Ducking and diving to get the story

Reporting in war zones of conflict areas can be dangerous for any investigative journalist or photo journalist. Stephen Hofstatter and James Oatway presented ways to stay safe and navigate such areas in ways that will help to get the story a journalist is looking for and stay alive at the same time.

Sunday Times journalists James Oatway (left) and Stephan Hofstatter (right) shared their personal experiences on reporting in conflict areas on the continent. Photo: Prelene Singh
Sunday Times journalists James Oatway (left) and Stephan Hofstatter (right) shared their personal experiences on reporting in conflict areas on the continent. Photo: Prelene Singh

Hofstatter and Oatway have worked together in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in the Central African Republic (CAR) on stories that have seen the two dodging bombs and confronted by armed rebels. Their presentation on Covering Resource Conflict in Africa started off with Hofstatter outlining the essential and practical considerations they had taken when they went into conflict areas. He said that in conflict areas it’s difficult to sift between fact and fiction because of the amount of propaganda punted by opposing sides. A lot of wire services fall prey to misinformation because they rely on once source in many cases, added Hofstatter.

The pair used their stories to highlight some of the do’s and don’ts involved in covering conflict areas:

The budget that they worked on for their trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa
The budget that they worked on for their trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

• Budget: The most essential things on the budget include money for a fixer, a driver and accommodation. Hofstatter said that they used up to $250 a day on a trip. Oatway added that while some news agencies had big enough budgets to include security, this presents a challenge when trying to get close to sources and getting a more in-depth story.

• The right fixer: A dependable and professional fixer is essential to survival in conflict areas said Oatway. Fixers are people who can put you in touch with military commanders and bureaucrats because they have nurtured relationships with these people. Fixers can help in attaining exclusive footage because they can navigate around difficult situations and people. · Background: “It’s difficult to get information when you get there,” this is why journalists need to do all their homework beforehand said Hofstatter. A lot of senior officials and business officials from other African countries live in South Africa, they can be very useful sources.

• Angles: While it is important to present a South African angle when reporting, it is equally important to avoid being insular by ignoring international angles. Hofstatter used an anecdote of their experience with rebel commanders in the CAR to illustrate this. “We didn’t just cover the conflict there (in CAR)…We had to show what kind of regime our government was propping up,” said Hofstatter.

Ethical considerations: In such volatile areas, one can witness grave human rights abuses. The pair tried where they could to make ethical and morally sound decisions where both information and images were concerned. Oatway vividly recalled a situation where they pleaded with rebels to release a prisoner they had in their custody after he had taken the shots he needed but added, “I have no idea what happened to him after we left.”

• Balanced reporting under fire: Again Hofstatter stressed the importance of avoiding falling for propaganda. “Where you can highlight unverified information and highlight where you got that information.” Images and information with grey areas can create false negative narratives.

• Safety first: Oatway said that even though he itched for “iconic photos” when there is a lot of action happening, he sometimes has to ignore scratching that itch by staying away from extremely risky situations. Hofstatter went on to list things to do in the face of gunfire or hand grenades going off, “make yourself as small as possible and lie on your back,” he said.

The Newsroom 5.0

This week has been an exceptional one.

I had semi decent pitches on the news diary (nothing to write home about but whatevs) making for a busy week. I was also the photo editor for the week. Meaning I would get to make the decisions on all the pictures in the paper for the week, yays.

On Tuesday I covered One Day Without Shoes on campus. Luckily it wasn’t particularly chilly on the day, so it was easy to leave my shoes behind as I got dressed for the day. I quite enjoyed walking around barefoot. Getting to feel all the different textures I never seem to consider when I have shoes on.

People were very concerned about ‘hygiene’ and asked how on earth I could stand being so dirty. To which I said one wash will take it all away. I really couldn’t be bothered with how dirty my feet got. It was awesome to see so many other Witsies supporting the initiative by donating shoes or just being barefoot on campus.

Production this Wednesday was particularly hectic for me, so much so that I missed an exhibition I really wanted to attend. On the plus side I managed to start working out at the gym again, was starting to feel like a right porker. Thursday morning followed the same vain, some tempers flared during production but I was too busy trying to design a front page to be on that boat.

On Thursday afternoon our photography lecturer, TJ Lemon organised us a very cool guest speaker, James Oatway from The Star. A super talented photo journalist. He showed us some of his shoots as a way of teaching – which was different and very helpful. His photographs are really worth a thousand words as the adage goes. I was left saddened by his photographs taken of what is left of a Khoi/San community and more recently some taken in the Central African Republic. It made me realise once more how powerful photo’s can be. For example his CAR photo’s told me stories I would have never even read in the paper, because sometimes seeing is believing.

Our guest speaker also highlighted the dangers of the profession. Just last week he had an encounter where a gun was waved right in front of his face by a Seleka rebel. He told us anecdotes of people who had lost limbs and lives trying to get the perfect shot. I came into the year with photo journalism as THE thing I really wanted to do. I’m not so sure now. I would like to have babies at some point. Or just be alive you know.

On Friday I spent at great deal of my day covering “R U Silent” on campus. I could not have expected how that event would move me. I am very glad I got the opportunity to be a part of it all. I got a sneak peak into the brave hearts of men and women who wanted with all their might to fight sexual violence in our country. My “debrief” came in the form of a concert later that night. All in all a very fulfilling week was had. More to come next week.