Two and a half months into the war on terrorism, eight journalists had been murdered, many had been injured, and several had been held hostage. At this writing, a few American soldiers had been killed. This comparison led the British journalist Phillip Knightley to observe: “It is now safer to be a member of the fighting forces than a representative of the media. What’s going on?”

No journalist, however experienced or well trained to work in a conflict zone, can feel secure working in lawless parts of Afghanistan where armed gangs or defectors from the Taliban will rob and murder them. It is how Swedish cameraman Ulf Stroemberg lost his life, when gunmen burst into the home where he and other Swedish journalists were staying in a Northern Afghanistan town.

But could the lives of other journalists have been spared had they made other judgments? The experience of a British journalist who undertook a dangerous assignment is worth examining more closely.

When Yvonne Ridley, a British reporter working for the Sunday Express tabloid newspaper, was arrested by the Taliban for illegally entering Afghanistan, she assumed that the greater journalistic community would rally around her. After all, Ridley would say later, she was trying to “put a human face on the demonized Afghans.”

Ridley, disguised as an Afghan woman, had nearly pulled off her journalistic coup. She had succeeded in making the journey from Pakistan across the border and was by her reckoning a 20-minute donkey ride away from returning with her scoop when her donkey bolted and startled her. Ridley momentarily lost control, shouted in English, and was promptly spotted by the Taliban police.

For her struggling newspaper with plunging circulation, the Ridley escapade did grab headlines and put her on the BBC newscasts. But it also tied up British diplomats who, allied with the United States, were about to begin bombing Afghanistan. It was a distraction that Blair’s Labor government did not appreciate.

Remarkably enough, Ridley did survive and was eventually released unharmed by the Taliban. But instead of accolades, Ridley received brickbats from other British editors who had refused to allow their correspondents to do a “John Simpson”—the veteran BBC war correspondent who, along with his cameraman, had donned burkas and snuck into Afghanistan for their exclusive reports.

At the BBC, probably the world’s most safety conscious news organization, the Simpson assignment had been discussed and debated before he’d been given a green light. Although one senior BBC news executive later told me he did have grave reservations about the assignment, he did in the end acquiesce, as Simpson, who had covered countless wars and had come under attack in Baghdad during the Gulf War, was adamant that he could pull it off. Simpson also had decades of experience reporting on Afghanistan and knows the country and its people exceptionally well.

Ridley, on the other hand, was rushed off to Pakistan without any of the standard equipment that newspapers and broadcasters were equipping their correspondents with—no laptop, no satellite phone, and none of the protective gear that she would need if she ventured out of Islamabad. Nor could she have had time to get the needed anti-hepatitis shots and water purification pills and kit that would protect her against malaria and other potentially life-threatening diseases. When her editors encouraged her undercover assignment across the border, they advised her to leave behind her passport and any other identification. Other editors were particularly appalled by that absence of judgment.

The Ridley experience points out the high risks that irresponsible news organizations are prepared to take to get an exclusive story, especially in Britain, one of the most cutthroat and competitive news markets in the world. But it also points out that many editors and news executives are now unwilling to have their reporters—especially those camped out with the Northern Alliance—push themselves beyond what is already a grueling battle daily to survive the elements. The Daily Telegraph’s foreign editor, Alec Russell, was scathing in his criticism of the Sunday Express. In a damning piece about the Ridley “folly” in The Guardian newspaper, Russell was quoted describing it as “unbelievably foolish…a crazy thing to do.”

While Ridley escaped the Taliban and wrote about her experience, her local “fixers” will be lucky to escape with their lives. In a radio interview, Ridley was asked about whether she felt guilty about their arrest. She said that she was concerned but that they, like the others swarming around journalists in Islamabad, knew that in order to get paid hundreds of American dollars they could be risking their lives.

That explanation is not good enough for British safety trainer Andrew Kain. Kain is the founding director of AKE, one of the leading firms that conduct “hostile environment” training courses for journalists in Britain, the United States, and on the ground in Northern Afghanistan. Kain argues that international journalists must be “accountable”; that they have a special responsibility toward the local journalists or fixers upon whom they depend in conflict zones. Kain dismisses Ridley’s explanation that these fixers know what they are getting into when they accept these assignments. “They live in abject poverty so of course they are willing to take these risks,” Kain observes. He thinks that it is shameful that Ridley’s newspaper hasn’t “lobbied at the highest levels” to secure the release of the fixers who could now be dead.

The Ridley caper will make a perfect case study in Kain’s courses and those taught by the other leading safety training firms including the U.K.-based Centurion whose director, Paul Rees, an ex-Royal Marine, estimates has EDITOR’S NOTE:
Read more about these training programs »
can be trained over 7,500 journalists since it introduced its courses outside of London in 1995. When Rees and Kain began their courses, the idea that journalists should be taught how to behave in war zones was anathema to many of them who accepted the conventional wisdom that the only way to become an experienced war correspondent was to be thrown into a conflict zone and learn the hard way.

This is a view still held by the foreign editor of National Public Radio, Loren Jenkins, who was a superb foreign correspondent who received a Pulitzer Prize for reporting in the Middle East. Jenkins and NPR don’t require their budding correspondents to go through these safety training and first-aid courses. In an e-mailed response to a request for a statement I could use to explain his attitude, Jenkins said: “Do I think such courses are invaluable? I personally am not convinced. Coming from a generation of war correspondents that cut our teeth in the Mekong Delta, the Golan Heights, and places like Beirut and El Salvador, I have always believed that common sense—not military training—is the best guide to war correspondence.”

Jenkins and NPR are clearly out of step with the overwhelming consensus among international broadcasters and many leading newspapers about the value of the training courses. Chris Cramer, the president of CNN International who is credited with making safety training courses mandatory at BBC News when he headed its newsgathering, singled out NPR for refusing to sign a code of practice that was agreed to by other major news organizations including Reuters, The Associated Press, CNN, BBC, ITN, CBC and the big three American networks. This code was finalized in London at the European Center of The Freedom Forum after the shocking deaths in Sierra Leone in May 1999 of two of the best and most experienced agency journalists—Kurt Schork of Reuters and Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora of APTV (Associated Press Television News).

The code of practice commits the broadcasters and agencies (so far no newspapers have signed up) to putting staff, freelancers and local hires through the hostile environments training course; to providing adequate insurance; to equipping everyone with protective flak jackets and other gear; and to offering counseling for any post-conflict trauma difficulties. In the first in-depth study of psychological effects of war on journalists, Anthony Feinstein of the University of Toronto found that nearly 30 percent of frontline journalists experienced some levels of trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (The Freedom Forum European Center underwrote the study.)

Cramer acknowledges that covering wars and conflicts will always be “inherently risky” but points out that “fire services personnel don’t go fighting fires without proper training and equipment; the armed services don’t do that and neither do members of the police or emergency services.” Cramer becomes enraged when he thinks about broadcast or print executives who fail to make this training available to their war correspondents.

Most importantly, the training has now spread to local journalists who, far more than traveling international journalists, are in constant threat in their countries. An estimated 90 percent of the journalists killed—or more accurately, murdered—each year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, are targeted for what they have reported or published. As one of its first acts, the new Kurt Schork Memorial Foundation, backed by Reuters, brought more than a dozen local journalists from around the world to the United Kingdom to enroll them in the weeklong safety training course.

Centurion’s Paul Rees points to the training of more than 250 Latin American journalists. There is heavy emphasis on how to conduct themselves if kidnapped, as so many journalists in Colombia have been during the past few decades. Earlier this year, working with IREX, the U.S.-financed training group, AKE’s Kain trained more than 100 Macedonian journalists about the time that country was teetering toward civil war. African and Asian journalists are also getting access to the training, but on a far more limited scale.

Beyond preparing journalists for war zones and caring for them after they return, the journalistic community is also waking up to its responsibility to act collectively in a far more aggressive fashion to pursue any government, regime, or military group that harms a journalist. The International Press Institute and its aggressive vice chairman, ITN Editor in Chief Richard Tait, has spearheaded missions to countries where journalists have been killed and assaulted. And the Paris-based journalist rights’ group, Reporters sans Frontières, has created what it is calling the “Damocles Network” that will deploy prominent journalists, international criminal law experts, and human rights activists to investigate the unsolved murders of journalists, the overwhelming number of whom are local reporters and editors who dared publish or broadcast stories that exposed corrupt politicians or organized crime bosses. These efforts to bring the killers of journalists to justice are aimed at ending any feelings of impunity. They are also aimed at helping the families of dead journalists achieve some closure—to help them feel that their loved ones did not die in vain.

In Croatia this past September—days before the horror of September 11—the widow and father of BBC correspondent John Schofield, six years after he was shot by Croatian troops while covering events in the Krajina, were handed a final report documenting how he was killed. The report neither satisfied the BBC nor the family as it accused the BBC crew of being in an unauthorized area and failing to heed a warning from jumpy Croat soldiers who stuck to their claim that they thought the BBC group could be Serbs.

But then the Croatian government did something that, if not unprecedented, is certainly highly unusual: It joined the BBC and Schofield’s widow, Susan, and father, Patrick, in unveiling a plaque on the spot on a remote, picturesque country road where the exhaustive investigation had determined that the 29-year-old correspondent had been killed.

In the end the report, however flawed, and the ceremony honoring John Schofield helped his family come to terms with his death. It may be little consolation for a family that has lost a son, a sister, a parent or partner, but what happened that terrible day in August 1995 did cause the BBC and eventually much of the broadcast news industry to do everything it could to spare other families the heartbreak of loved ones dying to tell the story.

John Owen was the director of The Freedom Forum European Center from 1996 until its closure this year. He had worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for 20 years, serving as the chief news editor for CBC-TV News, London bureau chief, and chief of foreign bureaus.

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