Date and place of birth: 28 June 1948, Alavus,
When I was young I wanted to be… a biology
From interviewing Nelson Mandela after his release from prison, to riding in helicopters during the Vietnam War, renowned Finnish journalist Rauli Virtanen has covered many of the world’s major events and conflicts of the past forty years.
Amongst his numerous postings throughout the decades, Rauli Virtanen has worked as a freelance journalist for YLE and has been MTV3’s foreign correspondent in America and the United Kingdom. Furthermore, he has travelled the world interviewing the planet’s most famous and infamous people; he counts Martti Ahtisaari as a close personal friend, and was the only journalist present when the respected United Nations diplomat and mediator received the call informing him that he had been chosen to be the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008.
Despite bearing witness to evil and devastation regularly throughout his life, he has managed to retain his sense of humour and remains a sympathetic and philosophical human being. Nowadays, although trying to take things a little easier, he still runs his own production company, writes for a number of publications and is involved in various charity initiatives.
SixDegrees sat down with Virtanen as he recounted some of the highlights of his illustrious career, and was surprised to learn just what has been the most dangerous aspect of his job.
Can you tell us a little about the places you have been and the events you have covered?
The first memorable event of my career was the Vietnam War, when I was 24. When you put a young man in an American fighter helicopter and sweep him low across the terrain with machine guns firing in all directions, it is dangerous and exciting for him. There were also many journalists there who I admired, such as Peter Arnett, which was awe-inspiring for a young journalist.
However, I also witnessed first-hand the terrible results of war, and I nearly fainted when I visited a hospital and saw children with missing limbs. I had my camera ready but had to go outside for some fresh air before I could take any pictures. This had a big impact on me.
Various other wars also stick in my mind, particularly the siege of Sarajevo during the Balkan War. The outside world seemed to be doing nothing to help and I began to sympathise with the locals, in turn becoming just as angry and frustrated as them. Month after month the city was besieged – it was a terrible time.
It is a long list, but I have seen a lot for one person. I like to be with people, be it liberators in China or the Taliban in Afghanistan. There is a great degree of satisfaction when you realise that you can relate to every kind of person; I am not a person who would be comfortable wearing a shirt and tie and working in Brussels or sitting in a press conference. My personality means that an office job is too boring for me; it is far more challenging to be out in the field. I do not trust politicians who say one thing but mean another, and that is why I prefer spending time with honest, grassroots people. One of my mottos is: I hate ‘civilised’ countries, which means that I prefer countries and people that are real – such as New York City, which is full of people from every background and class, all of whom are striving to reach the American dream.
After spending so much time in the field, do you ever become numb to the events you are covering?
I have never felt numb, but I have felt despair. But then you see something positive happening and it makes life better. To this day I am still interested in covering these events. No, I have definitely not become numb to it all, as it still moves me every single time. I want to go to South Sudan this year, for example, to see what the situation is there – and also because I have already visited all the other 192 independent countries of the world.
What specific person or event has made a lasting impression on you?
Nelson Mandela made a huge impression on me, as I was lucky enough to spend some time with him just after he had been released from Robben Island. One event that stands out is Tiananmen Square. There were millions of people all in one place, and every single one of them wanted freedom. It was such a huge event. I remember riding in the trucks and sleeping in the square itself with the demonstrators, as we didn’t want to miss a thing. What struck me the most was the solidarity – everyone was speaking out against a brutal dictatorship. Nicaragua was similar, although on a smaller scale. The whole country was against this one dictator, and it was nice to be with the young people as they take over a despot’s mansion or find their secret tunnel.
The other world event that hit me hard, although for different reasons, was the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. I cried every morning as they brought the bodies of the twenty or thirty children that had died through the night out into the communal area and laid them in a circle. That was a heartbreaking sight.
Have you ever felt in real danger or become emotionally involved in what you witnessed?
Many times, although people are always disappointed to hear that the most dangerous aspect has always been the traffic!
Seriously though, there may have been countless times when someone has had you within the sight of their gun and has been very closing to shooting you. My good friend David Blundy was shot on the job, and it was my fault he even started covering Central America. I persuaded him to come down and report on the issues there, and it was in El Salvador he lost his life. We had covered some fantastic stories together.
Every time I have been in the situation where I think I am going to die, I will spend the next week or month promising myself I am not going to risk my life doing this. There are two times in my life I believe I have been close to death and both involved being attacked by mobs: once in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan. At the time I hoped that I would not be glorified in death and merely remembered as someone who did something stupid by putting himself in an uncompromising position.
In Sarajevo I built so many close relationships with people there, such as the interpreters I worked with. Every time we left we promised the war would soon be over and that the next time we came back it would be to celebrate with them. However, the next time you go back you have to apologise and that hopefully it would be better the next time. People want to trust you because you are a Western journalist, but you only have to be there for a month, whereas they deal with it constantly.
You feel guilty every time you leave a crisis or war zone, because you can leave but they cannot. You leave it all behind and go back to your comfortable home life in a safe country, but many people cannot. However, you have to protect yourself, and if I thought about them all the time I would go crazy – it is essential to separate yourself from the situation.
Which colleague do you admire the most?
I think Christiane Amanpour is excellent, and I am not just saying that because she is a woman. Her way of presenting is superb, and I think she is tough but compassionate. I also very much enjoyed Jeremy Bowen’s interview with Muammar Gaddafi recently and respect a lot of what he has done for the industry. Closer to home, Vesa Toijonen is worthy of a mention and I respect his work greatly.
What is your opinion regarding the deteriorating Finnish coverage of events around the world?
I am extremely disturbed by this turn of events. However, it is not just happening here in Finland, it is a worldwide phenomenon; everyone is cutting down on their foreign correspondents. When compared with our neighbours in Sweden and Norway, our coverage of “the Arab spring” has been shocking – although Helsingin Sanomat still tries hard and sends reporters abroad. Even though both these countries have more money to spend on their media, we are still lagging behind – particularly in the Middle East. News wise, documentaries are bought from larger news distributers such as the BBC but overall the standard has definitely slipped – at a time when we need more evidence uncovered in these places.
This poor coverage of crises and conflicts also has a detrimental effect here. Finns do not get enough exposure to the plights of asylum seekers and the problems they come from, hence the poor reception they receive here. It is not that we cannot afford it, as even if there is a hint of a hurricane in the United States we send reporters scurrying to cover it. Although you do feel sorry for the millionaires who have lost their homes in forest fires in California – surely these resources could be better allocated in the Middle East?
Furthermore, Finns know very little about the European Union, because the media’s reporting of events there does not often reach the common man, for some reason. But conversely, is there too much bad coverage of the EU to the detriment of other, more pressing, matters? For sure, there is life outside the EU as well.
What are you currently working on and what are your plans for the future?
In the short term I have to promote my latest book, Suezilta Afganistaniin – suomalaiset rauhan turvaajina, which highlights the history of Finnish peacekeeping. The book begins in 1956 with the first of our troops being sent to the Suez Canal and works right through to my visit to Afghanistan this year.
As we Finns are so low down the power ladder when it comes to military peacekeeping operations, these days we are moving more into civilian crisis management in countries recovering from war. Thanks to Martti Ahtisaari, peace mediation has risen up the agenda such and our past as a neutral country that is still not part of NATO certainly aids our credibility.
The book is launched on 17 October in Helsinki, meaning it will be available just in time for Father’s Day. It is a series of diaries, memoires and photographs from the glory days, and I will be talking about it at the Helsinki Book Fair in the autumn. There is also currently talk of it being published as an e-book in the near future.
As for the future, I still work as a freelance journalist and write for publications such as Suomen Kuvalehti and Historialehti. I am also involved with a number of various Finnish Red Cross projects, and I am going to Haiti and Cambodia in the near future to videotape a number of programmes for them. Furthermore, I am producing articles and photos for the Finnish Foreign Office, thinking of another book, my fifth, while running Rauli Virtanen Productions still keeps me very busy!
After all you have seen around the world, what have you learned about yourself and life in general while reporting these events?
That half of us here are causing trouble and half are solving the problems the other half create. I want to be the latter. The whole process is a constant struggle, but it is worthwhile.
From a personal point of view, it is good to learn that you are sensitive and that has taught me never to be cynical. I realised a long time ago that I would never become cynical or one of those people who decides that there is nothing they can do in a certain conflict, and decides it is better to just let the people kill each other. There are always problems that have to be corrected, and sometimes that means being even more sensitive to a situation. Professionally I am selfish, but in life money means less and less to me: I rent my flat, and as long as I can pay my bills and support my sons then I am happy.
Photo: Jacek Walczak