From the fog of war to the blaze of the PR battle
They faced the dangers of war to write their new book Hit & Run, but University of Auckland lecturer in politics and international relations, Maria Armoudian, writes that Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager are now in a battle at home
When Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager released Hit and Run, the government reacted as expected, with a large dose of denial, particularly about the allegations of war crimes. It’s what governments typically do when embarrassing details arise from hard-to-investigate matters, such as events that occur in a war-zone.
In most conflicts and wars, details of abuses, even war crimes, are rarely understood by the public who finance these operations with their tax dollars. That’s largely because of the multiple challenges facing the institution of journalism. The profession, its professionals, and those of us who rely upon them are at a crossroads. Shrinking journalism budgets, dismantled foreign bureaux, diminished foreign news coverage, and the emergence of “alternative facts” have reduced the capacity of news organisations to deliver much needed understanding about these developments.
These challenges are magnified by the obstacles thrown into journalists’ paths — before, during and after they pursue information — by both governments and insurgents in their quests to control the information we receive. By blocking access, censoring, and punishing journalists who attempt to find and reveal that information, this process of hiding unthinkable, ugly realities is enabled. But sometimes, journalists manage their way through the obstacle courses thrown into their pathways. This is the context for the revelations in Hit and Run—a government that wants to bury any embarrassing details about a raid that may have gone very badly.
Add to these challenges the risks, dangers and traumas that journalists face and endure to get this information to us. While reporting from a war-zone is always dangerous, entering unilaterally—as Stephenson did—requires the greatest risks of all. On his first trip, Stephenson flew first to India, took a train to the Pakistani border, and walked into Pakistan. From there, Stephenson’s inquiries led him to the family of Abdul Haq, whom he described to me as “one of the major resistance leaders during the so-called Jihad against the Soviets.”
With the Haq family, Stephenson entered Afghanistan, to Jalalabad and Tora Bora, then what he estimated to be within 800m from al-Qaeda, when mortars landed terrifyingly close to him. “It happened so fast. There was so little warning, and the mortar rounds were landing very close,” he recalled.
Still, driven by the facts of the SAS raid, Stevenson returned to Afghanistan, eventually learning the name of the village that had been raided. Too dangerous to enter, Stephenson sought and interviewed witnesses of the raid. They told “a very different story from the one that had been presented in the media or presented by the Defence Forces, the scripted version,” Stephenson recalled.
Stephenson understood and took the risks—to life and limb, mental health and economic and professional standing. “The isolation or the stress or the exposure to deeply traumatising events” was troubling, he admitted.
But even more disturbing was “the risk that you take by challenging the narrative, the established narrative in your own country,” he explained. “Politicians can actively come out to undermine your credibility or destroy your professional reputation because they don’t like the story.” This was what Stephenson found most destabilising and disconcerting because, as he explained, “You’ve been in a conflict zone, and you come back to a country like New Zealand, which is your home and the place that you want to exhale and feel safe, not just physically but psychologically.”
In the latest instance, the Defence Force press release and news conference directly contradicting Stephenson and Hager's identification of the names of villages involved in the attack puts the pressure back on the journalists to show the Defence Force to be wrong.
It’s common for journalists who face danger for their jobs to seek the comfort of their own countries as a means of ameliorating the trauma that they may have endured. But that healing process get disrupted when home becomes a different sort of battle.
These physical, economic and psychological obstacles are beleaguering the very institution that we most need today. An ethical journalism establishment is the only means by which we can disentangle truth from either the fog or war or the spin of war-makers. Ethical journalists seek to witness events, analyse developments, untangle truth from propaganda, and provide nuanced understandings. At its best, responsible journalism impacts life and death by helping people better understand the complex realities of conflicts, informing their decisions with accurate, contextual information. They help policymakers prevent misinformed deadly errors.
For these reasons and more, international conventions, news organisations and human rights groups seek to protect and expand media protection and access to information. It would behove us to do the same.