When the conflict zone follows you home

Each spring we use the runup to World Press Freedom Day (May 3) to focus on press freedom. This year, it has been 12 years since ABC Cameraman Paul Moran was the first member of the media killed in the Iraq war. This piece by his colleague Eric Campbell, first published in the Walkley Magazine in the spring of 2013, reminds us of the challenges in seeking justice and healing trauma after journalists are slain. An update on the case against Moran’s alleged killer follows the piece.

I hate March 22. It’s the day that my cameraman Paul Moran was killed in Iraq and every year as the date nears the flashbacks return. I see the car appearing out of nowhere, the explosion of flames and flying debris and the body of a man I was responsible for lying shattered on the road. I pick over the decisions I made that put us at that spot at the exact moment of a suicide bombing and I feel the sickening shame of surviving.

This year is the 10th anniversary of Paul’s murder. I say murder because the target wasn’t soldiers, but civilians. We were standing near a group of ordinary villagers when a suicide bomber crashed his car into them and blew it up. Paul was standing in front of me so he took the full force of the blast. That’s how I survived.

Ten years on, the man I blame for what happened, because he trained and directed the suicide bombers, is in prison in Norway for separate crimes. His name is Mullah Krekar, a fanatical Salafist who set up a terrorist training camp in northern Iraq while enjoying political asylum in the West.

It’s impossible to quantify how many journalists have been traumatised.

The Media Alliance (Eds.: now the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, MEAA) is seeking to have him extradited to Australia to be tried for Paul’s murder, to show that journalists, like other civilians, can’t be killed with impunity. I doubt it will ever happen. Australian authorities have shown little interest in pursuing the case and it’s rarely mentioned unless there’s a peg like an anniversary.

It’s a long time since being a journalist gave you any special protection. The obscenity of needing armour to report on conflicts began in Croatia in 1991, when a rumoured bounty on Western journalists forced news crews to don flak jackets and travel in bulletproof vans. It continues to this day. On my first day in a war zone, in Chechnya in 1996, Russian soldiers opened fire on us because they were annoyed we were filming them. I’ve known journalists in Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Serbia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine who have been beaten, imprisoned, even killed for exposing corruption.

Paul Moran at Work

Paul Moran at work. Walkley archives.

One woman, a Russian newspaper editor named Larisa Yudina, was murdered after she gave me an interview about a local politician embezzling state funds. The politician, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, was never charged even though his aides were found guilty of her murder. He remains on the international stage as president of the world chess federation, FIDE.

The admirable CPJ, the Committee to Protect Journalists, has documented the cases of 150 journalists killed in Iraq since the US invasion. My cameraman Paul Moran was the first. It’s impossible to quantify how many journalists have been traumatised.

One issue that’s emerged in trauma research is that even tape editors back at base have been damaged by what they see.

When I returned from Iraq I was forced to recognise how damaged I was from the conflicts and natural disasters I had covered and the near injuries and threats of violence I’d experienced. Just 10 years ago, many journalists still saw it as unmanly to admit to trauma. Nightmares weren’t mentioned, outbursts of anger were self-justified and anxiety was self-medicated with alcohol. But for months after Iraq, I was unable to function. Paul’s death had brought to the fore an accumulation of mental hurt.

The ABC made me go to trauma counselling. I hated every moment of it. But eventually I learned techniques to stop the waking nightmares, the terrifying flashbacks and the guilt I felt for not being dead.

I’ve continued to work in dangerous places and often see disturbing things. These days I prepare for them mentally and monitor the feelings they induce. I don’t believe I’ve been traumatised by any assignment since Iraq. I wish I could be as confident about my colleagues.

One issue that’s emerged in trauma research is that even tape editors back at base have been damaged by what they see, monitoring hours of footage of bombings and tsunamis and wars and earthquakes. The only way to protect staff absolutely is for media groups to cease covering such events.

I believe withdrawing from the business of bearing first-hand witness would be the greatest tragedy of all.

I wonder if in 10 years there will still be a discussion about the dangers to journalists in conflict or disaster zones.

In an era of declining budgets and expanding outlets it is tempting for media groups to rely exclusively on agency pictures voiced by reporters in their bureau offices or headquarters.

Even in the Iraq War, started by the West, the casualties were mainly local Arabs hired to take the risks foreign networks were happy to outsource. Their deaths barely rated a mention in the news programs that hired them.

But as someone who regrets every day ever going to Iraq, and who dreads the approach of that wretched anniversary, I believe withdrawing from the business of bearing first-hand witness would be the greatest tragedy of all.

Editor’s note: In February 2015, MEAA called for Mullah Krekar’s extradition, but the Australian Federal Police wouldn’t pursue further action on the grounds of insufficient information to justify an investigation. Krekar has previously avoided extradition to Iraq or the US because Norway refuses to deport people to countries that have the death penalty. In mid-March this year, Norwegian media reported Krekar had been was released from jail after a court found him not guilty of “incitement” following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. His lawyer says he will seek compensation. Krekar reportedly still faces being extradited to Italy to face terror charges there.

Eric Campbell is a senior reporter at the Foreign Correspondent program on ABC< TV. A former ABC bureau correspondent in Moscow and Beijing, he has reported from more than 70 countries.