personal competition, too. Journalism's highest accolades are reserved not for those who hopped on a London bus to report on a cooker that exploded in Balham, but for the correspondent who discovered the Serbian concentration camps, or crawled into the trenches of another war with a camera and microphone.

For decades, covering far-flung conflicts was the realm of war correspondents, a special breed who tended to regard their personal safety with the equanimity of stunt artists. The war correspondent generated countless legends and novels, but behind the mystique lurked a thorough professional. Good war correspondents knew which risks were worth taking and how to benefit from the protection of the troops to which they were assigned. The proliferation of both conflicts and media outlets, howeve r, has eclipsed the traditional war correspondent.

When the Cold War ended, few Western media networks had a permanent presence in areas that suddenly became newsworthy. To be sure, the grandees of news reporting were redeployed, from the Gulf to Sarajevo, and from there to Mogadishu and beyond. But theyusually arrived after a war had already captured the headlines, and often because of initial dispatches from younger reporters and inexperienced "stringers" who happened to be in the right spot at the right time. Most know that performing well in their moment of glory can transform theircareers and all are willing to take risks that no older "hack" with a family, mortgage and pension will contemplate.

Higher media casualties among this younger breed of journalists were therefore inevitable. As if to underline this, the 1994 toll concluded with the death of Cynthia Elbaum, a 28-year-old American freelance photographer killed in the Chechen capital of Grozny.

The result is vivid and fresher reporting , but also more passion and bias. For the hardened war correspondent, the sight of babies being blown to pieces may be banal; for the less experienced journalist, such carnage is not only revolting but also requires "the West" to make an immediate response.

Committed reporting was traditionally reserved for coverage of natural disasters and man-made famines; it has spread to almost every international conflict. This shift has had a further unintended consequence: correspondents are now regarded as one of the most important targets in any war.

Yugoslavia is an instructive case. The Bosnian government's only chance of enlisting active Western military support for its struggle was through international media pressure; the authorities in Sarajevo therefore made sure that journalists were present to cover any atrocity. The Serbs, however, calculating that they had little to gain from the coverage, started targeting journalists directly. As those working in Yugoslavia know, travelling in a car with "Press" signs can amount to carrying a death warrant.

In the event, both sides in the Balkan conflict have failed in their aims: the Serbs did not stop media coverage, but the Muslims did not manage to enlist Western military support, either. Yet journalists will remain a favourite target in any future conflict. According to the French-based organisation Reporters Without Frontiers, 27 journalists were killed covering Algeria's internal war last year. Both Algeria's military government and its Islamic fundamentalist opposition concur that journalists should remain fair game. The same applies in Rwanda, where a further 48 journalists perished in 1994.

The wider reasons for this worldwide trend are simple. All those involved in today's conflicts know that their wars do not affect Western security interests directly. The only way Western governments can be dragged in is through pressure from international public opinion which, in turn, is influenced by media coverage.

Since the end of the Cold War most Western politicians have bemoaned this fact: the media, they claim, exercise power without responsibility by suggesting courses of action in far-flung places with no regard to the consequences. This may continue, but the media have started paying for their greater responsibility in an indirect way: by sustaining their own casualties.

Jonathan Eyal is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.