Preparing for Battle  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 2002

Preparing for Battle   

American news organizations lag behind some of their European counterparts when it comes to providing survival training and drafting safety guidelines for war correspondents. A group of journalists is pushing to narrow the gap.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

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   » Safety Standards

Photojournalist Yannis Behrakis knows it was sheer luck that the hail of bullets didn't tear into his body as rebels sprang out of the bush, firing wildly. Within seconds, two journalists traveling with him in a hellhole known as Rogberi Junction in war-ravaged Sierra Leone were dead.

Behrakis found himself trapped in a real-life version of Gene Hackman's gripping movie "Behind Enemy Lines." Only this time, the prey being hunted was a seasoned Reuters war photographer instead of a highly skilled American fighter pilot downed in Bosnia.

For three tortuous hours, the photojournalist eluded the gunmen, smearing himself with dirt and leaves to blend into the thick bush. He reasoned that if there were booby traps or antipersonnel mines--common weapons in the vicious civil war--they most likely would be planted along jungle paths frequented by humans. Behrakis opted for more difficult routes as gunfire erupted around him.

Elements of the grueling hostile-environment training he'd had two years earlier kicked in. "It saved my life," Behrakis later wrote to the former British Royal Marine commando who engineered the course.

Reuters TV cameraman Mark Chisholm, who also survived the attack and eluded capture in the bush, echoed that sentiment. "Nothing could have prevented the ambush from happening," Chisholm said in the aftermath. But when they were on the run, "The course saved our lives."

Two noted war correspondents, reporter Kurt Schork of Reuters, a Washington, D.C., native, and Miguel Gil Moreno, a Spanish cameraman with the Associated Press, were killed on a pockmarked red-dirt road that government soldiers had deemed safe as the journalists drove past front lines toward a remote diamond mine. Four of their military escorts died with them (see Free Press, July 2000).

Behrakis and Chisholm were quick to say that without their training the toll easily could have been four journalists dead on May 24, 2000.

Yet, the kind of safety instruction the two journalists credit with helping them avoid capture has been an afterthought for most news organizations. The notion of survival skills and safety guidelines has been slow to catch on with top media managers in the United States. In Europe, the BBC, ITN and Reuters mandate training for foreign correspondents. It has taken an era of international terrorism to spark a stronger push on the home front.

The murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan was a grisly wake-up call (see "Dangerous Journalism," April). So was the declaration from al Qaeda terrorists that it is a religious duty to kill Americans.

How do news operations continue their commitment to front-line coverage and reduce risks to their journalists in the field at the same time?

A small global network of media leaders and practitioners--some who themselves have been held hostage, imprisoned or attacked--has kept safety issues on the front burner at conferences and international forums. CNN, with 300 correspondents roaming the globe at any given time, has taken the lead, along with the BBC, in pushing for the development of industry standards.

Chris Cramer, president of CNN's International Networks, calls it "criminal" and "a disgrace to the profession" when editors send staff into harm's way without proper training, protective gear or clear guidelines on how far to push into danger zones in pursuit of a photograph or story.

"There are media organizations who refuse to confront the issue, refuse to spend the money on keeping their staff safe. My message to them is quite simple: They should be ashamed of themselves," says Cramer, who began pitching the notion of hostile-environment training while with the BBC in the 1990s.

"Whether we like it or not, we are now seen as legitimate targets by an increasing number of individuals and factions around the world. And the trend can only get worse," he warns. "Journalists are more in harm's way than ever before."

The sense of urgency accelerated after September 11, when the war on terrorism spread to Central Asia and the Middle East. Eight journalists were killed in Afghanistan during the first months of the fighting. One was gunned down during the Israeli invasion of the West Bank, and, according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, at least 20 were wounded by Palestinian and Israeli forces.

The murder of Danny Pearl signaled a heightened level of risk. Terrorists who make a career of killing were viewing members of the press corps as political pawns. Along with relief workers, terrorism experts list journalists among the ranks of "soft targets"--far easier to grab than diplomats and CEOs surrounded by bodyguards and ensconced in armored cars. Pearl's executioners knew they could command an international spotlight and a place in history.

In the post-Cold War era, foreign correspondents have faced an escalation of savage civil conflicts. The Balkans, Chechnya and Sierra Leone are prime examples. In conflicts like these, atrocities against civilians are the rule of the day. Combatants, often bandits and warlords, are more likely to be undisciplined and hostile toward Westerners. In Somalia, for instance, the press corps faced 14-year-olds brandishing automatic weapons.

The time has come for the profession to adapt to changed circumstances, says Newsweek diplomatic correspondent Roy Gutman, who has been among those pushing for more explicit standards. "Small wars, such as in Bosnia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, mask great horrors," says Gutman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1993. "We should be reporting on them even if our political leaders say they see nothing at stake. They can be, and often are, wrong. The only way we'll know is if we cover them. But if we do, the risks are real, and we have to be better prepared."

Once, foreign correspondents, like Red Cross workers, were protected by an aura of neutrality. But that has changed as anti-American sentiment has spread throughout the globe, says Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess. Today, journalists are less likely to be considered noncombatants or objective professionals. But Hess believes it will take a cultural change in newsrooms for safety standards to take hold. "It's not part of the journalistic personality," he says.

However, in some places, the evolution is well under way. John Owen, director of the Freedom Forum's European office before it closed last year, sees "a huge amount of progress" compared with six years ago, when the BBC and ITN were among the only ones paying serious attention to safety issues. "Sadly, change again has been triggered by the death of a prominent journalist," Owen says.

In the wake of the Sierra Leone killings, Reuters instituted a policy that no journalist can go to a conflict zone without state-of-the-art training such as that offered by former British military specialists. The two dominant companies are AKE Group Ltd. and Centurion Risk Assessment Services, which also offers training in Woodstock, Virginia. (See "School for Survival," November 1998, and Free Press, August 2001.)

Rodney Pinder, the BBC's editor for video news, stresses what he calls "a most important point" to his staff: "News managers must guarantee the correspondent or cameraman the right to say no--to refuse to go into a dangerous situation or to withdraw from one on one's own initiative without consultation and with no fear of criticism or career damage. Our obligation is to provide the best available training, equipment, insurance and counseling and to protect the exposed journalist from competitive pressures."

Newspapers have been much slower to catch on. The Los Angeles Times has no written policy about safety in war zones, says its foreign editor, Simon K.C. Li, though it provides bulletproof vests and armored vehicles when correspondents request them. As far as he knows, only one correspondent has had hostile-environment training. "But it is my hope that we will send the rest, veterans and newcomers alike," he says. "The hurdles are money and time."

There are no formal guidelines at the Washington Post, says foreign correspondent Douglas Farah. "I don't find the editors at the Post closed to the idea at all but struggling with the moral, ethical and financial implications," adds the reporter, who sees the biggest question as: How far do you go?

"Do you train everyone on the foreign staff and people who are wanting to go overseas or go on short notice to hotspots like the Middle East or Afghanistan?" he asks. "We have had a lot of people going on relatively short assignments to fill the new holes in coverage as the worldwide crisis multiplies. So, who should be trained, when would you do it, and how much would it cost? These all seem to be factors in the mix."

USA Today has safety guidelines and offers hostile-environment training to foreign correspondents, says Editor Karen Jurgensen. "We think we need to go further and are in the process of creating a more extensive policy," she says. "At USA Today, it is a work in progress. We still are inventing our culture."

Jurgensen keeps a spent shell casing on her desk, a memento from a reporter who returned from tough duty in Afghanistan. "My position now is that everyone who goes should be trained," she says.

In a column on the safety of journalists, David Jones, foreign editor of the Washington Times, described how one of his deputy editors spent 12 weeks in Pakistan and Afghanistan last fall with no formal security training and with a flak jacket that he was afraid to wear because the camouflage pattern made him look like an American soldier.

On one occasion, the editor and a photographer were traveling in a convoy just 15 minutes behind two cars that were pulled over by gunmen along the Jalalabad-Kabul route. Four journalists in those vehicles were shot to death that day, last November 19. The Times is creating guidelines, and Jones says he is scrutinizing his travel budget "to make sure the next reporters we send into harm's way are better prepared to deal with whatever dangers they face."

A call to New York Times Foreign Editor Roger Cohen was returned by Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty. She would say only that the paper has safety policies, "but we don't discuss them at all."

On the heels of the Sierra Leone killings, members of the foreign press corps gathered to discuss setting standards and defining obligations to front-line journalists. During a September 2000 meeting in London, Christiane Amanpour, CNN's chief international correspondent, listed the most important items: insurance, safety training, protective equipment, support and counseling. "These are the basic issues that should be set in stone and are not," Amanpour said.

Among standards discussed at the London meeting: No story or piece of video is worth getting killed for, and there should be no distinction between staff and freelancers when it comes to employers fulfilling responsibilities.

Two months later, Associated Press-TV, the BBC, CNN, ITN and Reuters formed the News Security Group to set common guidelines to protect their journalists working in dangerous places. Since then, CBS, ABC and NBC News have joined. (All three networks pay for safety training.) At the November 2000 meeting, Richard Sambrook, deputy head of news for the BBC, called the cooperation among competitors "unprecedented" in the industry.

In an International Press Institute report last year, Robert Tait, editor in chief of ITN, wrote: "The development of powerful corporate media groups, which do have real global influence, gives us the opportunity to use that influence for good. Safety is everyone's concern, from the newsroom to the boardroom and the governments of the world."

One major network, Fox News, has no formal guidelines or safety training requirements. "We are, however, planning on providing both. Our human resources people at headquarters in New York have been working on this for some time," says Kim Hume, Fox News' Washington bureau chief. "My impression is that there is a real push to get this done as quickly as possible."

When it comes to safety consciousness in the field, CNN is the high roller. So far, 150 correspondents have been through the weeklong exercise with London's AKE, a group that also has supplied security consultants to CNN crews in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Somalia. The consultants manage, maintain and transport the network's fleet of armored vehicles and design special protective gear, including lightweight flak jackets for staff in war zones.

Do the security agents travel with guns? "They don't routinely carry weapons, but we really don't want to go into detail. There are extraordinary situations where that might be required," says Eason Jordan, CNN's chief news executive and newsgathering president. An AKE security consultant is scheduled to be on duty at the network's Atlanta headquarters in the near future to provide risk assessment advice for CNN crews operating in perilous terrain.

CNN's multimillion-dollar commitment came after a series of mishaps. In 1993 in Somalia, the network lost seven workers, including five in one day. "They were Somalis, but they were just as much a part of the CNN team as staff of any nationality," says Jordan. "I don't make a distinction."

Then, a camerawoman lost her lower jaw, teeth and part of her tongue when she was shot in the face in Sarajevo, and a cameraman was struck in the neck by glass during a mortar attack.

Earlier this year, Jordan was thumbing through his Rolodex when he noticed a business card from Daniel Pearl, who at one time was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal's bureau in Atlanta. "I have it sitting on my desk right now as we speak," Jordan says. "I'll always keep it there."

But not everyone is jumping on the safety training bandwagon. Loren Jenkins, foreign editor for National Public Radio, says there might be a bit of an overreaction. "We learn at the feet of people with the most experience. That's the way it still works in the field," says Jenkins, who won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting in the Middle East.

"There is a terrific generosity and sharing of experience and information. Everyone sort of feels it is their duty to pass on what they know to their greener colleagues."

Does NPR supply safety equipment? "Oh, yes, up to a point," says Jenkins. "But we're still public radio. We can't afford what CNN does--bulletproof Jeeps at $90,000 a whack. We provide what is necessary within reason." He is not ruling anything out. "I've got an open mind. I think for the new generation, [safety training] might not be a bad thing."

In April, news executives and foreign correspondents gathered at a National Press Club forum in Washington, D.C., to explore the topic "Dangerous assignments: The imperative of personal safety training for journalists." On one side of the podium were former Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson, who spent seven years as a hostage of Shiite Muslim radicals in Lebanon, and CNN's Chris Cramer, held hostage during a 1980 Iranian Embassy siege in London. On the other side were Robert Klamser, cofounder of Crisis Consulting International, and Charles Rogers, director of corporate security for World Vision, which employs 400 U.S. citizens in 103 countries. The two direct safety training for hundreds of relief workers through role-playing and demonstrating safety skills that could mean the difference between life and death.

At times, the scenarios are designed to terrify. Participants end up gasping for breath under thick black hoods, as make-believe terrorists hiss threats and streams of questions. "Are you a spy for the CIA? Why did you come here? Who are you working for?" They learn how to spot land mines and booby traps and to tell the difference between incoming and outgoing mortar rounds.

Participants learn how to assess threat levels and create contingency and escape plans--unfamiliar skills to most journalists.

Klamser, who has been a hostage negotiator for 23 years, offers a grim assessment of what the future holds: "The risks will increase. Not only are you soft targets; you are attractive targets, because terrorism is about changing opinions," he says. "Using the leverage of a journalist as victim is one way to do it." He says change requires the commitment of top managers.

For instance, Klamser urges the establishment of "trigger points"--specific events that mean it's time to get out--before workers go into hazardous locations. "By default, whether we are journalists or relief workers, we always want to stay. It is important for workers in hazardous situations to establish trigger points that mandate evacuation or withdrawal when dangerous events occur and when those events occur, to follow through."

At times, the danger in places like Pakistan or the West Bank escalates gradually and is difficult to detect. "We tolerate these changes in a way we wouldn't if they came in bigger chunks," says the former police officer. Contingency plans need to be worked out in advance. "You don't wait for bullets to come through the window," Klamser says.

Years ago, when relief workers were being abducted and murdered in places like Rwanda, Kosovo and Congo, agencies turned to the security plans of business executives operating abroad and military personnel to learn how to reduce risks. Rogers has established an office of corporate security to provide practical support and resources to staff working in moderate-to-high-risk zones.

There was a consensus at the National Press Club forum that some of what works at World Vision and other humanitarian aid agencies might be tailored to fit newsrooms.

Before he left for a month's duty in Afghanistan, USA Today correspondent Mark Memmott received hostile-environment training from Centurion. In May, he sent a memo to the newsroom about how the skills he learned were helping. No, he had not been in any life-threatening scenarios. But he knew how to plan ahead for everything from unsafe food and water to land mines and plunging temperatures as he roamed the rugged terrain. He carried a first-aid kit, flak jacket and a global positioning satellite receiver, so, if disaster struck, he would know his exact location.

"I'm glad I took the training. As I'm here longer and as I see how other reporters are operating, I grow even more aware of how valuable it was," Memmott wrote.

Back in the newsroom, World Editor Elisa Tinsley sighed with relief when she read his message. "I personally take it so seriously," she says. "My anxiety level on a daily basis goes so high because I feel responsible for these people."

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