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Journalist safety, military accountability

Two incidents in less than a week have reminded the Reuters community in horrifically graphic terms of the lethal dangers faced by news people going about their work in zones of war or conflict.

Video of the killing of photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and his assistant and driver Saeed Chmagh, 40, and ten other people in Baghdad three years ago was leaked on 5 April. On 10 April, cameraman Hiroyuki Muramoto, 43, was killed in Bangkok. Both incidents were tragedies and both were shocking, the first for its demonstration of precision targeting of death from the sky and cavalier comments by the US Army helicopter crew who killed the two Reuters men, the second no less for its equally dreadful suddenness.

The Pentagon confirmed the authenticity of the video, which the website WikiLeaks called a case of “collateral murder”. The footage, recorded through the Apache helicopter's gunsight, was not new to Reuters. Together with video from a second Apache and photographs taken of the scene, it was shown to Reuters editors in an off-the-record briefing in Baghdad on 25 July 2007, 13 days after the incident. Since then Reuters had been seeking its release through the US Freedom of Information Act.  WikiLeaks, which promotes leaks to fight government and corporate corruption, obtained the classified video from military whistleblowers, decrypted it and posted it online for all the world to see. Some international law and human rights experts say the helicopter crew may have acted illegally.

It is impossible to view the video without feeling both sorrow and revulsion. After demands by Reuters, the US military investigated the attack and concluded that the actions of its soldiers were in accordance with the law of armed conflict and its own rules of engagement. It said its forces were unaware of the presence of news staff and thought they were engaging armed insurgents, mistaking a camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Hiroyuki Muramoto had arrived in Bangkok from his base in Tokyo to cover anti-government demonstrations only two days before he was killed. He was shot in the chest, the bullet passing through his body and exiting his back. He died for the story, as the editor-in-chief, David Schlesinger, noted in a message to staff, adding "That is not a price we ever want to pay".

Death is a price that has been paid too often: a memorial book kept in London, New York and other major offices records the loss of 30 Reuters news staff from Frank Roberts, killed in Sudan in 1885, to Fadel Shana, killed in Gaza 123 years later in 2008. Eleven of those deaths occurred in the last ten years, a reflection of the increased risk of covering war and conflict. Now the name of Hiroyuki Muramoto is added to that sad list and another page will be added to the book.

At times of loss the Reuters family comes together

Reuters has for many years insisted that its staff undergo thorough risk assessment training prior to assignment to any hostile environment. More than a thousand employees have been given this training. Through the Thomson Reuters Foundation, it also supports the International News Safety Institute, whose purpose is to create a global safety network of advice and assistance to journalists and other news gatherers who may face danger covering the news. INSI's director is a formerly senior Reuters journalist, Rodney Pinder.

At times of loss the Reuters family comes together. Colleagues grieve, work stops as newsrooms fall silent for a moment's tribute of thought and reflection on those who have died, and the company reviews its procedures aimed at ensuring journalist safety. There is no more important cause for the company, as Schlesinger remarked in a message to staff. "To have Hiro die just after we watched on the newly leaked video the 2007 deaths of our colleagues Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh is devastating to me; I’m sure most of you feel similar emotions.

“We know that covering the story forces us to rush towards danger when others rush away. We know that death can come from anywhere. We know how dangerous the places we cover are.

“Yet, we’re never prepared for the dreadful reality when a colleague loses his life. Nor should we be. Nor should we ever just accept it.

“If death is caused by military action, then we must work tirelessly to influence the generals and the civilians who command them to recognise the vital work journalists do, to provide full investigations and transparency whenever tragedies occur, and to enable true justice and accountability.

“If death occurs in the midst of chaotic rioting, then we must strive to review our procedures and training again to make sure we are doing absolutely everything we can to make the dangerous work safe.

“Our mission as journalists is to tell the story.

“Our mission as a company is to make sure our journalists can tell that story safely.”

Schlesinger has urged the US secretary of defence, Robert Gates, to meet him and chief executive Tom Glocer to help ensure such a tragedy as the deaths of Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh never happens again. He calls for transparency, accountability and an acknowledgment of the vital role journalists play in telling the story of war. The editor-in-chief wants a thorough new investigation into the attack, and both Amnesty International and the International Federation of Journalists have also called for a fresh inquiry. The US military's Central Command says it has no current plans to reopen an investigation.

Schlesinger has pledged to continue to press for thorough and objective investigations. “I will continue to insist that governments the world over recognise the rights of journalists to do their jobs,” he says. “I will continue to ensure that our rules and operating procedures are the safest in the industry.” ■