Sierra Leone: Press wants respect
By David Farah Posted Oct 1 2000
After 15 years of covering Latin American guerrilla wars, this veteran journalist finds penetrating the battle fronts too dangerous.
In Sierra Leone, there are no fixed front lines, no reliable way to make contact with combatants in the war zones and no understanding of the role of the press in a conflict.
There is a further, unusual factor that makes journalistic endeavors in Sierra Leone hazardous. Combatants on all sides in the war, the RUF, the government-controlled Kamajor militias and the army, use large amounts of drugs, mostly marijuana, and rotgut liquor as ďmorale boosters,Ē which they consume throughout the day. In the morning the troops are fairly stable and coherent. By the afternoon many are intoxicated and belligerent. This means going out with any of the groups poses serious risks: If they are not sober and stable, in times of crisis they are irrational and tend to be abusive. Given the past history of human rights atrocities committed by all sides during the war, including hacking of limbs, raping of both men and women and kidnappings, being with the troops when they are irrational is a highly dangerous situation for any journalist.
Because of the fears for physical safety, the actual combat in the war is generally not covered.
In El Salvador, Nicaragua and Colombia, where I also covered wars, all sides in the conflicts had a certain amount of knowledge of how the media work and cared about international opinion. So getting to battle with one side or the other was not difficult. If heavy fighting was reported, journalists could almost always get to the scene, if not the same day, within a few days. In Sierra Leone, because of the instability of the actors and the complete lack of knowledge of the press or how it works, such coverage is not possible. Often, even getting to areas that are supposed to be currently safe after combat ended is difficult.
That was how our two colleagues, Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora of Associated Press Television News and Kurt Schork of Reuters, died last May when they went with government troops to a supposedly safe area to see what had happened. The deaths of them and others in Sierra Leone, which has claimed more journalistsí lives than any other country since 1997, had a chilling effect on all the press corps.
Personally, I have simply not been willing to run the risk of encountering indiscriminate fire in this war.
This is a major professional conflict for me after 15 years of covering guerrilla wars. I am used to getting to know leaders on all sides of the conflict and spending time in the field with the troops. But in Latin America, most of the revolutionary leaders, as well as the leaders of the regular armies, had a fairly high level of education and a strong desire to make their cases to the international community. In Sierra Leone, most of the leadership, never mind the rank and file, of the RUF are illiterate and have no coherent vision of what they are fighting for. While rebel movements in Central America usually built schools and health- care facilities in areas they controlled and had an extensive campaign of ideological indoctrination, it appears the RUF has taken none of those steps.
The situation is virtually the same with the Kamajors and the army although the leadership of both government groups in Freetown is accessible and articulate. With no heritage of respect for journalists, no interest in projecting ideas or rationale for the struggle and a propensity for extreme violence, there is no reason to trust how a reporter would be treated in the field.
As a result the reporting is not balanced. Few journalists have spent any time at all with the RUF or visited areas under their control. Only one Western reporter I know, Steve Coll of The Washington Post, has spent any significant time with the RUF. That was a trip late last year arranged through foreign businessmen who worked with the rebels and negotiated guarantees of his personal safety at the very highest levels of the RUF. Because his article was highly critical of the RUF, no such trips have been allowed since.
While army troops are rough, the senior commanders are accessible and somewhat media savvy. My solution has been to deal with RUF people in neighboring Liberia, where many of the commanders and combatants hang out. The pressure of the war is less there, security is better and the use of drugs and alcohol less prevalent. This is a half-measure at best. I only get what they want me to hear and cannot verify anything on the ground.
Several of us also find former RUF combatants or people who lived in RUF-controlled areas and listen to their stories. Most are horrific stories of rape, mutilation and abuse, which is what we all report. I believe the information is accurate, and we are justified in using it.
However, what we donít get is the broader picture, if there is one, of what makes the RUF attractive to some Sierra Leoneans: Why people join, why they are willing to die for the cause, and why they view war as the best alternative. While some of this information is obtainable from RUF soldiers in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, we have no civilian voices, no families of RUF people, no mothers or fathers who were anxious for their children to join the armed struggle. Maybe there arenít any.
But we simply donít know.
The other type of reporting is on the human rights situation among the civilian population. There are constantly stories of the RUF or the army burning villages, abducting children and mutilating people. Part of it is true, part of it is government propaganda, but unless one can go to the scene of the action, it is impossible to know what the truth is. Perhaps the civilian population is far worse off, in terms of nutrition and physical well-being, than we think. Or perhaps the RUF has not committed all the crimes attributed to it. The risk factor in finding out makes it virtually impossible to know.
While journalists had in the past visited the diamond mines under RUF control, which have funded its anti-government warfare, none that I know of have done so since the recent crisis started. The reason is the same: lack of security. We have credible reports that large-scale mining is going on from aerial overflights, RUF members in Monrovia and people who have left the region. But how large-scale or how many people are involved is not known.
There is no easy answer for remedying the situation. The only resident press corps in Freetown is stringers for the wire services, the Voice of America and the BBC. None has good contacts with the RUF, largely because the rebel force is so inaccessible and isolated. The RUF has shown no interest, either, in having journalists become more familiar with their operations or their movement.
During the most recent crisis, the number of journalists there swelled to well over 100 for about two weeks, but probably at least 80 of them worked for British newspapers and television interested in covering the British troop deployment there. There were a few other countries represented: Agence France-Presse had a large contingent, Radio France International was there, and El Pais and a few other Spanish papers.
Of the major U.S. news organizations only The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and the Voice of America, along with the wires, stayed for any length of time. The Los Angeles Times, Time and Newsweek all had people in and out in a few days. It was a marked contrast to other wars outside of Africa.
Part of the explanation is that there were no vested U.S. interests in Sierra Leone and, because the Clinton administration made it clear from the beginning there would be no American intervention there, interest was never really high. For example, the press corps was only a fraction of the size of the one that covered the U.S. occupation of Haiti in 1994, which I covered. Even though the humanitarian crisis in Haiti was much less and the story, purely on its own terms, was far less compelling, having the United States involved made it huge news. The Washington Post had four reporters in Haiti during the first month of the operation. In Freetown I was alone until another correspondent, traveling with the Rev. Jesse Jackson on a fact-finding mission, did some stories resulting from that trip.
Most of the journalists I know and work with in Sierra Leone wish things were different and realize the inherent flaws in covering a conflict without getting to the scene of the action. It is painful, and I think most of us understand our reporting is severely limited because of the concerns for physical safety and the inability of the RUF to reasonably guarantee, or even want to guarantee, any sort of access. The lack of discipline among government troops causes some of the same concerns in traveling with them. That makes for a war where propaganda is easy to use because no one can check the facts. Only the government and the United Nations have effective propaganda machines. None of these factors is likely to change soon, given the reality on the ground. So the coverage of Sierra Leoneís war will be incomplete and somewhat shallow.