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The Inside Story - Journalism and Conflicts | Episode 131 TRANSCRIPT

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The Inside Story: A Free Press Matters: Journalism and Conflicts

Episode 131, February 15, 2024

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This week on the Inside Story: A Free Press Matters…

The Israel-Hamas War becomes the most deadly conflict for media in history.

Burmese journalists in exile reporting on Myanmar three years after a military coup.

A Nigerian news outlet with a fresh look at the humanitarian costs of war.

And reporters-turned-war-crimes investigators get firsthand accounts of Russian atrocities in Ukraine.

Now, on The Inside Story... Journalism and Conflicts.

The Inside Story: A Free Press Matters:

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA Press Freedom Editor:

Welcome to the Inside Story: A Free Press Matters. I’m VOA Press Freedom Editor Jessica Jerreat in our New York studios.

This week, we’re taking a close look at the dangers journalists face on the frontlines of conflict …and the lengths they go to cover vitally important stories.

We begin with the Israel-Hamas war.

Egyptian, Israeli, and Qatari officials met in Cairo on Tuesday in an attempt to reach a deal to stop the fighting in Gaza.

This after an Israeli raid resulted in the safe return of two hostages, but killed 67 Palestinians, some of them civilians, in Rafah … And as the Israeli military prepares for what could be a major offensive in that Southern city.

Around 1.4 million people have fled to Rafah to escape fighting in Gaza.

UN Secretary-General Antonia Guterres says he holds out hope an offensive there can be avoided.

UN Sec. Gen. Antonio Guterres:

My sincere hope is that negotiations for the release of hostages and some form of cessation of hostilities to be successful to avoid an all out offensive over Rafah, where the core of the humanitarian system is located and that would have devastating consequences.


Media covering the conflict must navigate restrictions on access and serious risk to personal safety. From Jerusalem, here’s Celia Mendoza.

CELIA MENDOZA, VOA Correspondent:

Covering the West Bank has always had its challenges, for Palestinian and Israeli journalists.

But since the October 7 Hamas terror attack and Israel’s counteroffensive, conditions are increasingly dangerous.

Walid al-Omari, Al Jazeera Bureau Chief:

The situation is very complicated for all of us, not only for the Al Jazeera journalist. But [it] seems like we are paying a high price, because we’re very active and we’re trying to cover everything inside the Gaza, even in the dangerous areas.


Some journalists say reporting on military operations by either side has always been restricted.

Anat Saragusti, Union of Journalists in Israel:

In general, it’s challenging to cover military operations in the West Bank, in general even before October 7. Especially for Palestinian journalists, but also for Israeli journalists. Israeli journalists can hardly go into areas that are controlled by the Palestinian Authority. They need some coordination, and they don’t always give access.


Reporting from the West Bank presents a set of unique risks. Including attacks by Israeli settlers and Israeli and Palestinian law enforcement.

Nasser Abu Baker, Palestinian Journalist Syndicate President:

I released the sticker that I’m ‘press’ from my car because it’s [a] target for the Israeli army, and it’s [a] target for the settlers to attack any car of the press.


Before the latest conflict, Baker had been criticized for his activism and anti-Israel comments.

The Israeli government denies targeting journalists. A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson told VOA via email that “almost half” of the journalists killed were “actually terrorists."

But media watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists, has confirmed over 85 journalists killed in the first four months of the war, nearly all Palestinian.

Free movement has also decreased in the region, with checkpoints and restrictions on access in the West Bank.

Nasser Abu Baker, Palestinian Journalist Syndicate President:

It’s very dangerous to move from here to Jenin, or to Hebron or to Bethlehem. It’s not easy. it’s difficult and dangerous from the Israeli occupation, from the soldiers, from the checkpoints and from the settlers.

Walid Al-Omari, Al Jazeera Bureau Chief:

They are targeting Palestinian journalist(s). 'They’re targeting also their [families], and they will complicate life for them.


Some Palestinian journalists are setting up emergency plans to help teams working under conflict conditions.

For Israeli journalists, however, the focus is on the hostages Hamas still holds and the terror attack that left 1,200 dead.

For Israeli media, says Saragusti, there is an expectation from audiences of patriotism in their coverage.

Anat Saragusti, Union of Journalists in Israel:

I can tell you that the audience really want the journalists to rally around the flag. And they don’t want to see any criticism. They are not open and cannot contain any human stories from the other side. Now they cannot contain, you know, too much detail about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza — they don’t care. They don’t want to hear about it. They’re still very much concentrated on the devastation after October 7.


That coverage differs from the international media. With the IDF controlling who can enter Gaza, those journalists are requesting independent access to report on the war.

Celia Mendoza, VOA News, Jerusalem:


A journalist’s ability to witness conflict firsthand, and speak with those directly affected, is an essential part of the media’s role as watchdog. In Ukraine, reporters are using their skills to document evidence of war crimes. Here’s Anna Chernikova in Kyiv.


The Reckoning Project aims to be a game changer in the world of human rights and investigative journalism.

Founded by Janine di Giovanni, a human rights reporter and investigator in conflict zones, the project fights for justice and accountability in times of war: in the court of public opinion and the courts of law.

Janine di Giovanni, The Reckoning Project Founder:

I've always worked in conflict zones, war zones with aftermath of war and I've always taken testimonies of survivors. Someone has to keep a record of that. I think that all wars and all places where people suffer should be treated equally.”


The Reckoning Project combines advocacy and journalism, training reporters and researchers to record, collect and conserve witness statements and testimonies in a way that they can be used in legal cases.

That means, among other things, that reporters must ask nonleading questions and not coach witnesses they speak with on how to answer.

The journalists are not affiliated with any court system and receive support from foundations and nonprofits.

The interviews sometimes feature in news reports, but di Giovanni says there's a bigger purpose.

Janine di Giovanni, The Reckoning Project Founder:

In this short term, working with prosecutors, working with advocacy, putting pressure on the U.N. or governments. In the long term: to keep the lasting memorial of what happened.


Two years into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the project is laying the groundwork for future war crimes trials.

Nataliya Gumenyuk leads a Kyiv-based team focused on talking with survivors and witnesses to war crimes.

Nataliya Gumenyuk, The Reckoning Project:

Everybody to whom we talk potentially is eligible to speak at court. In cooperation with international analysts and lawyers, we developed this methodology to where what they say is not just journalistic material but also can be used as evidence for the prosecutors, for the law enforcement in Ukraine and abroad.


An important task is to prove that certain war crimes are not an aberration, but part of a pattern perpetrated by the Russian army.

Moscow denies carrying out atrocities, even as the U.N. documents Russian tactics causing over 10,000 civilian deaths, its abduction of hundreds, possibly thousands of children, and use of rape as a weapon.

Nataliya Gumenyuk, The Reckoning Project:

We see that the same commanders are still shelling the rockets indiscriminately into the civilian infrastructure: into the train station, into the houses, into the shopping mall, and things like that, and they act the same way, they torture the people, they electrocute them the very same way in Berdyansk and Kherson, Kakhovka, and as it was in Izium.


With the International Criminal Court issuing arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the U.S. unsealing war crimes charges against Russian military personnel, the work of The Reckoning Project and others is likely to play an important role in future hearings.

Anna Chernikova, Voa News, Kyiv.


When Russia invaded two years ago, the Kremlin clamped down on independent reporting, including imposing laws on coverage and forcing news outlets to shutter.

So American TV personality Tucker Carlson’s decision to interview Vladimir Putin surprised many.

Putin’s actions at home and in Ukraine are condemned internationally. And analysts say the two-hour interview is a boost for Kremlin propaganda.

Carlson didn’t raise Moscow’s restrictive laws blocking Russian media from covering opposition to the war. But he did ask about jailed American journalist Evan Gershkovich.

In response, Putin doubled down on his claims that the Wall Street Journal reporter engaged in espionage.

Gershkovich has been jailed in Russia for nearly a year. He is one of two American journalists held there. The other, RFERL editor Alsu Kurmasheva, has been in custody since October.

Next we go to Nigeria, where Timothy Obiezu has been speaking with journalists at HumAngle. The media outlet is filling a gap in conflict reporting by giving those affected by extremist groups a voice.

TIMOTHY OBIEZU, VOA Correspondent:

You have been documenting and reporting on the humanitarian cost of a long-standing conflict in Nigeria, sometimes even speaking with Boko Haram survivors. And anyone could wonder, Why does this area of journalism interest you?

Kunle Adebajo, HumAngle:

HumanAngle is the brain child of Ahmad Salkida who is a frontrunner when it comes to documenting the Boko Haram crisis. He was at the front line when the crisis began, when it spilled and even before it became violent, he was one of the earliest people signaling the crisis. And over the years, he realized that there was a huge vacuum in reporting violence, generally conflict not just in Nigeria but across the continent.

And so in March 2020, he established the platform Human Angle to fill that gap that looked at transitional justice and how this has affected men who are arbitrarily detained by the authorities for so many years, some as many as seven, eight years. And the women, their wives who have been left behind to be the breadwinners of the families, taking care of multiple children, who are now advocating for the release of their husbands.

The following year, in July, the authorities cleared over a 1,000 inmates in military detention facilities, which we believe that our long term advocacy and reporting must have contributed to.


Tell us about challenges with access to information from authorities?

Kunle Adebajo, HumAngle:

There are stories you want to tell that people would be very reluctant to talk to you because they fear for their safety, which is rational again because we live in an environment where clampdown(s) by the authorities are not uncommon. People have been arrested, people have been assaulted for demanding for basic things, for human rights and so on. And so when people witness these atrocities, they also try to just protect their own safety by not antagonizing the authorities.


What role in your opinion should the media play in helping understand conflict and giving the people a voice?

Kunle Adebajo, HumAngle:

What I think is maybe even of utmost importance is the fact that there’s a platform that is for the people, the victims of war, the victims of underdevelopment, the victims of humanitarian crisis. A platform that is not just there to break the news and share the statistics but that is interested in getting the entire gamut of their experiences and sharing that with the world as genuinely as possible.

And then of course there’s also drawing attention to a lot of things that are getting underreported.

If there’s one thing that we’ve seen in Nigeria it is that conflicts spread like wildfire if care is not taken. And so people need to also show interest and be concerned and hold their leaders accountable.


Kunle Adebajo, investigations editor at HumanAngle. Thank you so much!

Kunle Adebajo, HumAngle:

My pleasure.


Repressive conditions for media are also seen in Myanmar, where fighting continues three years on from the coup. The junta takeover wiped out a decade of press freedom gains, watchdogs say, forcing many outlets to relocate. We caught up with some of those journalists to hear how they keep news getting in—and out—of the country.


On the third anniversary of Myanmar’s coup, the streets of the country’s largest city, Yangon, are quiet, save for a military presence. Citizens are encouraged to stay inside for a silent protest.

But in the country’s north, a resistance movement is fighting back.

The fighting has displaced millions of civilians, including journalists at Democratic Voice of Burma, or DVB.

But from newsrooms outside of Myanmar, they keep reporting.

Exile is not new for DVB, founded in 1992 in Norway under prior junta rule. The broadcaster moved to Myanmar during civilian rule, only to have to flee again in 2021.

But experience hasn't made the job easier.

Aye Chan Naing, DVB Executive Director:

It's harder, in fact, because we had to rebuild everything, almost like from scratch. What I call is, we had to, we have to flee, we have to regroup and we have to rebuild.


With access to independent news restricted in Myanmar, DVB and others play a vital role.

Aye Chan Naing, DVB Executive Director:

And I think the media become crucial, countering fake news and also countering propaganda, telling the truth about the situation on the ground.


To get news on the conflict, DVB relies on a large network of citizen journalists on the ground, without whom, it says, it is nearly impossible to get verified information.

In Thai cities like Chiang Mai, some news outlets use exile as a shield. Frontier Myanmar’s team takes on stories that are harder to cover inside the country. But nothing is guaranteed.

Sonny Swe, Frontier Myanmar CEO and Founder:

We have all the security protocols — online, offline, and personal security protocols that we follow. And we've been very careful, whatever moves that we make. But then, you know, people get arrested for the, how do you say, unexpectedly, right.


Mementos and photographs adorn Frontier’s walls, a reminder of its work’s importance.

And awards are also displayed at DVB. Small reminders of the lives — and loved ones — left behind.

Aye Chan Naing, DVB Executive Director:

We try not to communicate with our family members inside Burma because that can be traced. So we don't. So, we cut off all the contact with our immediate family members.


Despite the hardships, Frontier’s team has a clear focus.

Sonny Swe, Frontier Myanmar CEO and Founder:

I think our job is to monitor what is going on. Especially after three years of coup. We want to keep our eyes and ears open and basically report everything.


From exile, these outlets remain a key source of independent news.

For VOA News in Thailand, Arash Arabasadi.


Closer to home, Cristina Caicedo Smit caught up with Corinne Dufka, a photojournalist who covered wars for more than decade, from El Salvador to Mogadishu, and beyond. Here, Dufka explains in her own words, the power of photography and the important role of journalists during conflict.

Corinne Dufka, a photojournalist:

One feels a lot of power as a photojournalist because your images are seen all over the world and by influential policymakers.

I felt like there was the potential to impact the world in a meaningful way and to do it through a combination of what moves the heart, because of the emotion that is communicated through photography as well as intellectually, because of what the photo means.

I was a photojournalist for about a dozen years in the '80s and '90s, and I specialized in armed conflict and war photography.

You know, when one starts looking at the pictures in my book, one doesn't have to get far to see that the majority of them portray the impact of conflict on the civilian population.

In El Salvador, as well as the other conflicts, the other eight conflicts that are covered in my book, I really tried to use people's faces and their expressions to communicate the horror of what they were seeing.

One picture that is, that has impacted me is a picture of families as they were observing the exhumation of their family member who had been abducted by the death squads."

So, this book, first and foremost, was a part of my own personal journey to come to terms with the tumultuous decade plus that I covered.

I think it was also important at that time to recognize the role that we played, you know, our job, which was a really important to communicate to the outside world what was happening at that time, to raise alarm bells in state capitals, to inform the public and policymakers about a conflict.

I didn't stop. I went from conflict: Sierra Leone, DRC, Liberia, Sudan, from conflict to conflict to conflict. And I burnt out. And that was evident in a sense of dehumanization that I felt I didn't feel anything really, for my victims, for my family, for anyone.

And so that's when I decided to leave.

Journalists play a central, indispensable role in our world. And I think that role is even more important with the advent of fake news and artificial intelligence. Responsible, balanced, neutral journalism has always been important. And will continue to be important.

I didn't look back. I don't regret it for a minute. And yet I hold with tremendous esteem the photojournalists who continue to inform us through visual storytelling.


As we have seen, the Israel-Hamas war is the most dangerous conflict for media in recent history.

The UN Secretary General had this to say about the death toll:

UN Sec. Gen. Antonio Guterres:

I am deeply troubled by the number of journalists that have been killed in this conflict. Freedom of the press is a fundamental condition for the people to be able to know what is really happening everywhere in the world.


Journalists in Gaza say the high death toll makes every report they do vital. But… as more die among their ranks and the war expands, their ability to deliver the news is rapidly decreasing. Here’s Heather Murdock.


Many journalists inside Gaza now live here in Rafah, near the border with Egypt, where the population has grown more than five times since the war began in October. And Gaza residents continue to flee to Rafah as Israeli armed forces move south.

Journalists working here say every story could be their last, but then again, so could every trip to the market to find food or fuel, to a hospital to search for missing, injured or dead loved ones, or even to bed every night.

Motasem Mortaja, Palestinian Journalist:

The situation in Gaza is very difficult and covering Gaza is very difficult. A person can be killed reporting any news or images for broadcast.


Depending on who is counting, the number of journalists killed in more than four months of war between Israel and Hamas varies. But all accounts show that the death toll for journalists is higher than in any other war in recent history.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports 85 deaths while the United Nations says 122. Journalists inside Gaza say the number has risen to 130 since the last time anyone published a count.

Mortaja says the increasing difficulty of reporting from Gaza has made every bit of information they can publish more crucial to the world’s understanding of the war from the point of view of the people in Gaza.

Inside Gaza, reporters say their ability to deliver the news is rapidly diminishing.

Islam Ezzanoun, TV Palestine 7:

It’s a war from all directions on journalists and on the whole community. The Israeli occupation frequently cuts communications as a part of their assaults, reducing our capacity to get information from the restricted locations that we were forced to flee from in the north.


The Israeli government has said repeatedly that that it does not target journalists or other civilians, a claim international rights groups and Palestinian journalists dispute.

Reporting with Nedal Hamdouna and Amjed Tantesh in Rafah, Gaza, Heather Murdock, VOA News, Istanbul.


That’s all for this week. Thanks for watching The Inside Story.

For the latest news you can, log on to VOA news dot com. Follow us on Instagram and Facebook at VOA News.

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See you next week, for The Inside Story