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War zone tragedy's beneficial impact on coverage of dangerous stories

Yannis Behrakis, newly appointed as senior editor, special projects, for Reuters pictures, almost died covering the civil war in Sierra Leone in 2000.

Celebrated correspondent Kurt Schork of Reuters and photojournalist Miguel Gil Moreno of Associated Press Television were killed in a hail of gunfire as rebels sprang out of the bush shooting wildly at the journalists' convoy on a dirt road in a bush war zone.

Schork and Gil died instantly as bullets riddled their vehicles. Behrakis and Reuters TV cameraman Mark Chisholm were able to escape, fleeing into the thick undergrowth.

Behrakis managed to get away. Covered in blood, he smeared himself with dirt and leaves as camouflage and for three hours crawled and crept to safety, always fearing the rebels were on his trail. He was eventually picked up by a convoy of regular soldiers.

Behrakis and Chisholm attributed their survival to hostile environment training provided by Reuters, one of the few global news organisations providing such training at the time. Chisholm told me afterwards that, subconsciously and counter-intuitively, he had run towards the gunfire, making himself a more difficult target, thanks to the training. 

"It (the training) saved my life," Behrakis later told the British Royal Marine commando who ran the course for Reuters.

Four Sierra Leonian military escorts also died in the ambush. The army had told the journalists the road was safe.

The tragic incident has had a lasting beneficial impact on news coverage of dangerous stories.

A few months afterwards, the Freedom Forum in London invited leading international journalists and senior news executives to a public discussion to focus on what practical things could be done to help prepare news men and women for assignments to conflict zones.

I represented Reuters Television on a panel, alongside heads of news for CNN, APTN, ITN and the BBC.

The five organisations agreed to establish common guidelines for their journalists working in war zones and published a joint Safety Code at the News World Conference in Barcelona on 16 November 2000. As well as agreeing on the code of practice, the organisations agreed regularly to share safety information and to work with others, including international agencies, to safeguard journalists in danger areas.

An increasing awareness that so many journalists were being killed in the course of their work around the world led to the founding of the International News Safety Institute (INSI) in early 2003. The code of practice was enshrined as the INSI Safety Code and can be found on its website

The need for proper safety training and equipment and counselling for traumatised journalists is now widely accepted by major news organisations. INSI, supported by more than 100 newspapers, broadcasters and individuals around the globe, arranges safety training for journalists unable to access their own and campaigns on safety issues. It was instrumental in persuading the UN Security Council to pass unanimously Resolution 1738 on journalist safety in December 2006.

Behrakis says on his website: "His (Schork's) blood marked my clothes and his loss marked my soul forever. His memory helped me to return to covering what I consider the apotheosis of photojournalism: war photography."

Too many news men and women still are killed every year simply for doing their jobs. But hundreds of others are alive today directly as a result of the sacrifice of Kurt Schork and Miguel Gil and the bravery of Yannis Behrakis and Mark Chisholm. ■