Tell the truth, stay alive

In covering a civil war, honesty is the only policy

A journalist permitted to cross the lines in Central America must maintain the appearance of impartiality.

By Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges reported from Central America, 1983-88, for The Christian Science Monitor , National Public Radio and The Dallas Morning News.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 8 (November 1989), p. 5.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

“Where were the last soldiers you saw and how many were there?” asked a young guerrilla from the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

I answered truthfully: there were four at the turnoff of the main road.

Three hours later I was stopped by an army roadblock I had passed in the morning on my way into rebel-held territory.

“Where did you last see the rebels and how many were there?” a government soldier asked.

Again I answered truthfully: there were seven outside the mountain town of Ocotal.

As so often happened when crossing into rebel-held areas in El Salvador I was catapulted on that afternoon into a role beyond that of an observer, perhaps even into the role of a collaborator.

How does a journalist remain impartial when crossing back and forth between rebel and army lines?

What are the options for a journalist who is stopped and questioned by soldiers or rebels in a war zone?

Any journalist who is permitted to cross the lines in a civil war must maintain the appearance of strict impartiality. The slightest indiscretion by any journalist can leave us labeled as backers of one side or the other, jeopardizing not only our ability to work, but our lives.

If I had refused to answer the questions of the soldiers or the rebels, I would have been turned back or held several hours for questioning.

Neither side would have interpreted a refusal to answer as a sign of impartiality. The trusting relationship journalists require to work with both groups would have been destroyed.

Journalists must also assume that at times they are only confirming information the army or the rebels already possess.

By answering honestly I was showing that I could be trusted and had nothing to hide.

When we travel with rebel or army units there is an implicit understanding that, while we will not participate in any war activities, neither will we consciously do anything to harm the well-being of the unit.

Several of us owe our safety, and perhaps our lives, to rebels and soldiers who, in the midst of combat, looked after us. The Sandinistas and the FMLN often assigned soldiers to act as bodyguards to reporters traveling with their troops. The FMLN once assigned two fighters who, at great risk to themselves, escorted me several miles to the edge of a government-held town rather than leave me to find my way back alone.

The Salvadoran army frequently kept us with the commanding officer of a unit and would airlift us out of difficult situations.

With the expectation that we will be protected by soldiers or rebels in the event of trouble, can we conceal information from them that may be detrimental to their lives?

I think not. If we lock fortunes with one unit we are bound together until the end of our sojourn. Once we leave the unit our relationship ends.

To avoid partiality I never allowed myself to join up with an army or rebel unit if I had advance knowledge of an offensive or ambush planned against that unit. And I never left an army or rebel unit to join the opposing enemy unit during an operation.

It is always prudent, at least from the ethical standpoint, to put yourself in a situation where you don’t know what is going to happen to the unit you are with.

Many of us encountered our worst dilemmas after returning from trips of several days with the rebels.

If we had hidden our jeep in the undergrowth, there was always a chance that the army would discover it. Then soldiers would be waiting for us when we returned, a sobering and sometimes frightening conclusion to any trip in the hills.

In the army’s eyes, it is one thing for a reporter to run into rebels on the road or in a village, and quite another to tromp through the mountains with them for several days.

On my return from one trip with guerrillas in Chalatenango province I was picked up by soldiers and taken to the colonel in charge of the local garrison. My film and tapes were confiscated and I was grilled for several hours.

I had no choice but to answer questions on local guerrilla activity.

This was one of the worst moments in my five years in Central America.

We always tried desperately to hide such trips from the army because, after several days with the rebels, we had information that could harm the guerrillas who had escorted us.

A reporter in a war zone, always walking a tightrope between opposing sides, is forced at times to give information to warring parties.

When we know a little we can give honest answers to the questions. This is necessary, I repeat, to maintain working relations with the guerrillas and the army.

But when we know a lot we must do our best to avoid contact with the other side.

When our luck runs out, and we are caught by opposing troops, the only option is the truth. It is a bitter experience for anyone who has gone through it.

But I believe that my forthrightness that afternoon with the colonel probably saved my life.