Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Caucasus: Sept ‘09

IWPR runs practical war reporting exercise with journalists from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
By IWPR

The plot of the American movie Black Hawk Down was used by IWPR for an exercise to train journalists from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgian in conflict reporting. The trainees divided into teams playing United States troops and Somali militiamen.

Some learned from their mistakes the risks involved, ending up being “killed” because they took too many risks. Experts judged the trainees’ work and first place went to a crew from Georgian public television.

The exercise, covered by Georgian, Armenian, Azeri and German media with more than 18 TV reports and live broadcasts, as well as over 30 text and radio reports, also made a stir on military web forums, where it remained one of the most-discussed themes for several days.

The exercise was staged at a Georgian military base in Vaziani near Tbilisi, which had been bombed during the Georgia-Russia war in August 2008. The exercise, a product of cooperation between IWPR, the Georgian defence ministry and the Airsoft (a war game simulation sport) Club, involved up to 130 people. It was intended to identify the typical challenges facing journalists covering military affairs in the Caucasus.

One of the participants, Mehman Husseinov from Azerbaijan, said, “That was great! I am going to make a 30-minute film about it as soon as I am back home in Baku. That will be a remarkable film.”

Britain’s ambassador to Georgia, Denis Keefe, presented certificates to the contest winners at the closing ceremony and said, “We will always support such interesting initiatives …We live in a difficult region, where journalists should be prepared for the unexpected.”

“Initiatives like this one teach them to work effectively in difficult situations,” he added.

The Black Hawk Down plot allowed for impromptu developments on the “battleground” around an attempt by “American troops” to capture “Somali warlord Mohamed Aideed”.

The aim of the exercise was to use a safe environment to show journalists the dangers of war reporting; and to demonstrate the need for proper training before going into hostile environments.

“At first, it was scary. It felt like we really were going to war,” said Arev Malintsian from the Armenian television Yerkir Media TV. “One minute we wanted to cry, the next we were overwhelmed with fear. Our emotions overlapped one another.”

The journalists were entrusted to the care of information officers, one for each group, responsible for providing them with “official” information and seeing that they were safe.

The war games lasted for three and a half hours, which tested most of the journalists’ stamina.

“Most journalists lacked physical endurance,” said Ucha Abashidze, head of the Airsoft Club. “We all liked the German journalists, because they [kept going throughout], whereas most of the local journalists failed to do so because of their poor endurance.”

“I was so excited I felt no physical tiredness at all,” said Kristine Giorgobiani from the Tbilisi-based TV company Alania. Kristine, whose report won her the third place in the contest, was one of the few participants who made it to the end of the “battle” “alive”.

“I had never participated in anything like this event. I saw in practice what I had only learnt in theory before. That was cool!” she said.

Bacho Gurabanidze from the Georgian TV channel Adjara, who came fourth, said, “I found out I was prone to lose control of myself in a stressful situation, and this told in my report. What I disliked most about my behaviour is that I abandoned caution. Eventually, my desire to collect as much information as possible from the battleground cost me my ‘life’.

“During the game, the ‘terrorists’ took me captive and tortured me before finally gunning me down. Watching the shots of me being ‘tortured and killed’, as we were editing the report, I felt immensely proud of myself. I thought I was a great journalist, but then when these very same shots prompted the panel of experts to qualify my work as unsatisfactory I understood I’d acted the wrong way.”

“I wouldn’t have had a chance to see my mistakes if the battle I covered had been a real one.”

Like Gurabanidze, members of three of the eight crews who covered the “clash”, also ended up being “captured” and “shot” by the “terrorists”, all because of their recklessness. Many others – camera operators, as well as reporters – were “wounded”.

“The reports show how carelessly the journalists behaved,” said Tiko Tsomaia from the Georgian Public Affairs Institute, who sat on the assessment panel. “If it had been a real war, there’s a good chance that no one would have come out of it alive to tell the story.

“That was the problem of the journalists who covered the August war, and this contest laid it bare once again.”

Ucha Abashidze, who posed as a Somali militia officer during the simulated hostilities, said, “For some reason, everyone tried to film action. They made themselves vulnerable ... Everybody wanted to be on the front line, and almost nobody chose to stay in the rear even if to collect information about the number of ‘casualties’.

“The majority of the journalists also failed to take the chance to obtain information from the information officers, never approaching them with questions regarding the progress of the ‘battle’. They sought to land a ‘good’ shot, rather than to collect real information.”

The practical exercise over, the crews set about making their reports, which were assessed by the panel of experts who awarded the first place to the Georgian public broadcaster’s crew. Second place went to the team of journalists from Azerbaijan.

“That was the first time I’d participated in such an event,” said Rati Mujiri from the Georgian public broadcaster. “The best journalists from Georgia’s leading television networks took part, which made me feel all the more proud of the first place we got.

“Later, however, I found out that the panel members had, on the whole, been dissatisfied by the reports. The exercise exposed our mistakes, and it would be good if we were taught how to avoid making such mistakes in future.”

Indeed, there was no shortage of mistakes. One of them, pointed out by the 12-member assessment panel as the most elementary of all, is that some journalists had shown up for the “battle” wearing military uniforms, thereby making themselves targets in the “exchange of fire”.

“This ‘war’ has shown that the journalists are absolutely unprepared to work in emergency situations, as far as their knowledge about how to stay safe is concerned,” said Oleg Panfilov, director of the Moscow-based Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations. “Had they found themselves plunged in a real war, they would have got killed within the first moments after its onset.”

“Everything we’ve seen is, clearly, a reflection of what we have in reality,” said Koba Chopliani, from the Georgian ombudsman’s office. “The problem was that they took, blindly, as read the ‘American’ side’s press release. No one tried to get a deeper glimpse into the situation.”

“References to [‘Somali fighters’] being followers of Islam were made frequently and in a pointed manner, introducing a note of ideological bias in some reports.”

The panel said the reports fell short of basic journalistic standards, as most of them failed to provide answers to all of the mandatory six questions: Who was involved? What happened? When did it take place? Where did it take place? Why did it happen? How did it happen?

“To me, it was all very interesting, I liked the process itself very much,” said head of Internews Georgia Genadi Uchumbegashvili. “But, I think the journalists should have provided more details. For example, as a viewer, I wanted to know how many people had been wounded or died during the battle.”

“It’s essential that journalists should take this kind of training,” said Dato Kakulia, a journalist from Georgian TV company Rustavi-2. “Such games are a chance for reporters to gain more experience, to learn how to avoid being hurt in a war.”

The head of the Georgian defence ministry’s public relations service, Salome Makharadze, said, “All this confirms how really necessary it is for journalists to take intensive training in how to work in a stressful situation.

“Such exercises, which the defence ministry is ready to help make more effective, will teach journalists how to cover conflict on the one hand and how to avoid endangering their lives on the other.”

“You are doing an excellent job. It was so interesting,” said Bernd Lammer, deputy chairman of the board of directors of the German Journalists’ Association. Lammer had come to Georgia to attend the IWPR event and was the last journalist to leave the “battleground” unhurt.