On the Frontlines
Back in journalism’s heyday, it was common for newspapers and television and radio stations to have foreign bureaus and correspondents stationed around the world. Slashed budgets and an increasingly competitive media landscape have led to many news outlets shuttering those offices and relying on contract staff, stringers, freelancers and, in some cases, even citizens’ eyewitness reports. As the news industry continues to struggle, the safety of frontline reporters may be at risk.
During a botched attempt at dismantling an Israeli missile in the Gaza Strip in August, Simone Camilli became one of five people to die in the explosion. Camilli was not part of the bomb squad; the Italian videojournalist was on assignment for the Associated Press when he was killed in the blast, along with his Palestinian translator.
It has been a trying year for the news agency. In April, a police officer shot two staff members in the lead-up to the elections in Afghanistan, killing German photographer Anja Niedringhaus and injuring Canadian reporter Kathy Gannon, a former Afghanistan bureau chief who had been reporting from the region for years. At the time, Niedringhaus was the 32nd on-the-job fatality for the Associated Press since 1846, according to chief executive officer Gary Pruitt.
The recent brutal slaying of American journalist James Foley and American-Israeli reporter Steven Sotloff by the Islamic State group further serves as a chilling warning of the risks that journalists in conflict zones face.
Protecting frontline journalists who report from conflict zones involves assessing potential risks and planning contingency plans, notes Jonathan Whitten, executive director of newsgathering for CBC News in Toronto. Unfortunately, in situations such as Israel’s attack on Gaza, which killed more than 2,000 people, not all scenarios can be avoided.
“We can never guarantee safety, and reporters have to and do understand that that there is risk involved,” Whitten says. “We are not talking about eliminating risk; we are talking about assessing [risk].”
Following the kidnapping of CBC reporter Melissa Fung in Afghanistan in 2008, the CBC hired former military officer Harris Silver as the manager of high-risk deployment to formalize health and safety procedures and practices for journalists in the field. Before sending correspondents to the conflict in Gaza, Silver says a risk assessment would look at major threats, access to medical assistance, evacuation and how to maintain communication between the desk and the correspondent. Although Gaza may be a dangerous place for reporters, it may be less dangerous than more remote locations are, since a journalist would have better access to a quality medical facility nearby, Whitten suggests.
Judith Matloff, professor with Columbia Journalism School in New York, says the nature of risks and the corresponding measures to mitigate them vary from country to country. “There is such a wide gamut of violence and specific types of violence,” says Matloff, who has also worked as a safety trainer for various organizations. “If you work in Mexico, the biggest thing you are probably going to be worried about is your information and your movements being tracked, so you really need cyber-security. In a place like Afghanistan, cyber-security is not important; what is more [important] is how you navigate a road to avoid kidnapping.”
Silver has worked with the CBC to develop a hostile-environment assignment process and oversee safety training, which includes a one-hour online travel-awareness course, a full-day domestic-operations course (for situations such as mass protests, natural disasters, train derailments and chemical spills) and a more intensive four-to-five-day course on surviving hostile regions. Whitten says the CBC is constantly conducting simulations. Reporters returning from overseas assignments also have access to counselling services and a critical-incident response team if needed.
Whitten notes that it is rare for the public broadcaster to deploy freelancers to hostile regions, but when they do, they rely on those individuals to have the local knowledge to keep them safe. “It is just that when we use people, they are generally already inside the situation, so the onus would be less on us in those cases,” he claims.
Tightening the Belt
Over the last decade, the traditional economic model for journalism has been crumbling, with organizations relying more heavily on freelancers rather than on staff correspondents. These freelancers are often young, fresh out of school and trying to launch their careers by making names for themselves from abroad, since they cannot find work in news organizations back home.
Tom Henheffer, executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression in Toronto, says the changing landscape in which the media industry operates has a ripple effect on the safety of journalists operating in foreign lands. The cutback on investment in foreign bureaus by news organizations is one example. “When you have got a bureau, you have got an established presence, which is much more safe as opposed to working out of a hotel room,” Henheffer notes.
He points out that “parachute journalism” — the practice of dropping a reporter into a country for a relatively short period of time to file a story and leave — puts the journalist in great peril. “When you are in a country that you know and are familiar with, that helps relieve some of the danger,” Henheffer says. But when a reporter who does not speak the native language, is not familiar with the culture or lacks local contacts goes into a conflict zone, it is a lot more dangerous.
“What happens is that the responsibility for safety gets downloaded onto the freelancer, who is the least capable of dealing with it,” says Cliff Lonsdale, president of Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma (CJFVT) in London, Ontario. Lonsdale adds that he does not know of any freelancer who owns a car and knows of only a few who own bulletproof vests and helmets.
Ali Mustafa was 29 years old when he was killed in a barrel-bomb attack in Aleppo, Syria, earlier this year. The freelance photojournalist and writer had been covering the social movements that had erupted during the Arab Spring and the ensuing repression across the region. Syria was the deadliest country for journalists in 2014, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based non-profit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide. During the year starting from September 2013, 12 journalists were killed there, five of whom were freelancers.
Mustafa was getting amazing shots, but nobody wanted his work until he got into the most dangerous places, claims Datejie Green, Toronto-based labour organizer with the Canadian Media Guild’s freelance branch. At that point, news agencies began buying Mustafa’s photos, but did nothing to ensure his safety, adds Green, who knew Mustafa.
“The institution or the company, by virtue of hiring or contracting those people as freelancers gig-to-gig or story-to-story, has no legal obligation to them whatsoever and doesn’t want to have any,” Green says.
Freelance journalist Jesse Rosenfeld, who had met Mustafa in Egypt, wrote in April that Mustafa had “felt that reporting from Syria was the best way to make a more stable income and bolster his career. The choice of taking extreme risks for a paycheck is often a necessity of working as a freelancer in conflict zones.” The article commemorating Mustafa was published in the independent Canadian magazine The Dominion.
On Your Own
When local journalists and freelancers are hired to report from conflict zones, they usually do not have institutional backing, which includes full-risk insurance that would cover medical, life, property and ransom insurance, proper safety training and protective equipment (such as satellite phones, safety boots, flakjackets and helmets). Sometimes, they do not even have access to translators and fixers (locals hired by correspondents to make arrangements for stories).
Without a well-placed, institutionally-supported exit plan, Green says journalists may not enjoy the type of consular access and political support that they might need, in terms of press freedom and support from security forces. And if someone reporting in a conflict zone is not seen as a legitimate reporter, “people don’t trust why you are there, and you could be assumed to be a participant in the conflict,” she cautions.
While Canadian media outlets have clear legal responsibilities to adhere to occupational health and safety standards for staff reporters operating abroad, their obligations to freelance and contract workers are murkier. Henheffer notes that when freelance reporters get arrested, they often do not have legal representation from their media organizations’ lawyers. “A lot of organizations — certainly not all — they don’t feel that they need to support them when they get into trouble.”
This situation has led to some international news outlets instituting policies barring reports from freelancers in hot spots, such as Syria. Green thinks that such a position is irresponsible, as the world has an obligation to report on international events in which people are dying en masse.
“I understand that they want to keep their freelancers safe,” Green concedes. But if a single newspaper makes that call independently without communicating with the International Federation of Journalists, journalist associations in the Middle East or the people who are largely accountable for the profession, “then they really are just taking their marbles and going home.”
The CJFVT is trying to fill this safety gap with financial support from news organizations and individual donors. Since 2011, the Forum has been offering safety-training bursaries to freelance journalists working for Canadian media outlets. This year, eight out of 16 applicants were awarded funding — the highest number ever.
Then and Now
But is it not the responsibility of news organizations to protect and train the journalists they hire?
“I think it is unrealistic,” Lonsdale says. “They may use somebody twice in a year. Do you want them to spend $5,000 on a training course for them?” Instead, he suggests that media organizations contribute to a fund that provides support to the freelancers who need it most.
Lonsdale, now a journalism professor at Western University in London, Ontario, has more than 40 years of experience working as a producer and reporter in news stations, such as the CBC’s radio and television divisions and the Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation in what is now Zimbabwe. At the age of 16, he landed his first gig covering the war as a freelancer in what was then the Republic of the Congo in the early 1960s.
“In those days, I was really stupid. I hitchhiked into it. I had no training. I am blundering around. I had no accreditation. I had no protective gear, but nobody did in those days except the soldiers.” Lonsdale recounts. “But if you held up your hands and said, ‘Hey, I’m a journalist,’ the chances were that whoever was pointing a gun at you would say, ‘Oh, come here. Let me tell you my story, tell our side of the story,’” he observes. “They don’t do that anymore. They are already telling it their way on social media, and they see you as a threat.”
As a CBC News producer in the London Bureau in the ’80s, Lonsdale became close to reporters covering conflicts across the Middle East. He witnessed those friends returning from assignments in terrible condition, going on three-day benders at the bar. “That sort of thing stays with you.”
Such memories motivated Lonsdale to advocate for better safety protection for the next generation of frontline journalists. As recently as two decades ago, a macho attitude surrounded the profession, but Lonsdale suggests that has since changed. “I think in most newsrooms now, you could raise the issue of safety at an editorial meeting and not be laughed out of the room.”
Witnessing violence and taking in the deaths of those around one takes a toll on even the most seasoned war correspondents. Dr. Anthony Feinstein, professor in the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry, notes that the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is cumulative and the rate of this disorder is quite high among those who have been covering conflicts for more than 10 years.
“The group that I studied about 10 years back, they have been doing it for an average of about 15 years and they had a rate of PTSD that was very close to what you would see in combat veterans,” which hovers around 20 per cent, Dr. Feinstein reports.
On Home Ground
Jesse Freeston, a Montreal-based freelance videojournalist and documentary filmmaker known for exposing fraud in the 2009 Honduran election, has covered confrontations between police and protesters across El Salvador, Honduras and North America. In one instance, a police officer in Honduras threatened Freeston with his gun when the filmmaker approached to interview a land owner who was being evicted.
“That was a very calm situation,” he recounts. “I was just asking for an interview, and he came over and pointed his gun at me and said, ‘There is no interview here.’”
Freeston walked away from that encounter unscathed, but the most tense situation he encountered occurred when he was in his home country, covering the protests against the G20 summit in Toronto in 2010. A man whose hearing was impaired was passing the street protests when he was arrested by police, as he could not hear their orders to move off the sidewalk. Freeston was attempting to film the entanglement, when the cops forcefully threw him onto a line of police bicycles, and one officer punched Freeston twice square in the face. When Freeston attempted to ask why he had been assaulted, police began ramming their bicycles into his groin and an officer grabbed his microphone.
“I think it is pretty much the only time I have had my equipment taken from me like that while I was working,” Freeston says. He caught the incident on camera and broadcast it online on The Real News Network.
Despite being put in harm’s way on multiple occasions while doing his job, Freeston has not given much consideration to safety training, although he acknowledges that it might be helpful to attend a course.
He does, however, worry about protecting his local sources after anti-mining activist Marcelo Rivera — an interview subject whom Freeston was close to — disappeared in El Salvador and was found dead two weeks later in a well with his fingernails ripped out — a typical marker of torture.
Indeed, locals are most at risk in reporting scenarios. Of the 61 journalists and support staff reported killed in the first half of the year, most were working in their home countries, reports the London, United Kingdom-based International News Safety Institute, a charity-funded coalition of news organizations, journalist support groups and individuals committed to creating a global safety network for media personnel working in dangerous environments.
“It has become dangerous to be a journalist that way, because in many of these countries, there is a climate of impunity,” Lonsdale says. “It is very, very rare that anybody gets prosecuted for killing a journalist. So it is a cheap form of censorship,” he suggests.
Ring of Risk
Daniel Otis had been working as a freelance writer in Cambodia and Burma for two years without any formal training before receiving a CJFVT bursary in 2013. At the time, his portfolio boasted shadowing a landmine-clearance team along the Cambodian-Thai frontier for The Globe and Mail, sneaking into Burma’s beleaguered Rakhine state to report on the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims for the Toronto Star and spending a week on patrol with a team of armed forest rangers in southwestern Cambodia for the Southeast Asia Globe.
One of Otis’ scariest encounters happened while covering a demonstration in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in September 2013. The police opened fire on unarmed protesters with automatic rifles. As protesters responded with rocks and the police retreated, Otis found himself snapping photos while sandwiched between the protesters and the cops.
Otis, who did not have any reporting experience, says he moved to Southeast Asia to cut his teeth. “I guess my thinking there was, Canadian media has no presence in that part of the world. So instead of doing a lowly unpaid internship, I figured I would just head out there and see if I could make it.”
Upon returning to Toronto, Otis landed a year-long paid internship with the Toronto Star and hopes to continue conflict reporting in the future. He says he was motivated to do the safety training not so much to protect himself, but to protect others.
“The reality is that when you are operating in dangerous places, you are also endangering other people — whether it be the photographers you use, the drivers you are working with, the fixers, the interpreters, the interview subjects. So safety isn’t just about personal safety.”
He illustrates by citing an example of himself writing a politically controversial story in Burma. “If I get apprehended, they will deport me. But my fixers, my drivers, my interpreters, they will disappear.”
In Britain, Otis attended a course administered by security service company AKE. In the course, he received first-aid training on how to stabilize someone who has sustained physical trauma, underwent general safety training on weapon identification and learned how to respond to attacks and hostage situations. He thinks that training is important because it teaches journalists how to take care of the people who help them do their work.
Staying safe when reporting in a foreign land is one thing; coming back mentally unscathed is another. To address the psychological trauma that journalists returning from war zones may face, Dr. Feinstein has developed a cost-free website that offers surveys for journalists to fill out and assess their general levels of mental health.
“I think education is very important. So if a journalist knows what the risks are and what the symptoms are, they might be better able to recognize it,” he says.
Since Feinstein conducted a study 14 years ago on the emotional toll of reporting from war zones, newsrooms have improved in this regard. He believes that CNN and the BBC are two networks that are doing a good job by educating news managers and journalists about potential risks, providing access to confidential counselling services once journalists return from assignments and bringing in professionals to discuss warning signs indicative of mental-health issues and the appropriate courses of action that can be taken.
There will always be journalists who want to report from dangerous regions, Feinstein says. “Thankfully, that is the case, because they keep us informed and it is very important work,” he notes. “But I think for journalists to do it well, they have to be healthy. And healthy journalist doesn’t just mean physical health; it also means psychological health.”
Carmelle Wolfson is assistant editor of OHS CANADA.
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It is getting more dangerous for reporters to do their jobs, says Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma president Cliff Lonsdale from London, Ontario. “It used to be that journalists got killed in war zones accidentally. Now, it is deliberate.”
The advent of the Internet is a contributing factor. “The correspondent in the field now has to be really conscious of cyber-security,” Lonsdale advises. “You can get people killed really easily by not encrypting the material on your laptop.” He cautions that authorities who take away journalists’ laptops at customs can be downloading all their contacts, including anonymous sources.
While New York-based Columbia Journalism School professor Judith Matloff believes that the profession is not any more dangerous now than it was 30 years ago, she agrees that cyber-security is an added threat. “I think mobile technology and the Internet have created a new form of danger with social media, which is digital surveillance.”
There are numerous ways in which media employees can secure their communications, depending on who may be targeting them and what that person or institution wants to get from them. Encryption, password protection, avoiding Internet cafes or simply not using the Internet at all are all options, Matloff says. But in some countries like Pakistan, encryption cannot be used, as it is outlawed. “You have to adapt it to where you are and what your actual risk [is].”
While the best way for freelance journalists in conflict zones to shield themselves from harm is to be well-prepared, safety measures like protective equipment, security training or health and life insurance can be cost-prohibitive. In North America, attending a five-day course on surviving hostile regions with United Kingdom-based security service firm AKE costs a hefty $4,200.
That said, resources that can assist reporters do exist. Each year, the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma offers the Forum Freelance Fund. Freelancers working for Canadian news outlets can apply for bursaries of up to $2,500 to attend training courses on hazardous environments. In the United Kingdom, the Rory Peck Training Fund also provides similar bursaries to freelancers working overseas.
Securing health and disability insurance is another challenge faced by many journalists, notes the Journalist Security Guide from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based non-profit organization. “A surprising number of journalists, from community radio reporters working in less-developed nations to war photojournalists working for major Western media, routinely work with little or no health insurance,” the guide states.
The CPJ recommends that staff journalists thoroughly review policies, contract journalists negotiate for coverage and freelance journalists research plans that fit their needs. For journalists working internationally, Reporters Without Borders — a Paris-based international, non-profit organization that defends freedom of information and the press — in collaboration with Quebec-based insurer World Escapade Travel Insurance, offers insurance plans at competitive rates, according to the CPJ. The Canadian Media Guild is also working on providing freelancers with training and insurance.