The flak jackets aren't just for show

War correspondents put their lives on the line to entertain us and bring us details that no one else

There is an iconic image from every war. Sometimes it's a photograph, or a piece of film; sometimes it's a piece of iconic journalism, as happened this week, with Sky News's Alex Crawford's stellar journey along with the rebels into the heart of Tripoli.

The reporting, and the sight of other journalists trapped in the Rixos Hotel (but subsequently released), comes as a reminder of the lengths to which battle-hardened hacks will go to provide us with the inside story, and why war correspondents remain among the purest and most trusted sources in a profession that has its fair share of detractors.

If you harbour any doubts as to the risks taken by reporters to bring you these iconic images of war to your settee, you might want to check out the War Correspondent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum North (open until January 2012). There, you'll see tales of courage under fire and desperate struggles to get the reality of conflict over to viewers and readers back home, and other evidence of the sacrifices made to get to the story - a bullet lodged in a mobile phone that saved one reporter's life; a news producer's false leg, made necessary by injuries sustained while trying to capture the action, and so on. And there are the other stories, too: those of reporters who didn't make it back home.

For those wondering why correspondents on TV are constantly decked out in helmets and bulletproof jackets, there's a more prosaic reason than safety. It might be tempting for us at home, we who live without fear of bullets whizzing through our windows or rockets exploding nearby, to imagine that these war correspondents are nothing but a bunch of showoffs, strapped into layers of protective gear, but the dress does more than protect: it shows as clearly as possible that someone is not a combatant, which can be the difference between life and death, as the death toll from 'friendly' and 'enemy' fire alike shows.

But one exhibit in War Correspondent - Michael Nicholson's battered helmet, which he wore while covering the Vietnam conflict - provides the answer. The helmet couldn't possibly stop a bullet, he explains, but if he did get killed, at least the word PRESS written in felt-tip pen on the side might get his body brought back home for burial.

Correspondents including Kate Adie, Jeremy Bowen and Brian Hanrahan describe the realities of trying to get to the front line, and there are exhibits that show how they did it - from a bullet-riddled Land Rover that was shot at in Gaza to Martin Bell's white suit and the burkha in which John Simpson managed to cross into Iraq, War Correspondent shows how ingenuity can be as important as bravery when it comes to finding the story.

A war correspondent aims to be neither 'friendly' nor 'enemy' but detached from the combatants altogether - not an easy thing to do in the days of embedded reporters, with some journalists even accepting campaign medals nowadays. There's a section from John Pilger's documentary, The War You Don't See, in which Rageh Omaar discusses his role in reporting the orchestrated toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue, looking back with the benefit of hindsight on the iconic images and how he may have been manipulated.

But there is still an uneasy relationship between combatant and press - and reporters can find themselves in the crosshairs. It's easy to mock journalists for going kitted out in flak jackets when they're on screen, but we're not there, and we aren't seeing the bloodshed that they are, or feeling the fear. They're the real journalism heroes, putting their lives on the line to entertain us during the six o'clock news and bring us the details that no one else can. The only thing I think we can hope is that, to paraphrase Brian Hanrahan, we count them all out and we count them all back. We need them.

War Correspondent is at the Imperial War Museum North, The Quays, Trafford Wharf Road, Manchester, until January 2, 2012.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage