Living to tell the story
Monday 6 December 2010
No story is worth a life.
We say it, often, but what exactly does it mean?
Reuters editor-in-chief David Schlesinger brought the matter into sharp focus at a safety event in Athens organised by the International News Safety Institute (INSI), of which he is an executive board member.
Since then, David has been widely misquoted and in some cases misinterpreted. He did not say, as some reported, that no Reuters journalist would ever again cover a dangerous story.
Let us look at what he did say and the context in which he said it.
INSI was formed in 2003 by a unique coalition of news organisations, journalist support and humanitarian groups and individuals out of concern at the rising death toll of colleagues around the world.
More than 1,000 news media workers have died in the past 10 years - two a week. The great majority were not international correspondents but locals working in their own countries in peacetime.
Most of them were murdered, targeted just for doing their job of shining light on the darkest recesses of their societies.
The 'neutrality' of foreign correspondents is treated with disdain - or hostility - by those with the guns
When INSI was set up we drafted a Safety Code which borrowed heavily from that of the Broadcast News Security Group, formed after Miguel Gil Moreno of AP and Reuters’ Kurt Schork were killed in an ambush in Sierra Leone in May 2000. It begins: “The preservation of life and safety is paramount”.
So when we say no story is worth a life, we do not in any way denigrate or minimise the sacrifices of those who died trying to report the news, or their families. We mean that a full and professional risk assessment must be made before a journalist is sent into danger. Proper consideration must be given to the possibility that he or she could be killed. The risks must be weighed against the importance of the story.
Reuters and AP pulled out of Sierra Leone after Miguel Gil and Kurt were killed and Mark Chisholm and Yannis Behrakis narrowly escaped. We judged that story did not justify putting more lives at risk. On the other hand Reuters, AP and many other news organisations decided the Iraq war had to be covered comprehensively because of its importance. Horribly difficult decisions were made. And journalists died - more than 250 at last count (the vast majority Iraqi).
There have been major changes in conflict reporting over recent years. Modern war has become hugely more dangerous than when I cut my teeth on conflict in the Middle East in 1967.
It is a fast-moving, swirling affair with few defined front lines. Death, in David's words, comes “screaming out of the sky”. The days when correspondents might be protected because they were useful to all sides who needed their stories told, have gone. The Internet is available as a bully pulpit to anyone and the “balance” provided by honest reporters often is not appreciated, to say the least. The “neutrality” of foreign correspondents is treated with disdain - or hostility - by those with the guns.
David began his address by pointing out Reuters journalists Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh, killed by cannon fire from two Apache helicopter gunships in Iraq in 2007, “had no intention of dying for the story, but die they did”.
He asked “whether we, the journalistic community, need to reassess our need to be in the midst of danger”.
In the key passage, he said:
“Of course there are no black and white answers.
“Sometimes... the benefits to transparency and understanding are such that we indeed must be right there. And always covering violence in the same long-distance way as it can be prosecuted today would simply be abrogating the responsibilities of our craft.
“But let’s be honest. Sometimes those benefits are not there and the reasons for being in harm's way are less noble: competitive pressure, personal ambition, andrenaline’s surging.
“As professionals, we must be much more ruthless in prioritising the exposure of our staff to danger.”
The full text of David’s speech is available on the INSI website and also on The Baron.
In its role as the only journalist support group solely concerned with safety, INSI records all deaths of journalists and support staff, such as drivers and translators, in pursuit of the story. There is absolutely no doubt that “competitive pressure, personal ambition and andrenaline’s surging” still claim many – far too many – lives.
There is also no doubt that journalists are being targeted as never before for what they do.
In many parts of the world murder has become a cheap, effective and relatively risk-free form of censorship. A bullet costs a few cents, the troublesome reporter is silenced and his or her friends intimidated - and in almost 9 out of 10 cases of murder of a journalist no one is brought to justice.
What to do?
We say no journalist should go into danger unless they have received hostile environment training. INSI raises money from donors to provide HE training free of charge to those in need and unable to afford their own. Thus far we have reached 1,700 news media personnel in 21 countries.
INSI and partners lobbied the United Nations to get Resolution 1738 on the safety of journalists in conflict through the Security Council in 2006. The resolution, which demanded an end to impunity for the killers of journalists, is the highest global political expression of concern over the spiralling death toll.
INSI and major members helped persuade the British Ministry of Defence to included journalist safety for the first time in its Green Book on media-military operations in wartime.
We also run a timely information network for journalists in or about to enter danger zones of all kind.
Around the world, most news organisations need to do more to protect their staff. The big outfits take their duty of care seriously. In 2007, four of the largest industry players - all of them INSI members - reported total spending in excess of $20 million on news safety, most of it on providing HE training, safety equipment and security cover. But these organisations are a distinct minority in the global industry.
INSI’s landmark report, Killing The Messenger, recommended action worldwide to staunch the bloodshed. Proposals included an end to impunity, safety training to be included in all media development projects and a demand that governments and international institutions such as the World Bank and IMF consider a country’s record on the murder of journalists when assessing the granting of aid and other assistance.
We also said journalists themselves bear a responsibility for their own safety. They have a duty of care to themselves and this involves taking a more professional approach to risk.
INSI hopes David Schlesinger’s speech, properly considered, will help that process.
You can help too, by supporting INSI, a non-political charity entirely devoted to helping journalists around the world live to tell the story.
You can donate any sum, large or small, through our website. Just follow the links on www.newssafety.org.
Rodney Pinder, former Reuters correspondent and editor, is director of the International News Safety Institute. ■