Exclusive Interview: Journalism In A War Zone, The View Of War Reporter
(BRUSSELS) – Rudi Vranckx is a Belgian journalist working for one of the country’s public television channels. He is one of the best known war reporters in Belgium, having covered conflicts in countries including Iraq, Kosovo, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan and Pakistan. More recently, he has been following the so-called Arab Spring, covering events in Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Egypt and Yemen. This year, he twice narrowly escaped death in Syria.
MintPress News asked him how he sees his job as a war reporter and how he feels about the recent events in the Arab world.
MintPress News (MPN): What makes someone become a war reporter?
Rudi Vranckx (RV): I am a historian and I worked for a few years as a university scholar in peace and conflict studies. I decided to go into journalism, though, because I wanted to be in the field and to live history. I grew up in the 70s with movies like “Under Fire,” “The Killing Fields,” “Apocalypse Now” and “The Deer Hunter.” I was intrigued by the war in Vietnam, by what reporters were doing there. In a way, ever since I was a teenager, I looked at the world through the eyes of a journalist.
When I started working as a journalist for the public television channel in 1988, there was no such thing as war reporting, though. The war in Cambodia was over; we had a colleague who went a few times to Beirut to cover the war in Lebanon and that was it. But then suddenly, the world started shifting very quickly. This was in 1989. I ended up in Romania, reporting on the revolution there and the end of the Ceausescu era. Someone in the office asked me, “Do you want to go?” and I went. I was young and wanted to travel. This is how it all started. And basically, I never came back.
MPN: Do you think it is possible for a journalist covering a conflict to remain objective and neutral?
RV: It is a difficult concept. What is objectivity? Is objectivity “one says this and the other says that”? When you have a mass grave and there has been a massacre, it means someone did it, you cannot just stick to the “they say this and the others say that.” Someone is actually responsible for the killing and the task of a journalist is to find out who did it.
A journalist – and this is the second aspect – should also point the finger to what is wrong, to the lies … Especially in wars, there is a lot of manipulation and propaganda. I have seen that in Iraq during the war. Whereas we sneaked in on our own, a lot of journalists were “embedded,” and I was choked by the way some of these journalists were completely sold out. I think a journalist can feel indignation and empathy in his job as long as he is honest with his viewers, with his readers, telling them which position he is taking at any moment. What you actually do is tell people, “This is the reality of this piece of the puzzle,” or “This is reality seen through the eyes of these people,” but it is never the total picture. You cannot possibly have the total picture in one report.
In January, I went to Syria on a trip approved by the Syrian government; but then in September, I went back — and this time — I was with the rebels, because I wanted to know who they are. So I first showed reality seen through the eyes of the government and then I showed reality seen through the eyes of the rebels. I also say how I feel about what is happening. So what is objectivity? For me it is like having a puzzle with a lot of different small pieces: The more of these pieces you have and you add to the puzzle, the clearer the picture becomes. Objectivity to me is first to be honest with your viewers on the one hand and changing angles and positions on the other. Go with the government, go with the army, go with the rebels, go with the people and each time say what you are doing.
MPN: I heard you receive some hate mail …
RV: I have a lot of mail from people who support me, and I also receive a lot of mail from people who hate what I do. With the Internet, social media and the like, I am always surprised by how people can get emotional about things.
You know, I was in Homs [Syria] in January and a French colleague was shot and killed right beside me. Some people wanted me to say who was to blame for the shooting. But the only thing I could say is that I did not know. I could only say, “I have doubts about this and that, draw your own conclusions.” But when you don’t say what people want to hear, they dislike it. There was that Syrian pro-governmental lobby group who wanted me to say that the rebels had actually shot him, which I could not do. So they started throwing mud at me, they tried to slander me, it was really nasty.
The same happened about Gaza: I first went to the Israeli side to see where the rockets launched from Gaza were falling and I reported on that. I received mail asking me why I had shifted my empathy. But the only thing I was doing was to report where the rockets had fallen! The next day, I crossed the border and went into Gaza; I was in that house were little kids had been bombed. I reported on that and as a result, people on the other side started insulting me!
After what happened in Homs, I was emotionally very shaken; there was that nasty way of trying to manipulate me, to make me say things, to use me. In the beginning, I tried to respond, but it is not good for your health to get into that, you should just ignore it. It took me some time to accept that when you report on that kind of issue, you cannot be loved by everyone. Some people have a selective way of interpreting what you say and what you write. They only see and hear what they want. What can I do? It is just the way it is.
MPN: Do you think there has been a deterioration in journalism ethics and standards or in the way journalists work?
RV: No, I think things are actually better now. A few years ago, the situation was worse. And we reached an all-time low in 2003. This is when a lot of journalists completely abandoned all professional standards. It was so choking: journalists being bullied, intimidated and clearly taking sides in favor of the Bush administration … I could never have imagined that from a Western country. I knew these things happened, I had been confronted with it in Iraq with Saddam Hussein and in Syria with al-Assad, but these are dictatorships and I know how to deal with it. But I could not possibly accept that from the “free-world,” like they call it. Never. How was that possible?
But when all the misinformation and disinformation about this war in Iraq finally came out, many realized that we were heading the wrong way. Today, it is a much better journalism, I think. With what happens in the Arab world, you see a lot of brave journalists really trying to do their job well; the world of journalism is much more fragmented. So the situation is much better now than what it used to be nine or 10 years ago.
MPN: You have an interesting concept of slow journalism/fact history …
RV: Yes, as you know, I am a historian by training and sometimes I use the word slow journalism combined with fact history. As a journalist, for so many years, I have been in the “fast-food business” as I call it — i.e., I had to go and just produce one story after the other; but in the back on my mind, I always remembered my background as a scholar in peace and conflict research. So I started with news, then I went on making feature magazines, writing books and more recently, I have been making documentaries. This means I can go and live events when they occur and at the same time, go back a few months later and view things with some distance, adopt a “helicopter view.” What I am trying to do is get away from this “one short news item after the other” thing; I look at the more general picture and then I go into more details and tell people’s stories. It is a combination of history and journalism, if you want, because, of course, real history can only be made later.
MPN: You have been following the events in the Arab world, how do you see what is happening there?
RV: It is like history suddenly accelerating. First, I don’t like the term “spring,” I’d rather speak about the “Arab awakening.” We had that lost generation, well actually many generations were lost in the Arab world. And then all these young people who had no future suddenly awoke. They realized they could step into history. You cannot turn that back. But at the same time, what I see is that the forces from the past that used to block the region for so many years, not only have not disappeared but are trying to come back sometimes: the old regimes, religious extremists, the army, big powers trying to further their own interests … They resist the change. And you can see all this coming together in Syria: There you have the ethnic, the religious divide, you have the border conflict with Israel, with Lebanon, the Russian-Chinese alliance against the U.S., all the old world is coming together there.
MPN: How do you make sense of what is happening in Syria?
RV: You try to clarify the different layers: dictatorship versus the people, Sunni versus Alawi, the Christians … You try to speak with the different groups to see how they feel about it. And then there is the religious aspect, Islamists coming in because the West is not helping enough and they get help from Saudi Arabia and Qatar … That is the regional players’ level. And then you have the last level, Russia and the United States. What are they doing? Are they arming or not? Who exactly are they arming? To what extent?
MPN: Don’t you think people just want to know who the good guys and who the bad guys are?
RV: Well, I am not prepared to give them that because I cannot. The good guys are not always entirely good; some of them can actually become pretty bad, like what happened with some rebel groups. Real life is not that simple. Different parties just have different agendas: you may think that the rebels in Syria are fighting a dictatorship, yes, but then some of them want to apply Sharia. Is that good or bad? In their eyes of course it is good. In the opinion of some of my viewers it is not. Who am I to judge that? I can only report on it. And then what does it mean to say “they are going to apply Sharia,” you know how difficult it is to explain that. And unfortunately, it is very often simplified in the press, like what happened with Egypt.
With some audiences, I can put nuances and I always try to do so. But then the question is: Do they hear what I say? Do they hear the nuances I try to introduce in my stories? The problem more often resides in the heads of the people here, the clichés they have, the patterns of thinking … There is this tendency to stick to their clichés, to their own vision of the world and also to put everyone in little boxes with labels. This is the only thing that sometimes makes me … tired.
MPN: Is there an issue with Muslims?
RV: Our societies somehow seem to have this need for a “we” versus “them” feeling. And now, the “them” are the Muslims. Whenever it is about Muslims, people have this tendency to tense up and lose their capacity to think. If we don’t watch out, they might become the enemy of our time. There, too, you have different levels: It is not only about 9/11, Bush, Bin Laden and aggressive extremists that led to two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That is there. But here in Europe there is this issue of the failed social integration of some groups, people from the second or third generations of Moroccans, Turks … There you have a social and economic problem. And all this comes together and creates a “Muslim problem.” We have to be careful not to put labels on a specific group of people like what happened during the Second World War. This is how it generally starts: First, we blame an entire group for everything that goes wrong; we isolate them; and then we can do and say what we want; and then we have wars. This is how you got war in Yugoslavia. The only thing I am saying is watch out. If there are problems, criminality, violence, social issues, solve the problems but don’t blame an entire group for it because this is how the gap grows wider.
MPN: Do you think journalists have a mission or a duty to promote diversity and better understanding?
RV: I suppose it would not be a bad thing … This said, the mission of a journalist is not to promote anything but to warn on time, to put the finger on what is wrong and to raise the alarm bell if need be. In the end, by doing so, we do promote some values, I suppose. The only values I personally recognize are those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human rights. They may be Western values according to some, but it is a universal declaration. It is the only thing I am quite firm about. As for the rest … I don’t think there is a clear-cut answer to every question.
MPN: Don’t you have the feeling sometimes that you are struggling against windmills?
RV: Sure, I do. It is like that old Greek myth, you know, the myth of Sisyphus, he has to push a rock up a mountain and each time he almost reaches the top, the rock rolls down again and Sisyphus has to start all over again. This is what it is.
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