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The Globe and Mail

Covering war a struggle between risk and reward

Undated photo of French photographer Remi Ochlik covering demonstrations in Cairo, who died Wednesday Feb. 22, 2012 in Homs, Syria.

Julien de Rosa/AP/Julien de Rosa/AP

A photographer friend called me in Gaza to tell me about the deaths of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik in Homs. These days, Gaza seems positively civilized compared to Homs and several other places in Syria.

My photographer friend was quite naturally saddened by the deaths of colleagues, though she knew neither of them personally. More than sad, though, she sounded almost guilty that she wasn't there with them, working in the fraternity that war correspondents form in situations like this, helping each other. I don't feel that way.

My friend distinguished herself in Libya with award-winning work in some of the most dangerous conditions imaginable, but has been haunted almost every day lately about whether she should join the cluster of journalists who have snuck into Homs province from the north of Lebanon. Mostly television and photo journalists, the first to enter late last month left after a few days – there was limited return to telling the same story again and again as shelling went on and on, and the risk was very high.

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Indeed, Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik weren't the first Western journalists to fall. Anthony Shadid, of The New York Times, died last week on his way out of Syria, having entered secretly from Turkey, struck down by an asthma attack from the long distance he had to hike to avoid being captured, and Gilles Jacquier, a French television journalist was killed last month by a mortar shell apparently fired not by the Syrian regime but by opposition forces. Mr. Jacquier had been given a visa and was travelling with government representatives at the time of the attack, showing that even a government visa is no guarantee of safety.

That was the day I applied for one of the elusive Syrian visas at the country's embassy in Beirut. I'm still waiting.

In the murky world of covering foreign conflicts, there's a calculation of risk and reward every correspondent makes. The equation is the same, but the values vary.

A photo journalist, for example, gets greater rewards the closer she or he gets to the action. Those rewards often outweigh the risks that most print journalists would find unacceptable. Television journalists are somewhere in between.

For Ms. Colvin and Mr. Ochlik, there was a reason to remain, a personal choice. In her dispatches, Marie sounded almost on a mission to put an end to the fighting. That's a variable that many would say is better left out of the equation.

For others, the goal is to report truth and to live to tell about it. That means not taking unnecessary risks.

Many of us are in no rush to get to the front lines; though sometimes the front finds us. Whether in Algeria in the 1990s, in Iraq or Lebanon, Yemen or Gaza, even Egypt, it happens, and we find ourselves at risk – unavoidable, necessary risk.

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I didn't know Marie, Remi or Gilles, but I did know Anthony. We were introduced by a mutual friend and had dinner in Lebanon one night when Israeli bombs were raining down on the country. He understood risk and took great precaution when he snuck into Syria (except, sadly, with his own health).

Homs was different.

There, we're dealing with a regime determined to keep shooting until it wins, and it has weapons that are superior in power and number to the opposition. It's also made it clear to journalists entering without a visa that they may be targeted.

More than that, the shelling by government forces in Homs has focused largely on one district: Baba Amr, where a substantial number of armed opposition forces are holed up. This is not a good place to spend a long period of time.

Many of the journalists going in to Homs went with the paid assistance of these forces. But there's a legitimate question that needs to be asked: Should armed opposition forces be hiding among the civilian population? Or, once detected, should they have moved on?

Yes, the regime is using terribly violent means to put down the opposition, but this part of the opposition has put many of its own civilian population at risk – including the many citizen bloggers who have been recording events and transmitting to the outside world for months – with many hundreds of civilians being killed; along with them four journalists.

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