How do journalists keep themselves safe in warzones?

More exposure is needed on what is going on behind the scenes of foreign reporting – between the bylines, when the cameras stop rolling.

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“How do journalists keep themselves safe in war zones? They can’t. I was taught we should never think that we are either safe or qualified to recognise all potential dangers,” says Nenad Sebek, a former BBC war correspondent. Although at least when he reported from conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo and Chechnya, he knew he was prepared as any journalist could be. He’d had extensive training with ex-Royal Marines, had all the protective gear, and was fully insured. “Not only that,” he adds, “my salary was guaranteed. I didn’t have to continually sell stories like the freelancers, who are prone to take much higher risks.”

Sebek was speaking as a part of the expert panel on Open Journalism, arranged at the end of September in Vienna by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and drawing participants from across its member states, including Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, has expressed concern for how to safeguard journalism’s ever-growing pool of voices, particularly the untrained citizen reporters and bloggers. Trying to define who are the real journalists, she says, is getting us nowhere nearer to providing greater protection.

“More media companies are now relying on freelancers – both local and foreign. There’s less training, less responsibility, and some reporters are taking increasing risks through an eagerness to be in the news, which is not their job,” says Weiel Awwad, an India-based Syrian journalist and experienced war reporter. Awaad was kidnapped in Iraq in 2003 while embedded with US troops, but believes the situation for journalists in parts of the Middle East is now even more dangerous. “It used to be that you were with an army, but now you are embedded with militants, terrorists, guerillas – people who are indirectly using journalism to get what they want.”

Iona Craig, winner of the Martha Gelhorn Prize for her reporting from Yemen, writes in the latest issue of Index on Censorship magazine about the difficult moment when a freelancer has to decide to abort a plan for safety reasons and personally suck up the costs. She recalls one occasion when she had taken all the precautions of an experienced reporter – travelling in disguise as a Yemeni woman, leaving a false communication trail in the knowledge that her mobile conversations would have been tapped – but still feared detection while heading into a zone that all westerners were prohibited from entering. Her decision to flee was a sensible one, but left her paying costs for her driver and translator. $450 may be a small price to pay when life is in danger, but it’s easy to see how some freelancers can lose sight of that.

And it’s not just the immediate, physical dangers that journalists now need to be aware of. Craig also writes on surveillance risks: “Until encrypted mobile phone communication becomes affordable, we may have to go back to meeting in person rather than leaving a data trail behind us.” Stories such as the NSA exposé have highlighted these new threats. Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald learnt from Edward Snowden to put their mobiles in the hotel fridge, as even taking battery out wasn’t enough to stop them being tracked. (Although it was later reported that alarm bells could also ring if a group of phones suddenly snap off at the same time.)

Certain NGOs have been stepping in to bridge the gaps in training. International Media Support works to extend backing to fixers and translators; Risc (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) starting offering freelancers first-aid training after photojournalist Tim Hetherington died in Libya in 2011 from a wound that needn’t have been fatal. James Foley had been on their first training course in 2012 and although no first-aid training could save him from the brutally of ISIS fighters, his death has sparked increased awareness, says Lily Hindy, Risc’s deputy director. “On both sides – freelancers and the news agencies – there is more discussion about preparedness. There are still plenty of people who are going in without the training and insurance, but they are more frequently now regarded as irresponsible by their peers.”

Indeed, in the wake of the journalists’ beheadings in Syria, it’s hard to imagine Vice publishing the following article now, as they did in 2012: “I went to Syria to learn how to become a journalist, and failed miserably at it by almost dying a bunch of times”. That headline was hard enough to stomach then – even with the hollow disclaimer (“Vice did not send him there; we found out about it after the fact”). The author, Sunil Patel, later spoke to another publication, WannabeHacks.co.uk, about his motivations going to war zone: “I was 24 and I didn’t feel like I had the time to actually go through traditional routes; do a degree, work for local newspapers.”

What we need to avoid is a situation where young journalists are heading to war zones looking for excitement in twisted, parallel history to that of the so-called young jihadis. More exposure is needed on what is going on behind the scenes, between the bylines, when the cameras stop rolling.

After Foley’s death, GlobalPost, who published his report from Syria, released a statement: “While we continue to send staff correspondents to Syria, we no longer accept freelance work from that war zone.” The Agence France-Presse (AFP) also released a statement saying that it would “no longer accept work from freelance journalists who travel to places where we ourselves would not venture”. But there are still plenty of risks outside of Syria. New media network ReportersUnited.tv sent out a call this week for “powerful”, “original” news videos, “for example filming in North Korea or a meeting with the Farc.” “The editor,” it noted, “will buy or commission the stories he likes.” If an inexperienced reporter then decides to go ahead, on spec, who is the irresponsible one?

Vicky Baker is deputy editor of Index on Censorship magazine. The autumn issue, looking at the future of journalism, is out now