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Comms on the frontline



Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels said: “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without radio”. Today, it takes a lot more than radio to crush a country or manipulate its people the way the Germans did during World War II, but communications remain key in wars and insurgencies.

In Iraq, where local security forces and their allies are battling to regain the city of Mosul from ISIL fighters, there is an information blackout. The internet rarely works and very little news gets in or out without the militant Islamists knowing about it. They’ve banned and confiscated smartphones, destroyed satellite dishes and now use their own channels to spread propaganda, in their war for an Islamic State. The only way to find out what really is going on requires extreme measures that could get you killed. Can you imagine not knowing what is going on around you and trying to piece information together through frightening rumours or the horrors you’ve witnessed? Imagine not being able to find out if your mum is ok, even though she might be just down the road? The only information you know is what they want you to know. Just the way Goebbels would have liked it.

What happens here will have a profound effect on the country. ISIL have been entrenched in Mosul for two years, building tunnels, booby trapping homes, laying traps and more ominously using human shields — the worst of all battle horrors is playing out here. ISIL will eventually be defeated but not gone, and the reasons behind their popularity have not been addressed. There is also no plan for post war governance and power sharing. It’s for this reason that all the major networks are covering what’s going on and watching the Iraqi forces as they slowly inch their way towards the heart of the city.

CNN’s Senior International Correspondent, Arwa Damon, has been covering this story since 2003. She knows the war, she knows the people. When she went into Mosul with an Iraqi counterterrorism unit and her cameraman Brice Lane, she experienced first-hand the brutality, battle sophistication and muzzling under ISIL. After being surrounded and attacked by mortar bombs, snipers and suicide car bomb explosions during a 28-hour siege, Arwa and her team were trapped and their comms were down. “Our satellite phone ran out of batteries,’ she explains, ‘and I experienced what I had reported on, about people risking their lives to communicate, and climbing to the rooftop to get signal.” She continues, “It really drove home how hard it is to get the most basic information in and out – or to find out if family members are safe. People living there don’t have an option.”

Maybe that is the main reason there are no podcasts dealing with frontline reporting, or for that matter very little international news emanating from podcasts. There are too many risks involved, and many corporations are cutting back rather than investing in new frontiers. GroundTruthProject, a non-profit media organization, believes that this is the new growth area for foreign reporting, and are hoping to fill that void with their new podcast

Simply put, you need to be on the ground to eke out the truth. John Owen, one of the founders of the Frontline Club in London, is eyeing the same pie. He talks about how he would like to “find a good podcast that does feature debriefings of frontline correspondents. I’m also partial to podcasts that deconstruct news gathering and demystify journalism.” And adds, “so many BBC and CNN programmes are reversioned as podcasts but they come across as less appealing because they’re audio versions of the more fast-paced, bite-conscious TV discussions. I do prefer the podcasts that are created from scratch and are more satisfying and less jolting.”

You can, however, find a few that dip their mikes into these areas. The Times Insider podcast tells you how to – in their words – infiltrate ISIS-controlled territory to get the story, film a war zone in virtual reality and sneak across a border with migrants. It’s a place to get the story behind the story. And the BBC’s Global News Podcast gives a panoply of news broadcasts updated several times a week For an insight into the MSF’s incredible work on the frontline of humanitarian emergencies try this.

But despite the challenges, the stories do come out, now and as they did a hundred years ago. Gertrude Bell – another intrepid explorer and writer – was unwittingly helping to put the pieces into place for Iraq’s slow destruction. As an archaeologist and spy, her work with the local tribes and Winston Churchill helped shape the country more than anyone else. When she arrived in Basra in 1916, “We rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme. Muddle through! Why yes, so we do – wading through blood and tears that need never have been shed.”

A century on, and the meddling continues. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 left the country in shambles, paving the way for ISIL and all its horrors. It seems we never really learn from the past. And maybe this is why some are willing to risk their lives to expose the truth. “I feel a moral obligation to tell the world what is happening in the most raw and visceral way as I can,” Arwa tells me, “so people can understand how unspeakably horrific all of this is. We were lucky to walk away, and return to our hotel when the soldiers are still out there, the families are living under constant bombardment, their homes destroyed or living as refugees.” She warns; “Once you know what’s going on and see the same mistakes happening – how do you walk away from that? We can’t turn our backs on them. We really can’t.”

Please support and donate to Arwa Damon’s charity INARA which does amazing work healing children scarred by the war in Syria. And watch her story on that ISIL attack in Mosul:

You’ve read her here, now listen to Jane Dutton’s own podcast African! It’s quality storytelling about Africans making a difference and the insider track for smart investment opportunities linked to the topic. It can be found on You can also catch her presenting the news on the Al Jazeera English network. Twitter @janedutton. Mail

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