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From the May, 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 5)

Global Reports on War Media Coverage

The Press Goes to War

Essays by World Press Review correspondents in Bulgaria, Britain, China, France, Germany, and the Phillippines, March 1, 2003

Hu Xiaoming, a journalist for China's Xinhua news agency, shows off the protective lenses he will use in Iraq. (Photo: AFP)
Bulgaria: A Matter of Money

Bulgaria is a member of the U.N. Security Council at the moment, so readers’ interest in the Iraq crisis is running high. But war coverage is above all a matter of money. Only the highest-grossing Bulgarian dailies, such as Trud and 24 tchasa, will send correspondents to the war zone. Both newspapers have an independent orientation and are owned by German publishing behemoth Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung. Poorer publications will have to content themselves with the output of the international news agencies, CNN, and radio. In view of the fierce competitiveness of the Bulgarian press, many international news departments are currently reinforcing their ranks, putting annual leaves on hold, and introducing longer working hours. Special editions are planned in case of war.

The paper with the highest circulation, Trud, is assigning to Iraq its correspondent for the Middle East, Gassan Nasir. Syrian-born Gassan is a graduate of the faculty of journalism at the University of Sofia and has resided in Bulgaria for many years. He has been chosen for his knowledge of the region and his command of Arabic. This won’t be Gassan’s first assignment in a conflict zone: In the early 1990s, he was in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm as a reporter for Syrian television, and he has also covered the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

While Trud is counting on its Arab connection to cover the crisis, 24 tchasa, the daily with the second-highest circulation, has sent Kapka Todorova, 28, the head of the newspaper’s international news department, to Iraq. Kapka was in Macedonia twice during the crisis with the Albanian minority, touring the explosive regions of Kumanovo and Tetovo. In Kosovo, she covered the construction of the civil administration and the postwar problems of Albanians and Serbs.

Kapka and Gassan will stay at one of the three big hotels in the Iraqi capital reserved for international journalists. Since heavy fees are levied for the use of cell phones, Kapka plans to rely on her laptop (having been told that the Internet connection in Baghdad is fast) and a land telephone line. She may also hire an on-the-spot satellite phone in emergencies.

—Plamen Petrov, WPR correspondent in Bulgaria



Britain: Embedding or Not

For BBC special correspondent Gavin Hewitt, to be sent to Iraq as an embedded journalist was met with skepticism. About 100 of the 600 embedded slots were allocated to non-U.S. news organizations. The BBC received 37 embedded slots. “It was an offer to instinctively distrust,” recalls Hewitt.

His skepticism stems from the lack of access afforded by the Pentagon to journalists in Afghanistan and during the 1991 Gulf War. Now, he is reporting nightly from Kuwait, where he is based with a division of the U.S. Army as an embedded correspondent. The Independent's veteran Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, believes that the U.S. military wants to take along embedded journalists so “that Saddam will commit some atrocity—a gas attack on Shiites, an air bombardment of Iraqi civilians—and then won’t blame it on the Americans. Journalists can be rushed to the scene to prove that the killings were the dastardly work of the Beast of Baghdad. The distinguished Medal for Gutlessness should be awarded to all journalists who even mention the phrase collateral damage.”

The Guardian calls embedding a “charmingly horticultural metaphor for the U.S. military's new approach to handling journalists.” Channel 5, the newest channel in the United Kingdom, will rely on its own independent news judgments. It has become the first station to appoint an antiwar correspondent, and explains this decision with “a desire to report the war as differently as possible.”

—Denis Fitzgerald, WPR correspondent in London



China: Unprecedented Coverage

As war looms in Iraq, an unprecedented number of journalists from China have been sent to the country. Xinhua News Agency, China’s biggest wire service, has reinforced its two-member Baghdad bureau with four more people, including three reporters and one technician. As of March 6, it had 57 reporters in and around Iraq.

China Central Television (CCTV), the country’s leading TV network, dispatched a five-member team to Baghdad on Feb. 7. On Feb.13, reporters were sent to Baghdad from the People’s Daily and the Global Times. Including reporters already in place from China Radio International, there are roughly 100 Chinese journalists from different news organizations in Iraq and nearby countries. Such a sizable press corps, according to Chinese media watchers, is rather unprecedented for the coverage of a war that is far removed from China, both geographically and politically.

Xinhua’s deployment has enabled the news agency to present the situation in Iraq “in an all-around manner,” says Li Hongqi, head of the agency’s international news department. For the first time in its 71-year history, says Li, a Xinhua correspondent based in Washington, D.C., has been embedded in an American troop deployment, at the invitation of the U.S. military.

Li says that all the reinforcements to Xinhua’s Baghdad bureau, including one woman, applied voluntarily to go. They speak fluent English, Arabic, or both. Each is equipped with a mobile phone, plus “the most advanced models of laptops and digital cameras.” According to Li, none of the Chinese correspondents who chose to go to Baghdad are in favor of the war. But “they would love to have the taste of a war experience.”

—Xiong Lei (WPR correspondent) and Ma Xiaoyan in China



France: Avoiding the Same Trap

French journalists are determined “not to be had by military rhetoric” after falling into a “trap” during the first Gulf War, according to a February cover story in L’Actu des medias. They are skeptical of the Pentagon’s promises to be more cooperative this time around.

“Quite often, the military uses risk as a pretext for preventing us from approaching the front,” said Stéphane Fort, a reporter at France Inter. During the first Gulf War, he took part with other foreign journalists in FTP (“fuck the pool”) excursions across the border into Iraq, disguised as soldiers.

The American press, once widely admired, is no longer seen as a model. Since Sept. 11, explains Jean Hatzfeld, a reporter for Libération, it has “backed off tremendously from its principles in the name of so-called patriotism. We’ve seen American journalists agree to lie by omission.”

Robert Namias, director of information for TF1—France’s number-one TV network—told Le Monde in a Jan. 29 interview that America’s networks “are behaving like tools of propaganda in the service of the Bush administration.”

France’s leading news agency, Agence France-Presse, will have 20 teams embedded in U.S. ground, Navy, and Air Force units. But the agency will have alternative means of covering the war. “We don’t want to be overtaken by a very formidable American information machine,” said Peter Mackler, senior international correspondent and Iraq crisis coordinator for AFP, in a March 12 interview. “So we are taking extra precautions to have independent teams not only in Baghdad but in Kurdistan and in the countries around Iraq to maximize our own independent reporting. Baghdad is going to be a very dangerous place if war breaks out. The Americans have said that they are not going to make any differentiation in targets. Our primary concern is the security of our journalists.”

One French journalist has already died while covering war preparations in the Gulf. Patrick Bourrat, a special envoy for TF1, was mortally wounded while trying to push his cameraman out of the way of an oncoming tank. “Observing these war games...is proof that the war is very close,” he said in his final report.

—Brent Gregston, WPR correspondent in France



Germany: Intense Focus

In a time of declining advertising revenues, shrinking circulation figures, and severe staff cuts, many of the major German newspapers are nevertheless gamely gearing up to cover the coming war in Iraq with their own resources, including in some cases their own correspondents.

Handelsblatt, Germany's equivalent of the Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal, has been preparing for the war for months. It has particularly elaborate plans because it is one of the few national newspapers and has particular responsibility for business and financial reporting. The paper has had a small team working on plans for reporting on the war and its effects on companies and markets since early January. When war breaks out, Handelsblatt intends to send as many as 12 correspondents to northern Iraq and neighboring parts of Turkey to report on the fighting and its effects.

Not all of the major papers are so ambitious, but staffers everywhere have been informed that extra shifts and overtime will probably be required during the fighting phase of the campaign. Smaller newspapers will rely on news agencies for their war news. The German press as a whole does not seem to be too concerned with the Middle East after the fighting. Although U.S. President George W. Bush outlined plans for a wholesale reform and democratization of the entire region in his speech of Feb. 26, the issue of a postwar Iraq has not been seen as a major one by German newspapers. A quick telephone survey of major German daily newspapers shows that they have no definite plans for coverage of the postwar campaign and the rebuilding of Iraq.

—Basil D. Freydkin, WPR correspondent in Germany



Philippines: Underpaid, Yet Brave

The last time Filipino journalists went to cover war was the U.S. attack on Afghanistan in 2001. The journalists would have gone hungry had they not packed instant noodles. They had begged their networks to send them there and were given a couple of thousand dollars for the entire crew. With better-paid, insurance-covered Western journalists upping the price of anything from rooms to guides, the Filipino journalists were reminded of their Third World status upon their arrival in Kabul. Only ingenuity and a little help from some local Filipino waiters helped them get by and deliver the news. But they lost their passports, were nearly killed in an ambush, and got no extra compensation.

Now, as war moves closer, Filipino reporters feel that there is more justification for newspapers and broadcast media to send them to Iraq. After all, there are 1.5 million Filipinos in the Middle East, some of them in Iraq. Still, only the big networks have been able to set up crews there. Again, money is the biggest consideration. No one really wants to spend valuable resources on stories that publishers think can be covered by wire agencies with deeper pockets—though this is no longer a given as big media companies slash their budgets by relying on freelance journalists. Safety is not an issue, as Filipino journalists are known to be among the most underpaid but overworked and brave journalists in the world. Another complicating factor is the fact that the Philippines is dealing with a war right on its own doorstep. But with the country’s economy in a slump, even Mindanao is seen by some news outlets as too far and too costly to cover.

—Marites N. Sison, WPR correspondent in the Philippines

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