"Safety of Journalists" - Address to UNESCO Plenary Session 2 by Rodney Pinder

World Press Freedom Day 2003

Kingston, Jamaica, 2-3 May

Something of enormous and lasting importance occurred quietly on a rainy day in Brussels last November.

For those of us in the news community, the event in the International Press Centre was, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

An unprecedented coalition of news media organisations, press freedom groups, unions and humanitarian campaigners agreed to establish the International News Safety Institute, an independent network dedicated to protecting journalists against a rising tide of violence.

The Institute launches formally in Brussels this very weekend.

More than 80 news organisations already have expressed their firm support, many agreeing to set aside normal competitive impulses when their journalists' lives are at risk.

Why has this happened?

These are nightmare times for the news media in many parts of the world, too many.

More than 1,100 journalists and other media staff have been killed in the line of duty over the past 10 years - 65 last year alone.

Headlines usually focus on the intrepid war correspondents - 15 media staffers were killed in the Iraq war, a horrifying death toll of one news person almost every two days.

In at least three of the incidents that resulted in fatalities - tanks shelling the Palestine Hotel and Al Jazeera offices in Baghdad and the shooting up of ITN vehicles clearly marked as TV - US forces may have targeted journalists deliberately. Or the attacks may have been the result of great recklessness. Either is completely unacceptable.

Nor do we accept the harassment and intimidation of journalists of the kind that occurred on the Iraqi side both for many years before and even during the war.

Amid the storm of warfare, we must never forget that more than 90 percent of journalists who die violently are at home, far from international wars, simply doing their jobs in countries where they were born and brought up.

Journalists increasingly are being targeted by those who fear or simply dislike what they report. Too often these attacks occur with impunity - which simply encourages more of the same.

Local journalists are being persecuted in Colombia, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe as well as, of course, the Occupied Territories where a Palestinian television cameraman was shot in the head and killed only a few days ago whilst the attention of the world was elsewhere.

Many of us in the international news community have been greatly concerned for some time by Israeli forces beating and shooting at Palestinian cameramen. We have long feared a fatality and made many protests to the Israelis to try to stop this behaviour, sadly to no avail.

Like other governments, the Israelis appear indifferent to the fate of journalists "on the other side", stubbornly refusing to accept that a Palestinian can be as honest a reporter as an Israeli.

Deaf, like so many other authorities, to the argument that you do not defend democracy by killing journalists.

It is especially disturbing when such a prominent Israeli politician as Shimon Peres, not known as a hawk, tells a news conference at the United Nations that a camera is as dangerous as a gun. What kind of message does that send to troops down the line?

In an increasingly high speed and competitive world, the risks to journalists from lethal accidents arising from haste or ignorance also are rising.

I lost two good friends in Southern Africa because they were speeding with their film to a feed point and ran out of road.

Proper training can help damp down the excitement and carelessness that can overtake some journalists on a big story.

We show journalists how do develop safety awareness and responsibility for the team - without damaging in any way their top flight newsgathering techniques.

In the past journalists largely have been left to fend for themselves. That is no longer enough.

Enemies are too ruthless and well equipped and the competitive pressures often too strong for us to rely on our favourite old standbys -- luck and a bit of experience.

Reporting dangerous stories - shining light on humankind's dark and secret corners - can never be completely safe.

But brave journalists and concerned employers can - and must - do more to reduce the risks.

The free flow of information on which enlightened governments and peoples depend, dies a little with every journalist who falls.

The International News Safety Institute -INSI - grew out of the determination of working journalists to act in their own defence.

Ours is not a talking shop or merely an advocacy grouping. INSI is an essentially practical organisation, geared to help in real and concrete ways.

  • INSI will set international standards for safety training and equipment - yes, global standards, not one rule for the north and another for the south.

Global news giants already are making significant strides in safety; but the small are most vulnerable and they need our help.

Foreign correspondents can parachute in and leave again when it's all apparently over or if it gets too tough. Local journalists live amongst it, the danger swirling around them and their families. They usually don't have the insurance and safety equipment or other backup arrangements provided to the international stars. Some global organisations even hire locals to take the risks for them. This must change.

  • INSI will expand access to risk-awareness training and will raise funds for projects organised according to local needs.

We will encourage agreements on health and safety between employers and staff and freelancers. We need to promote industry best practice for everyone, everywhere.

  • INSI will have a regional focus and will create a network of knowledge and experience from journalists, regional experts, press freedom groups and professional trainers.

  • INSI will establish a global network seriously committed to risk-reduction pressure on the industry. We will maintain pressure on news organisations and governments to create a global news safety community; to recognise the critical importance to the world of journalists free to work without fear for their lives.

  • And INSI will play a key role in seeking justice for journalists who are harassed and attacked.

Even though INSI is not yet fully formed, we have begun to make our presence felt.

We issued an open letter before the Iraq war demanding both sides respect the integrity of journalists in the field.

We set up a hotline for journalists who might be in trouble during the war and lack the resources of a big media organisation behind them.

We helped some journalists who were looking for affordable insurance cover.

We have taken a leading role in promoting an independent inquiry into the attacks on journalists at the Palestine Hotel and Al Jazeera office.

And we are gathering material on all the fatal incidents so that we can learn from them and apply practical measures for the future.

Additionally, we have drawn up a 10-point Safety Code to guide employers and journalists.

The Code urges news organisations to consider safety first, before competitive advantage.

It says no journalist should be penalised if he or she refuses an assignment to a hostile environment.

Employers are urged never to send a journalist into danger without proper risk awareness training. They are asked to provide not only proper safety equipment for the body but also "armour for the mind" in the form of post-trauma counselling. They must also ensure proper insurance cover for all, whether staff or freelance - there can be no discrimination.

And INSI has established strong ties with the Broadcast Security Group, comprising several American, British, European and Australian networks and agencies, set up in the aftermath of the tragic deaths in Sierra Leone of Reuters Kurt Schork and APTN's Miguel Gil Marino.

(Just to underline the importance of this safety awareness work, two good friends of mine, Mark Chisholm and Yannis Behrakis of Reuters swear they would never have survived the ambush that killed Schork and Gil had they not been given professional hostile environment training by their employer.

(Chisholm knew instinctively to run towards the firing, not away from it across an open highway where he would have been cut down. Yannis smeared himself with mud to blend into the terrain as bandits searched within 15 feet of him. Both learned these life-saving techniques from a British security company).

Of course, INSI is only at the beginning of a long road.

Although several major news organisation have embraced the safety ethic, hundreds more haven't.

In many parts of the world, including South eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia - all areas of high risk - country-based and regional media groups provide little training or protection.

The murders of journalists around the world every year - one a week, for heaven's sake! - receive little attention and more often than not go unpunished.

And reporters themselves too often scorn protection as "cissy", somehow unmanlike. Many still behave like cowboys, putting themselves and their associates at risk. I will never forget the sight of a colleague standing atop a wrecked Iraqi tank in the first Gulf War, joyfully blasting into the skies from an AK47 he had found, like a little boy with his first popgun.

How do we tackle a culture that accepts danger-zone journalists' heavy drinking or drug abuse as "good old boy" behaviour rather than possible post-traumatic stress which can be successfully treated?

Many a life or marriage might have been saved had we been aware of PTSD and its effects in the past.

INSI was born out of real need. To survive and give of its best it needs the wholehearted backing of journalists and their employers. We cannot exist alone.

We at INSI extend our hand to help you - and ask for your support.

Rodney Pinder

Interim Director, INSI