Yesterday, I was in a very serious FB discussion with a group of well respected journalists and others from all around the world. The subject was “does the Geneva Convention apply to the dreadful situation of kidnapped British journalist John Cantile?”
At present, John is being held by ISIL and has been shown broadcasting a story on their behalf, shot from the ISIL side of the town of Kobane on the Syrian Turkish border. We all know that journalists are no longer seen by warring factions as impartial. That terrific ability unfortunately ended quite some time ago. I have no doubt that John is shooting this story under duress and simply doing what he must to stay alive. I’m also in no doubt that given the boots on the ground factions who are fighting each other, that the Geneva Convention will not come into play given that John is reporting from within the ISIL faction.
In my last 15 years in the war torn regions of the Greater Middle East, I’ve barely seen faction v faction give any respect whatsoever to each other or anyone else, including journalists. That’s why yesterday’s FB discussion compelled me to write this post about the safety of journalists in today’s conflict areas.
I began working with journalists during the Second Intifada in Palestine back in 2002. It was a huge wake up call for me, as I naturally thought that journalists in war zones and conflict areas were well trained and hand picked for their special skills. It came as a huge surprise to me that some were not only physically unfit, but had substance abuse problems and physical disabilities. There were times then and thereafter, that eyes in your arse and a 10 second time for the 100 metres would have been very advantageous, even though impossible. Somewhere close to a decent fitness level, no substance abuse problems and no physical disabilities would be a very good start though.
Having the label “seasoned journalist” just doesn’t cut it for me. I’ve watched a handful of seasoned journalists over the years do the equivalent of jumping off a cliff to be first to a news story. Some, thankfully got away with it. Sadly, some didn’t.
It can be a very fine line sometimes for an individual, or small team of journalists to make the right decision. That’s where help is required. There is a management system in the media, whether TV, radio, print or online. I would like to see this management, senior editors, bureau chiefs etc and even the journalist on the ground overseeing his/her team, collectively work together in the decision making process, and collectively be responsible for news gathering. When it goes right, everyone can take the plaudits…but when it goes wrong…EVERYONE can shoulder their responsibilities, stand up and be held accountable.
I’d like to highlight what I see as one of many shocking examples of mismanagement, but on this occasion of a “seasoned journalist” in a conflict area. Back in early 2012, Marie Colvin, an American print journalist for a British newspaper, was killed along with French photojournalist Remi Ochlik by artillery fire brought down onto their “safe-house,” in the town of Homs, Syria. I’d known Marie since 2002 and last saw her back in 2008, when we had lunch together in central London. She was determined back then that she would continue to tell the stories around the world of men, women and children who needed the world to help them. There’s no doubt she made a difference over the years and I respected her immensely for that.
The problem that I have with her shocking death though, is accountability from her team, her managers and others, and here is why: Marie was mature, experienced and bright. She lost the sight of an eye back in 2001 covering the conflict in Sri Lanka. Most of the time she would wear an eye patch. She was also quite frail in physique. Remember what I said about eyes in your arse and the ability to shift very quickly! Whether Marie was a gallant volunteer or not, no manager should be sending a disabled individual to a conflict area.
Next, I have a massive problem with how she died. The town of Homs had been getting shelled for quite some time. Marie, her photojournalist and other co-located journalists had known that. If you’re going to go into a massively dangerous situation like that, then it’s a matter of go in, news gather and get out. Do not telegraph yourself whilst you’re in there. Marie went live by satphone or the equivalent on more than one occasion to a number of TV networks including CNN and BBC, describing the situation, that quite frankly had already been described and shown by the same networks, only through the eyes of social media.
Those network bosses in my view also had a duty of care to Marie whilst she was on the ground, as well as her own bosses. They all therefore share responsibility for compromising her location by allowing her to go live.
Had she got in, news gathered, and got out to safety, THEN gone on air and /or written up her pieces, she and the other journalist may still be alive today.
Marie’s tragic end is just one example from many, many in recent times. All journalists need each other and their management to be tough, critical, fair and accountable, in order that journalists on the ground are given every chance to news gather safely. As a security adviser to the media and others, I stopped going to these areas as my sight and hearing began to deteriorate in my mid 50s, even though I was still extremely physically fit.
Please, as managers in the media, take a good look at all of your journalists before sending them on assignment, and when they’re there on the ground, be accountable for them for the duration of the operation.
Please also remember that for every one Western journalist deployed, there are a number of local fixers, producers, drivers and others, that will be dragged along into harms way every time there’s a bad decision made.
I wish every journalist operating on the ground in conflict areas all the very best for the future. Stay safe.