The latest World Press Freedom Review from the International Press Institute contained some sobering figures: 735 journalists died between 2000 and 2009 in conflicts - 110 last year alone. Not surprisingly, the country which proved most hazardous last decade was Iraq where 170 journalists lost their lives. Journalists working in their own countries were most at risk. But the IPI did hone in on a disturbing trend; namely ‘the deliberate targeting’ of journalists in conflict areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Pakistan. Having advised journalists in hostile environments since 2002, I have gained the utmost respect for them. To venture into war zones unarmed and unable to defend against attack takes incredible courage and commitment. Yet too often journalists fail to fully appreciate the hazards they face in conflict areas. I believe more can be done to improve their security.
I’m not going to list all the dos and don’ts of operating in a hostile environment (that is best suited to a full professional training course – something which in my view every journalist should undertake before going to a conflict area). But over the years, I’ve seen even so-called ‘seasoned’ war correspondents ignore some key security basics. Topping the list: awareness. The first rule of operating in a hostile environment is to be aware of your surroundings. This applies as much to walking around the streets as it does to traveling from point A to point B. I can’t tell you how many journalists I’ve seen try to nod off or bury their heads in a Blackberry during a vehicle move. All eyes need to be open and aware to potential hazards when transiting through a conflict zone. The last thing you want is to wake up in the middle of an incident not knowing where you are or what the situation is. Seconds can mean the difference between life and death.
Planning is also an area I’ve seen wanting. Rather than dive head first into a story, journalists in hostile environments need to step back and consider whether it is even possible to access the areas they need to visit. If it is, they must then weigh the safest way to get there – walking, driving or flying. Once in situ, they need to be cognizant of how much time they spend on the ground or whether it is even safe to venture outside their transport. Many of these questions can be answered with the help of local fixers who usually have a very good feel for the environment in which they are operating. But a fixer’s knowledge is of no use when it falls on deaf ears. If a local staffer thinks something is too dangerous, listen to them.
Those charged with commissioning and assigning news stories can also do more to improve security for journalists in conflict zones. In my view, news organization should not commission stories from inexperienced freelancers offering from hostile environments. It sets a bad precedent. As for staff correspondents and support crews, news managers need to ensure that the individuals they assign to hostile environments have the right training, skills, mentality and physical fitness for the job. I’d also like to see management show a greater willingness to make the final decision on whether to pursue a potentially hazardous assignment rather than leave it to the journalists on the ground. It’s not unheard of for journalists to push their luck because they feel it’s expected of them.
Finally, I think experienced journalists have a responsibility to deglamourize war reporting to the next generation. I don’t think it’s clever when journalists (especially famous ones) boast about the risks they take or how they’ve been wounded and/or kidnapped. With any luck, journalists coming up the ranks will ignore the tales of derring-do, look at the casualty figures of the last decade – and proceed with caution.