The Human Cost of Production

An alarmingly high number of journalists are becoming statistics in today's
conflicts. In this, part one of a series examining the state of news and current affairs programming, RealScreen investigates broadcaster response
January 1, 2001

On May 24, 2000, APTN journalist Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora and Reuters correspondent Kurt Schork were killed by soldiers in Sierra Leone. Only 24 hours earlier, an Israeli tank shelled the car of Abed Takkoush, a driver with the BBC for 25 years. He too was killed. According to figures published by the International Press Institute (IPI), 34 other journalists have been killed this year. In 1999, 87 journalists and media staff were either killed or murdered, making it one of the worst years on record. It was the deaths of the three veteran war correspondents, however, that awakened the broadcast community to the increasing dangers facing journalists working in conflict zones.

‘Journalists are becoming targets, they are not just getting caught in the crossfire,’ says Chris Cramer, president of CNN International Networks. ‘There are governments and institutions that don’t place any value on the job of a journalist.’ The nature of modern conflict is also changing. There is seldom such a thing as a front line, and untrained militia men have replaced trained soldiers. Explains Adrian van Klaveren, head of news gathering at the BBC: ‘There are wars in which it’s very difficult to define who is on which side, and where each side actually is. That makes situations less predictable.’

Advances in technology have further served to escalate the hazards with which journalists must cope. Not only have modern weapons removed the need to see one’s enemy before shooting them, but light-weight cameras and satellite phones mean journalists are more mobile, making it easier for them to travel into hostile areas.

In recognition of these realities, last year’s News World conference – which gathered the international news broadcast community to Barcelona, Spain, from November 14 to 17 – featured two sessions devoted to the matter. ‘The Front Line’ looked at the experience of broadcasters and journalists who dispatched reporters or worked in places such as Sierra Leone and East Timor. ‘Journalists in Peril’ examined ways to reduce the risks of reporting from the field. Perhaps the most constructive consensus reached during the event occurred between CNN, the BBC, ITN (a multi-media news channel that provides content to the U.K.’s commercial broadcasters), Reuters (a news and technology group based in the U.K.) and Associated Press Television News (APTN is the international television arm of The Associated Press), all of whom established a common set of guidelines for journalists working in war zones. Although each organization was already operating under similar codes, this was the first time a cooperative agreement had been drawn up between the competing entities.

Klaveren believes the importance of having shared safety guidelines lies in the hope that, under appropriate circumstances, it will encourage common sense over competition: ‘The danger with stories coming from war zones is you end up competing for them. That competition can happen in all sorts of ways – trying to get there first, trying to get there in a different way and so on. Competition has a place in this industry, but there are situations in which the pressure of competition must be completely offset by the demand to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to maximize safety. Doing that jointly so that one organization isn’t fearing that while they’re being very safety conscious maybe the others aren’t, we get around that competitive pressure.’

Cramer hopes the agreement will raise the debate surrounding safety standards to new levels and encourage other broadcasters and news gathering organizations to adopt similar guidelines. ‘It is outrageous for an employer – whether it’s a media employer or a broadcast employer – to say ‘that is a jolly good start, but at the end of the day it comes down to [the journalists] and what they do, because they’re the best judge’. That’s a cop-out,’ he explains. ‘That philosophy still pervades in the industry today and the debate is not universal. It’s a much more animated debate in Europe than it is [in the U.S.], which is why I’ll make a nuisance of myself in Washington.’

Before joining CNN in April of 1996, Cramer held Klaveren’s current post as head of news gathering for the BBC. In 1992, he made what constituted a ‘radical’ move in the macho environment of war correspondents when he established a list of safety standards for journalists working in war zones. ‘Basically, it said that no story is worth a life,’ he explains. Cramer believes the idea was born partly from his own personal experience – he was a hostage during the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980. In his management role, he wanted to provide a safety blanket for journalists to say ‘it’s too dangerous to go down that road today’.

‘All journalists feel competitive pressure to do better than the person sitting opposite them,’ explains Cramer. ‘The business they’re in is inherently dangerous, but that doesn’t mean one has to be a maniac to do it. A set of intelligent guidelines acknowledges this fact and says your safety is of paramount importance to us.’

Under these standards, war correspondents had to complete hostile environment training before heading into the field. Mandatory safety training reappears in the agreement reached at News World and extends to both staff and freelancers. Coincidentally, The Rory Peck Trust (a non-profit organization dedicated to the welfare of freelancers, founded in 1995 after freelance cameraman Rory Peck was killed in Moscow while filming the 1993 revolt against President Yeltsin) established the Rory Peck Training Fund in May. It provides 75% of course costs (about £750) for hostile environment training to freelancers with a minimum of 18 months experience. This year, 43 bursaries were available.

U.K.-based Centurion Risk Assessment Services is one of two companies providing the courses. Founded by managing director Paul Rees, a former Royal Marine Commando trained in mountain and arctic warfare, the service helps journalists recognize dangers and teaches them how to respond to threatening situations. Among the classes offered are risk assessment; hostage, kidnapping and abduction; personal protective equipment (such as flak jackets and body armor); hot and cold climate injuries; and how to assess and negotiate vehicle check points and border crossings.

Sorious Samura, winner of the 1999 Mohamed Amin Award for his startling footage of the atrocities being committed in Sierra Leone, received hostile environment training prior to leaving for Liberia to film a half-hour doc for the U.K.’s Channel 4 and CNN. ‘There are things I did when filming the war in Freetown that I would never do again, because I now know when and how to go into a situation,’ he says. ‘The training helps a lot. During the situation in Liberia I benefited, because I knew to keep my head low. That’s part of what I learned.’ In Liberia, despite having taken the proper preparations, Samura and his crew were arrested on charges of espionage, thrown in prison and beaten by Liberian soldiers. Only when U.S. activist Jesse Jackson, former South African president Nelson Mandela, CNN and the British Foreign Office, among others, came to their aid did the government release them.

The agreement also stipulates that personal insurance covering death and personal injury should be provided to staff and freelancers working in conflict zones. Most journalists agree insurance should be provided, but the issue has caused many to question broadcasters’ motives for pulling journalists out of areas they are told are too dangerous. In an interview for, freelance journalist Max Stahl – winner of this year’s Rory Peck Award for his coverage of the conflict in East Timor for APTN – admitted he was disturbed by the exodus of journalists he witnessed while there, but placed the blame for their departure on the broadcasters: ‘A lot of TV people were not in control of their own destinies. I think this is appalling. It is all to do with insurance and people’s careers being in jeopardy if things go wrong. It has little to do any longer with the real risks at the coal face.’

Samura agrees, adding that pulling journalists out of conflict zones because of perceived dangers could eventually escalate the problem. ‘I have asked myself why the international media pulled out when our colleagues were killed in Sierra Leone,’ he reflects. ‘At the end of the day, it seems like you’re sending the wrong message to the rebels. If we give up, these kinds of factions say, ‘well, if we kill them, it won’t be reported and we can keep doing what we’re doing’. I think broadcasters should think about that – not just the insurance costs.’

‘Deciding on safety is the hardest thing any editorial manager has to do,’ says Klaveren. ‘When we decided to withdraw from East Timor, people were concerned. You have to go back to the principle that if you think by being there you’re putting further lives at risk , you have to pull out. We cannot feel that what we are trying to do is change the course of a conflict. We are there to report in so far as we can. If the risks are too high, we have to take the responsibility to say we can’t stay here any longer.’

Parties to the agreement acknowledge that the guidelines currently outlined are only a starting point. The idea of pooling is one guideline that was included in the proposal, but it did not reach the final product. Pooling allows competing broadcasters to share information and footage, thereby reducing the number of journalists assigned to report from hazardous areas. Cramer explains, ‘The guideline was not included because there was some nervousness that governments and organizations might use the guideline to force or enforce pooling. I respect that ruling, but pooling was instigated in Bosnia [by the BBC, itn and others] and nobody suffered. It probably saved a few lives. The other worry about pooling is that it removes the competitive spirit. I think that needs to be weighed against safety.’

That’s not to say that governments don’t have a place in ensuring the safety of journalists working in their countries. Samura believes the escalating dangers facing journalists can only be curtailed by pressuring governments to respect the rights of journalists. Cramer goes farther, saying the agreement’s promise to safeguard journalists in the field serves notice to those governments currently violating the right to freedom of the press. ‘We’ve got to get ourselves into a position whereby governments of a certain persuasion around the world know it’s not okay for them to target journalists. That means arrest them, brutalize them or something worse. [This promise] means we will bring any pressure we have – political, private or public – to bear on those authorities that don’t recognize that the craft of journalism has a special place in society. In other words, we will use every means at our disposal to ensure the safety of journalists doing their honest craft.’

At last year’s News World conference, CNN, the BBC and ITN joined with APTN and Reuters to establish a joint code of practice for journalists working in conflict zones.

The guidelines are:

1. The preservation of human life and safety is paramount. Unwarranted risks in pursuit of a story are unacceptable and must be strongly discouraged. Assignments to war zones or hostile environments must be voluntary and should only involve experienced news gatherers and those under their direct supervision.

2. All staff and freelancers asked to work in hostile environments must have access to appropriate safety training. Employers are encouraged to make this mandatory.

3. Employers must provide efficient safety equipment to all staff and freelancers assigned to hazardous locations.

4. All staff and freelancers should be afforded personal insurance while working in hostile areas, including coverage against death and personal injury.

5. Employers are to provide and encourage the use of voluntary and confidential counseling for all staff and freelancers returning from hostile areas or after the coverage of distressing events.

6. Media companies and their representatives are neutral observers. No member of the media should carry a firearm in the course of their work.

7. We will work together to establish a databank of safety information, including the exchange of up-to-date safety assessments of hostile and dangerous areas.

8. We will work with other broadcasters and organizations to safeguard journalists in the field.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.