Dying to get the news
Last year was undoubtedly one of the worst on record for deaths in our profession. Figures from the International News Safety Institute (INSI) show that the shocking total reached 167 and this enabled the organization to remind us that so many of our colleagues and those who worked with them had perished doing their jobs. So far this year, once again according to INSI, the total has reached 80 in less than five months. The latest to die were two from ABC News of America, cameraman Alaa Uldeen Aziz and soundman Saif Laith Yousuf, who were murdered when their car was ambushed in Baghdad. At this rate 2007 looks capable of topping the 2006 figure.
INSI, unlike other organizations who work alongside the media, have the sense and the sensitivity to include all those who work for the media and alongside us. They draw no artificial distinction between reporter and producer, photographer or fixer, editor or driver. We are all in pursuit of the truth.
I’m sure most of us have seen the results of the recent Global Safety Inquiry sponsored by INSI and chaired by the BBC’s Richard Sambrook. Once again it confirmed what we all feared – the last decade has been a disgusting catalogue of death, injury and intimidation for our profession.
This brings me to my point. Why are so many organizations apparently still in denial when it comes to the obvious fact that the media profession, its professionals, freelances and those who work with us are in such terrible danger? And the situation is getting worse by the day.
Our jobs have always been dangerous and most of us regard that as the price of doing business. But the attrition rate in many parts of the globe is now beyond shocking and has been all-consuming for those news managers whose job it is to assign staff and freelances to war zones or dangerous locations.
Most mature and intelligent news organizations place safety ahead of any other consideration and set aside a large proportion of their annual operating budgets in an attempt to keep their people out of harm’s way. Cash is spent on safety training – for many of us this has become mandatory before anyone is deployed – and also much is spent on safety equipment, vehicles and security personnel. Very few of us in Iraq for example operate without a veritable army of security. We don’t like it but we have no choice. Actually, we do. Without the security we would have to pull out. We know enough about how dangerous it has become without constant security to know that it would be totally insane to operate without adequate protection. Those organizations and individuals who try are either irresponsible or just plain stupid. They are risking the lives of those who work for them.
The industry leaders when it comes to safety tend, of course, to be the BBC and the agencies like Reuters and AP and broadcasters like CNN and other US networks. And, as we know, even these measures do not keep them from suffering casualties. Many of our print colleagues, either for lack of funds or misplaced bravado, are less well equipped and continue to run a serious risk that their reporters and photographers face terrible consequences. It is a complete absurdity to think that a single foreign reporter or photographer can move around in Iraq without protection. Every member of the media is at real risk in Iraq at present including, as the ABC deaths prove, local staffers. The same is true in Afghanistan, Somalia, and other flashpoints around the world. We are all equally at risk.
Of course there are some siren voices out there that suggest that if we are so at risk then we cannot possibly do the jobs we need to do. That a fortress existence in Iraq or Afghanistan or armed guards in Somalia somehow negates our ability to provide fair and impartial coverage for our readers or viewers. But this is not the case. It has to be possible for big and small organizations alike, staffers and freelancers, to find affordable security to continue to do their jobs. Maybe we should consider some kind of cooperative so that those with fewer resources can afford adequate security and safety back-up.
Passionate journalists will always find a way to provide compelling reportage. But we gain nothing from a naÃ¯ve belief that the world is like it used to be. I am afraid that the halcyon days of reporters and photographers setting off on assignment on a wing and a prayer are behind us. It is a dangerous world that we choose to cover these days and the profession needs to work harder than ever to ensure that we get there and back safely.