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5 Apr 2012
Two searingly different portrayals of the Libyan uprisings show the incredible impact the “true revolution” has had on two reporters’ lives.
The past year has been relentless for journalists covering the uprisings that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa.
Dozens of news media personnel have been killed covering the events since the start of the Arab Spring just over a year ago.
Many more have been injured, detained and assaulted.
The issue of safety has rarely been more pertinent, and more present in newsrooms and living rooms, as the Arab Spring has cost the lives of a number of renowned journalists, including Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya last year and, more recently in Syria, those of Anthony Shadid, Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik. At a time when the risks of conflict reporting are searing and stark, Channel 4's International News Editor Lindsey Hilsum and Sky News special correspondent Alex Crawford, both distinguished television correspondents, say that covering Libya has had a massive impact on their lives.
The unpredictable environments and the relentless pursuit for news to deliver audiences hungry for 24 hour coverage have made this one of the most challenging years many journalists can remember.
But according to Crawford and Hilsum, successful reportage boils down to being in the right place at the right time. It is luck, they agree, that makes a foreign correspondent.
“I feel passionately that we’ve got a fairly substantial role to play as foreign correspondents going to these places which are very against freedom of the press, where it’s difficult to get in, where there are things to report on," says Crawford.
A mother of four who has been arrested, shot at, tear-gassed and interrogated in the course of her career, she became a household name when she and her news crew were the first to enter Green Square in Tripoli the night the Gadaffi regime crumbled.
“We were in the middle of history happening,” she says.
“If luck hadn’t played in our favour and we hadn’t ended up broadcasting live, then the White House wouldn’t have seen it, Downing Street wouldn’t have seen it, the UN wouldn’t have seen it – they wouldn’t have all been saying, ‘this is the end for Gaddafi’.”
The terror and exhilaration she and her news team experienced, from being trapped in a storeroom in Zawiya under the bombardment of Gadaffi’s tanks, to riding with a convoy of rebels on the back of a pickup truck amidst celebratory gunfire, are breathlessly detailed in her new book, Colonel Gaddafi’s Hat.
“Most foreign correspondents are very different creatures, but they’re driven by a similar thing, which is going into areas which are difficult.
“It’s like a magnet – if [the situation] is difficult, it means something is going on that someone is trying to cover up.”
Hilsum takes a different approach to documenting what she describes as the “true revolution” of the Arab Spring.
“I don’t see the point of reporting a war and saying ‘Oh my God, oh my God, it’s all exploding around me. Your job is to try to understand what is going on, why it is going on, and to convey that well,” she says.
Drawn from Hilsum’s experience of covering the country ruled by arguably the world’s most flamboyant dictator, Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution is an account of the Gaddafi years and the run up to the uprisings which toppled his 42 year rule.
“I think Libya was the only true revolution there has been so far,” says Hilsum.
“Egypt was such a big and messy affair, but Libya is a story with a beginning, middle and an end – and I thought it was something I could get my head around.”
“The moment after any revolution or war, people are desperate to talk. That was the moment I was lucky enough to hit Libya.”
“People were queuing up to tell their stories – for 42 years they could not tell their stories, and their stories were incredible. They were amazing stories of suffering, bravery, all the experiences of the human experience. And that is what I really wanted to get down.”
Risks and reporting
Both veteran correspondents recognise the increasing risks they and their colleagues take to shed light on human suffering.
According to Hilsum, who has covered the major conflicts of the past two decades, mass communication is a rising challenge for foreign correspondents.
“Increasingly, because any guerrilla leader or dictator knows what is on television, they all know what you’re reporting and where you are. This means it is much harder than it used to be,” she explains.
“When I first started, they never saw or read what we wrote. We might have been on one side, and would go around and report from the other side, and they didn’t know any of it.”
“Now everybody knows everything, and that does make it more dangerous and difficult.”
Hundreds of media workers have been attacked, injured and killed during the Arab uprisings, and it is clear that journalists are no longer seen as neutral observers and must be prepared for conflict.
And in the depths of a warzone, identity and experience become irrelevant.
“I think the shell that killed my friend Marie Colvin didn’t distinguish between her and Remi Ochlik on the grounds of gender,” says Hilsum.
“We had Sky colleagues who were in the same house that she was, just a week earlier. It did feel like we lost a member of the family,” says Crawford.
“Apart from the fact that Marie had always been around for so long, and done it for so long, and was one of the survivors, it seemed unbelievable that [she] was dead.”
Two different portrayals from two very different reporters, but one similar message: to go in and get the story requires an element of luck. To get out unscathed does as well.