The danger in being a foreign correspondent

A Different Perspective: It is time for Russian roulette journalism to be brought to an end for foreign correspondents.

By JAY BUSHINSKY
February 23, 2012 22:29
4 minute read.
Marite Colvina and Remi Ochlik

Marite Colvina and Remi Ochlik 390. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The term “foreign correspondent” is not a synonym for daredevil or adventurer.

There is no moral or professional justification for taking undue risks. A professional foreign correspondent should operate within the framework of a host country’s laws and not in deliberate violation of them. By the same token, the foreign correspondent has a right to expect the host country to grant him or her as much personal security or safety as possible under the circumstances.

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In fact, it is not in the interest of the host country – especially when it is at war or while a rebellion is under way – for a foreign correspondent to be killed or wounded. This is because such misfortunes are universally perceived as evidence that the authorities have lost or are losing control.

This is why the tragic death of 56-year-old Marie Colvin, a Times of London correspondent and that of her colleague, 28-year-old Remi Ochlik, a talented photographer, in Homs, Syria, should never have happened. According to their New York Times colleagues, Rod Nordland and Alan Cowell, who filed a joint report from Cairo about what happened to them, they were in a residential building that came under deadly artillery fire by the Syrian army.

When the civilians inside, including Colvin and Ochlik tried to escape, they were mortally wounded.

The New York Times correspondent quoted Syrian rebel spokesmen as saying the bodies could not be sent home because this would be much too dangerous; probably, their burial would have to take place in Homs.

Actually, like several other journalists who lost their lives during the year-long Syrian revolution, notably Anthony Shadid of the New York Times, Colvin and Ochlik were in the country illegally. They were smuggled across the border. Fearful that the Syrian government would not grant them entry and permission to stay in the country, they decided to turn to underground elements that specialized in helping people sneak across the frontier.



It is hard to believe that the respective editors of the publications for whom these journalists worked insisted that they enter Syria at all costs.

This belief is based on the traditional norms of foreign correspondence that have existed for nearly 150 years.

When this form of journalism was in its infancy during the Russo-Turkish War, the British correspondents who were sent to Bulgaria presented themselves to the military command there and remained as its highly-respected guests. In World War I, few if any professional journalists on the Allied side simply roamed around the front lines unescorted by military personnel and at will. The war correspondents’ experience in World War II was similar. Even the legendary Ernie Pyle who introduced his readers to “GI Joe,” operated under the aegis of the officers in charge of the units with which he was embedded. When Walter Cronkite sought permission to fly with the US Army Air Force he did so with the consent of the squadron commander. There was no other way to go.

When I had my baptism of fire here as a war correspondent in June 1967, I was reprimanded for having been the target of Jordanian snipers while heading for the UN Truce Supervisory Organization headquarters atop Jerusalem’s Hill of Evil Counsel. I thought I had a great story because I could tell about my car being riddled with bullet holes.

However, my chief correspondent who also covered the war for Group W, Jerry Landay, said, “Never take a chance like that again. A dead correspondent is a useless correspondent.”

Of course, times have changed since then. The conventional news media have been undergoing great difficulties because of the advent of Internet bloggers, Twitter, Facebook and other media gimmicks. This situation has motivated aspiring young journalists desperately seeking vehicles for their bylines and copy to rush to every international flashpoint and offer their services to all and sundry. Their ambition is evidently so intense that they are willing to jeopardize their lives to get “a story.”

It is time for this form of Russian roulette to be brought to an end for foreign correspondents, who traditionally have been treated with dignity and respect and who should not have to forfeit it merely because of technical and economic changes in the free world’s mass media. There is much more to coverage of foreign affairs than crouching behind makeshift shelters as shells whizz overhead. Anyone who has covered a war situation knows that a correspondent at the scene gets no more than a fleeting glimpse of the overall military situation and often has no idea whatsoever of the “big picture” of which he is only a small part.

One reason for this dead-end trend is the overriding role played by TV correspondents. They need action, movement and visible emotion to make their reports qualify for broadcast. But the general public in the democratic world needs insight, interpretation and analysis that can explain what is happening abroad, why and what it means to the people at home.

The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent based in Israel.

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