Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The pen no match for a Kalashnikov as foreign correspondents become kidnap targets

Sunday Telegraph chief foreign correspondent Colin Freeman who was kidnapped in Somalia told Radio 4's On the Ropes programme today about a change in attitude to those reporting from the world's trouble spots.
Interviewed by John Humphrys, he said there was a time when foreign correspondents were treated as neutrals like priests and aid workers and could "slip between both sides". But, now they were more likely to be seen as spies and targets for kidnap.
Freeman has written a piece here for the BBC website in which he says he has witnessed "the death of the Queensberry Rules" of foreign reporting.
Freeman says: "When I first pitched up in Baghdad, there was something still in my favour - namely that journalists in war zones had a status similar to Red Cross workers or vicars.
Being unarmed and neutral allowed you to pass unhindered, the nobility of your professional calling - yes, even for grubby British newspaper hacks - affording you respect in even the most dangerous places.
That was the theory, anyway.
Instead, I was to witness what appears to have been the death of the Queensberry Rules of foreign correspondence.
Firstly, groups like al-Qaeda turned out to have few qualms about killing non-combatants, be they foreign reporters, Red Cross workers or Iraqi civilians.
Second, thanks to the internet and the ever-expanding array of Arab satellite TV channels, Iraq's insurgent groups were no longer dependent on us for getting their message out. They could do it themselves, be it via interviews on the likes of al-Jazeera or by posting their own home videos on websites.
That has robbed Western reporters to some extent of their use as witnesses, which once provided a get-out-of-trouble free card for press crews as they wandered the world's danger zones."
He says the first time he experienced the "new reality" was while covering a demonstration by the Shia Mehdi Army in Basra, when one of their fighters got it into his head that he was an undercover British military spy. "He fired a bullet into the ground right behind me, which then ricocheted into my backside."
Freeman says of his kidnap in Somalia. "Once again, we tried the old tack that, as journalists, we were there to write about their country's problems, and that they should not have kidnapped us. And once again, they did not buy it. The pen, it seems, is no longer mightier than the sword, and it is certainly no match for a Kalashnikov."

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