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Issues in international journalism

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New dangers, new media, and the future of conflict #journalism #Chechnya #Syria
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rodgersjamesm
IT'S WORSE THAN BEIRUT,' WERE THE WORDS I REMEMBER. They were spoken by a photographer sheltering in a doorway in Grozny in January 1995. In my mind's eye, he looks skywards as he speaks: a gesture of despair, or an attempt to learn whether rain, snow, or shell would be next to fall from above.

A ruined building in Grozny, the main city in Chechnya, June 2000


























                                            A ruined building in the Chechen capital, Grozny, June 2000


On Sunday, I was reminded of that morning in Grozny. 'Now it was like Grozny, black stubs of trees, you couldn't see the pavement for rubble,' was the way Paul Conroy, the photographer working with Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times when she was killed, described his first sight of the Baba Amr district of the Syrian city of Homs for five days. Injured himself in the attack which killed Marie Colvin, he had been waiting to leave. He told the story of his escape in the Sunday Times at the weekend.

Homs compared to Grozny, which, at the time that it was being reduced to rubble, was compared to Beirut: each journalist who has reported on armed conflict, especially in civilian areas, will have his or her bank of grim memories linking them to previous generations of reporters, and the next.

Yet something is changing, and changing definitely for the worse. Paul Conroy, the Sunday Times reported in its account of his escape from Homs was 'convinced the army targeted the media centre'. Mr Conroy, the paper adds, is 'a former soldier in the Royal Artillery'. His military service, and experience as a photojournalist in war zones, give us every reason to trust his view that this was a deliberate attack aimed at journalists.

I covered both the wars in Chechnya, spending time there in the winters of 1994-1995, and 1999-2000. The big difference I remember from my experience as a journalist was the extent of access. In the first war, the only limit placed upon us was our own sense of safety. It was quite possible to speak both to Russian troops and Chechen fighters on the same day, provided you were willing to make the journey between their positions. In the second war, reporters were barred from the territory of Chechnya itself. It was possible, with the help of refugees from neighbouring Ingushetia, to enter the territory - but, if the Russian Army caught you, you were in trouble.

That was all, though. And it was trouble which you knew would end in the withdrawal of your press accreditation, and a ban from Russia - in the very worst circumstances.

Now, in an increasing number of parts of the world, the dangers are different, and deadly. Take a look at the figures compiled by Reporters Without Borders, or the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Much has been said and written about the role of new media in the Arab uprisings of this year and last. Yet I would argue that the coverage of the conflict in Syria in particular shows the limits of social media's effectiveness more than anything else. How many times have we heard 'these pictures cannot be authenticated'? There is no doubt that we know more about what is happening in Syria than we would have done had this conflict started in a time before UGC (user-generated content) and citizen and activist journalism. But it is the work of Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik, Paul Conroy, the BBC's Paul Wood  and Fred Scott, and those others who have risked their lives which has really added to our understanding.  

Anyone who sees social media as a substitute for conventional journalism should take note. This is not a question of 'old fashioned' or 'traditional media' against new. It is invaluable to our understanding of our world. Those who seek to kill reporters obviously understand the importance of eyewitness journalism - an importance which makes it the future, not just the past, of reporting conflict.