Transforming Anger at Journalists' Deaths Into Action
The International News Safety Institute provides training and support for journalists whose work puts them in danger.
Recently I read an op-ed by a journalism teacher that made me mad. Under the headline "The glamour of the frontline," this sage set out to expose the "dirty little secret in journalism" that conflict reporting was glamorous and fun and a great way to get ahead. Those who did it by and large were a bunch of thrill-seeking egoists who, the writer implied, had only themselves to blame if they became casualties of war.
Tell that to the many unsung heroes of the war's coverage in Iraq — local reporters, photographers, cameramen, fixers and others who provide most of the news we read and see from their ravaged country. Two-thirds of the 123 news media staff who have given their lives to cover this war were Iraqi, according to the figures compiled by the International News Safety Institute (INSI). Or tell journalists in Latin America who are dying, literally, to tell the story of the drug trade about the glamour of what they do. Or say this to independent broadcasters in the Philippines who seek merely to exercise their right to freedom of speech in an Asian democracy and are murdered by those they offend.
Thrill-seekers? Egomaniacs? Romantic fools? No. These people are just incredibly brave, ordinary men and women who believe that without freedom of expression there is no democracy and who are prepared to put their lives and livelihoods on the line to keep their countrymen and the rest of the world informed. International war reporters courageously face danger to report what war is about, often paying the ultimate price; often we hear of them when danger wins. Yet most of the news media personnel who die on assignment throughout the world are workaday reporters who are covering low-level conflict and disorder, corruption and crime in their own countries. More than 1,300 such journalists have died violently over the past 15 years; last year was the worst on record, with 146 recorded deaths.
Outside of Iraq, the Philippines was the most dangerous place to be a journalist last year, with 10 murdered. Other places with multiple deaths were Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Colombia, Haiti, Brazil, Afghanistan and Mexico. Most of the victims were targeted because of their work, and they were shot, blown up, stabbed and/or beaten to death. Over the years, drug traffickers in Latin America have exacted a terrible toll on journalists trying to expose their activities. Corrupt police and other authorities let them get away with it.
The bullet is a cheap, effective and relatively risk-free form of press censorship; it silences forever a troublesome reporter and intimidates colleagues, friends and family. Around the world, something like 90 percent of killers of journalists get away with it. At best, the authorities do not seem to care very much. At worst, they collude because they don't like prying journalists, either. Angerand concern over the rising death toll prompted some in the global news industry finally to act. We were tired of the usual journalist reaction of getting mad and sounding off and then moving on. We felt we had to do something effective, and no one else — no government, no politician, no army — was going to do it for us.
Acting to Protect Journalists
At the International Press Institute Congress in 2002, Chris Cramer, then president of CNN International Networks, issued a wake-up call to the profession. "Journalists and those who support them are more in harm's way than ever before," he observed. "And those of us who manage and assign them have a greater than ever responsibility to ensure we do everything possible for our staff." Leaders of other international news organizations echoed this sentiment and urged concerted action.
Following this meeting, some 80 news organizations, journalist support groups, and humanitarian organizations came together in Brussels and set up the INSI. Launched on World Press Freedom Day in 2003, it is the only international journalist support organization focused solely on safety issues. Through training, exchange of information, and other informed guidance, INSI aims to equip journalists to pursue brave reporting with an improved chance of getting back alive.
Of course, conflict journalism can never be safe, but journalists can be trained how to look after themselves better. Far too often, journalists are the only professionals on a battlefield who have received no preparation for what they are facing. And the plight of local journalists in the developing world who toil at the roots of the world information flow is particularly acute.
During the past two years INSI has raised sufficient money from international donors to provide basic safety training in 11 countries, including Iraq, to more than 500 journalists who were unable to afford their own. Many of them work for international outlets as stringers and freelancers. Hundreds more remain in dire need, lacking even basic knowledge, training or equipment, while danger levels rise inexorably. INSI has created regional safety networks in East and South Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East to focus on aid efforts and provide real-time risk assessment for journalists planning assignments or who are already on the scene. Other INSI activities include:
Initiating a series of safety debates for news media professionals, focusing on lessons learned in conflicts, and acting as a clearinghouse for advice on safer coverage of high-risk stories, such as avian flu and other human and natural disasters.
Engaging in behind-the-scenes discussions with military organizations aimed at improving understanding and communication between armies and journalists on the battlefield — and at ensuring prompt and open inquiries when fatalities occur. We achieved a breakthrough this year with the British Ministry of Defence that, for the first time, agreed to inscribe journalist safety measures in its "Green Book" bible for military-media operations in war. The measures do not go far enough, but it is an encouraging beginning by a major military power.
Undertaking a global inquiry — the first of its kind — into the rising number of journalist deaths around the world, led by an investigative committee comprising news organizations, individual journalists, journalist support groups, and international legal experts. The inquiry aims to produce a report and recommendations for actions to be taken by the international community. These might include changes to the laws that govern conflict, changes to attitudes that encourage impunity, and changes to the rules of engagement that govern armies in war.
Convincing the United Nations to act to give journalists the protections they deserve for the essential work they do.
INSI recognizes that journalists also need to reexamine their attitudes and approaches to reporting on conflict in an increasingly polarized world in which journalistic neutrality, once taken for granted, no longer widely applies. They and their employers must educate themselves better on safety measures, equipment and social conditions surrounding conflict. They must also rid themselves of any lingering idea that they are somehow special and invulnerable. Bravery on its own isn't enough.
Rodney Pinder is the director of the International News Safety Institute, based in Brussels.