15 September 2003
In gloomy mood, Robert Kennedy occasionally would quote the ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Dull times are uneventful, unchallenging and, above all, safe. Interesting times are full of exciting events, hazardous, threatening – even dangerous.
Certainly not safe.
Interesting times of course are meat and drink for us in the news business. But in recent years we have seen far too much of the dark meaning of the Chinese curse. Interesting times have become increasingly deadly for journalists. Interesting times have become nightmare times for many of us. The Iraq conflict is one of the bloodiest in history for reporters. A camera operator in the Occupied West Bank enjoys one of the most dangerous jobs on earth. A journalist in Colombia almost qualifies as an endangered species.
In trouble spots around the globe, hundreds of reporters and editors simply trying to keep their readers and listeners informed about a host of critical domestic issues face persecution, intimidation, torture and even death.
The International Federation of Journalists says more than 1,200 journalists and support staff were killed in the line of duty in the past 10 years.
That is about three times as many as international humanitarian workers whose dangerous conditions attracted considerable attention after the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad.
Indeed the Security Council has now adopted a resolution declaring that attacks on UN aid workers on missions constitute war crimes.
Journalists are being killed because someone did not like what they wrote or said, because someone did not like reporters or simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And the situation is deteriorating, in part we believe because so few people have been held to account for attacking members of the news media, and in part because the old rules that used to govern conflict, in which reporters were largely accepted as impartial observers, have gone by the board.
Into this situation comes the International News Safety Institute (INSI), dedicated to safeguarding journalist lives.
It was the brainchild of the IPI and the International Federation of Journalists. Their initiative was backed last November by a conference of 100 media organisations, press freedom groups and humanitarian campaigners – all deeply concerned by the mounting death toll in the world news community.
The Brussels-based Institute, led and managed by media professionals, aims to help create a culture of safety in media in all corners of the world. It recognises of course that brave reporting in the teeth of adversity is vital to free societies everywhere and never can be completely safe. Intrepid reporters, willing to risk their lives to expose wrongdoing and misery, are vital to free societies everywhere. Their initiative cannot -- must not -- be snuffed out by some overbearing nannyism.
However, there are many things concerned employers and working journalists – as well as governments and security forces – can and should do to manage risk and maintain high quality reporting.
To comprehend why INSI was deemed so necessary by so many of our colleagues there has to be an understanding of the grave danger facing journalists in so many parts of the world – of why one authority recently called safety “the ultimate press freedom issue”.
The Committee to Protect Journalists says 76 per cent of journalists who have died in the past decade were murdered -- targeted in direct reprisal for their work. Ninety per cent of the dead were not international correspondents parachuted into war, but ordinary journalists trying to pursue their daily work at home, in their own countries. Most disturbingly, in 94 per cent of the murders no one has been brought to justice. Many experts believe this lack of accountability has given a sharp upward twist to the spiral of journalist persecution. Killing a reporter has become a relatively risk-free activity.
In countries where press freedom is under attack, journalists are threatened by authoritarian regimes and their corrupt “security” arms, crime gangs and other lawless elements that fear the bright light of honest reporting. The Inter American Press Association, whose members are amongst the most tormented, calls this “the most archaic and brutal” form of repression against press freedom.
To mark Press Freedom day, the CPJ last May listed the world’s 10 worst places to be a journalist.
At the top was the West Bank.
Two cameramen have been shot dead in recent weeks despite years of pleading by world news bodies for the Israelis to restrain their troops. The others in this bloody Top Ten were Colombia, which witnesses violent reprisals against the media by all sides in the civil conflict, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Belarus, Burma, Zimbabwe, Iran, Kyrgyzstan and Cuba.
Another twist to the vicious spiral has come from a widespread disregard of the old “rules” that used to help protect journalists in conflicts. In the old days when wars had distinct sides and were played largely to conflict conventions, reporters were mostly seen as impartial observers. In today’s often swirling and confused conflicts, there are no set rules. Reporters are seen as belonging to one side or another. Israeli soldiers and officials seem unable to comprehend that a Palestinian cameraman can be as honest a reporter as an Israeli.
An Islamic fanatic can regard Western journalists as being on the side of global war on Islam. An anti-globalisation rioter sees a photographer as an arm of hated capitalism. An American military media officer cannot accept that an Arab TV station can be unbiased.
At the very least those committed elements do not care very much whether a reporter lives or dies on the bigger battlefield. At the most extreme end, the reporter is a target for their anger.
INSI has recorded 20 news media dead – journalists and their support staff such as translators and drivers -- in the Iraq conflict, plus two missing believed killed. Analysis breaks this down to 12 -- or 14 if the missing are counted -- claimed by acts of war. Five were killed by American fire, two by the Iraqi military, one by Iraqi or US fire – it’s unclear which side delivered the fatal blow -- and four by unidentified anti-Coalition elements. Evidence suggests the two missing ITN crew, Fred Nerac and Hussein Osman, were in Iraqi hands when they disappeared. Of eight who died from other causes, five were in road accidents – a foolish yet abiding cause of journalist deaths in conflict zones – two succumbed to health-related afflictions and one stepped on a mine.
Many critical safety issues have arisen from the Iraq conflict and need to be addressed by journalists and assigning editors.
Health is important.
A journalist must be physically fit and mentally robust not only to endure the extreme stress of modern combat – just the noise of modern gunfire can be terrifying – but the physical torture of sitting cramped up, knees to chin, in the back of a bouncing APC for hours at a stretch. One friend endured 13 hours travelling across the Iraqi desert without being able to stretch a leg. Economy Class syndrome has nothing on the Humvee hunch-up.
Embedded journalists were by and large safer than non-embeds, or unilaterals. They had a measure of safety provided by being protected by the most powerful side. But some wore uniforms. Did that make them safer by blending into the crowd around them or make them targets by appearing to be soldiers of one side?
Unilaterals had more freedom to report all sides. But they were “owned” by neither. Did that make them no one’s responsibility?
Chillingly, Coalition media managers had made clear that the safety of unilaterals would not be guaranteed.
INSI wrote an open letter to both sides before the war began appealing to them to respect journalists’ neutrality and to avoid targeting civilian buildings where journalists might gather.
Yet journalists were killed when American forces fired on the Palestine Hotel, well known as the Baghdad base for most of the international media, and the Al Jazeera bureau.
INSI and other organisations also are examining the Geneva Conventions to see if they might be strengthened to provide particular protection for journalists in war zones. At the moment the journalist enjoys no more safeguards than any civilian. The issue is controversial. Should a journalist be enshrined in international law as a more valuable person than other civilians? What about the aid workers and UN officials I mentioned earlier?
Some, like myself, argue that journalists are a special case. They place themselves deliberately in harm’s way in order to keep the world informed. If they did not do so, the flow of information that is the oxygen of free societies would be cut off. After all, that is precisely why journalists are targeted by elements who want the rest of us kept in the dark, ignorant of their foul deeds. And special protection for journalists surely need not come at the expense of humanitarian workers.
Conflict reporting of course can never be completely safe. But the danger can be reduced. Far too often, journalists still head out towards trouble, whether war or violent protest, without the most basic preparation. They charge into situations about which they know little, without proper safety equipment or health awareness, when a little homework could make a huge difference to their safe return.
Many were appalled at the spectacle of hundreds of foreign journalists arriving in the Iraq war zone effectively naked. Malaysian journalists told me they didn’t even have gas masks when most experts were predicting chemical or biological warfare. One Japanese correspondent politely inquired of a Western reporter the purpose of his flak jacket. Few were protected by proper insurance, if they had any at all. One reporter told me that if he had been killed the insurance money would have gone to his employer. Only a handful of major networks and newspapers sent experienced staff that had been trained to cope with hostile environments and were adequately equipped with helmets, respirators, flak jackets -- even armoured cars.
The unprepared can endanger colleagues who have – often at considerable expense – been provided with appropriate protection. One of the larger media security concerns, Britain’s Centurion, says there is widespread concern in Iraq at this moment over the increasing rate of quote hangers on unquote attaching themselves to organized media convoys, placing more pressure on other participants and advisors to look out for them. Once on the road the hangers-on often upset the routine of convoy security by speeding to the front, as it is the rear vehicles that most often get attacked.
Not all news organisations of course can individually afford the safety nets deployed by the global giants. And even the biggies are being stretched by their seemingly endless commitments to training and protection.
This is where INSI comes into the picture.
Until now there has been virtually no intra-industry coordination of safety policies. Although foreign correspondents often swap advice informally, no organization existed for editors around the world to share safety information efficiently.
INSI will be the one-stop shop for all news media workers, editors and executives. We will serve as the global safety network, establishing safety standards, funding safety training for those unable to afford it, lobbying governments and news organizations to provide greater safety protection and serving as a safety information hub.
In a comprehensive paper on safeguarding foreign journalists drawn up for the Newspaper Association of America, Beth Howe of Kennedy School of Government at Harvard outlined the industry’s need. Please excuse me if I quote at length from her admirable work. It states cogently why I am before this audience today:
“The risks of death, injury and mental trauma faced by overseas journalists and freelancers have ethical, financial and legal implications for their employers.
“Managers can reduce these undue risks significantly by providing their journalists with the proper training, equipment and safety guidance.
“Editors and publishers must actively promote safe behaviour by monitoring the situation in the countries from where their staff is reporting, mandating training and modified behaviour for those journalists traveling to unstable or risk countries and providing staff with and requiring the use of safety equipment.
“Failure to do so may result in not only the tragedy of losing someone in the field but may also expose newspapers to potential legal action by the families of those killed on the job”.
British law says the main responsibility of ensuring the health and safety of workers rests with the employer. Not only the company but individual directors or managers can be proceeded against in cases of neglect. British government guidance says an organisation has a “positive culture” when such work-related issues are treated seriously and the organisation responds positively to any concerns, staff are consulted and staff are supported “emotionally and practically”.
Neglect can be costly.
In 2001, the family of reporter Larry Lee sued his employer, the financial news wire BridgeNews, claiming its negligence had led to his death in Guatemala. They alleged the company had failed to provide adequate training and protection for its employee. The suit was settled out of court in favour of the family.
Experts in journalist safety believe further suits will follow, not only in cases involving the death of a reporter but also in situations where journalists suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
In this climate, of greater danger to journalists, wider safety awareness by them -- and increasing litigiousness -- INSI provides practical help. We have published a 10-point safety code which urges news organisations to consider safety first before competitive advantage.
It calls for all media staff to be given appropriate hostile environment and risk awareness training as well as protective health and safety equipment such as medical packs, helmets, respirators and flak jackets.
It calls for adequate insurance for staff and freelancers, counselling for journalists traumatised by the horrors of conflict and freedom for any media worker to refuse an assignment to a danger zone without career penalty.
Journalists themselves must contribute to the new safety ethic: they are urged to behave responsibly and not recklessly endanger themselves and their colleagues.
They are reminded that journalists are neutral observers and should not carry firearms in the course of their work.
INSI urges employers not only to provide physical protection but also “armour for the mind” -- free counseling for journalists who witness war’s horror.
The heavy-drinking, volatile, morally-challenged war correspondent is an international cliche.
But there is no divine law that says people who cover conflicts have some inbuilt urge to abuse drink or drugs or unleash their demons on their loved ones.
A recent study of 150 war journalists has established that conflict reporters have significantly more psychiatric problems than journalists who have never been in danger. The rates of PTSD in war reporters were found to be remarkably similar to soldiers who had faced combat, and higher than police. Yet while soldiers and police routinely receive extensive training to deal with violence, conflict reporters as a rule do not.
And it is not only journalists in the field who may need help. A British TV producer had a breakdown because she had to edit thousands of gory images from a battle zone – pictures the public were spared by editors like her. Fortunately she worked for an aware and sympathetic organisation that ensured she got immediate and effective counseling.
The newspaper industry in general – and the American press in particular – has lagged behind broadcasters in waking up to the safety issues.
Chris Cramer of CNN is INSI’s Honorary President and a doughty campaigner for our cause. He says the American news industry is in the dark ages when it comes to safety – despite the death of Daniel Pearl and statistics (again thanks to Beth) showing the job of foreign journalist is one of the most dangerous in America, with a higher per capita fatality rate than timber cutters, fishermen or pilots.
The broadcast News Security Group was founded three years ago by CNN, the BBC, ITN, Reuters and APTN, following the killing of Reuters correspondent Kurt Schork and APTN cameraman Miguel Gil in Sierra Leone. It has expanded to embrace several other broadcasters including Sky, the main US networks, and leading TV stations in the Netherlands, France, Norway, New Zealand and Australia. It drew up a common charter of best safety practice which provided a basis for INSI’s Safety Code. And uniquely in our business, these otherwise uncompromising and toughest of rivals agreed to share operational information in danger zones and put competitive issues aside when the lives of their people in the field were at stake. Group members agreed that no one would be assigned to cover a conflict unless that person had been through a professional Hostile Environment training course. They have spent millions of dollars to back up this commitment, paying for the training of hundreds of staff and stringers. The group is a founding supporter of INSI.
Modern competitive pressures – especially among 24-hour news channels -- fuelled by technological advances which permit live battlefield reporting, are feared to be driving many journalists to take more risks. Successful war reporting can enhance a career like little else. But more journalists and bosses are coming around to the view that no story is worth a life. Dead journalists, after all, don’t tell tales.
INSI’s purpose is to address all of these issues in effective and practical ways. It is not a reactive advocacy grouping, but a proactive organisation that aims to help try to prevent the event that leads to a clamour of protest and condemnation.
· Support and develop safety programmes for all news media workers
· Encourage agreements on health and safety matters between employers, staff and freelancers
· Disseminate information through practical training, advisories and literature
· Promote industry best practice for training, equipment and field work. It will raise funds for projects that provide training for those who cannot afford courses.
· Investigate, develop and promote safety services including affordable insurance
· Establish a global network of organisations committed to risk-reduction
But to do all of this we need the industry’s support. We are not commercial. We are a not-for -profit registered charity, run by professional journalists for professional journalists.
I myself have conflict coverage experience embracing print and visuals in three hemispheres from the Six Day War through Northern Ireland to Gulf War One.
We need money -- to run a website, which will form our information hub, for safety training courses for those in need and unable to afford their own and for a small – and I mean really small, 3 or 4 people – administration staff.
We have a sliding scale of subscription descending from only 5,000 Euros for global news organizations – little more than the cost of putting one staffer through a recognized hostile environment course – to really small amounts for national news companies and journalist groupings.
For this, members get timely information on danger spots, the latest safety equipment and training and other matters affecting the way we work under threat – critical matters that otherwise would take up much time and effort by a concerned news organization acting for itself.
But most importantly, you join a global news community dedicated to the safety of fellow journalists everywhere.
So far several major news organizations have signed up. They include the BBC, Reuters, ABC, Al Jazeera and The Guardian. Obviously, we need more, far more. We want to spread this global safety ethic from a few organizations at the top of the world news pyramid to hundreds at the base.
So my appeal to you is to help yourselves and those less able – to say enough is enough, it is time to constrain journalist casualties – and to do something about it.
Calling on governments to do their bit, UNESCO on World Press Freedom Day last May – the day INSI was launched – said: “The debt we collectively incur when journalists suffer on our behalf must be repaid in practical ways.”
That is what the International News Safety Institute is about.
International News safety Institute