You can probably think of one young journalist you know who has ambitions to be a foreign correspondent or even a war reporter in some new and exciting place. Please tell them: they can just as easily be killed, injured, threatened, suffer trauma or be thrown in jail … at home.

There are a number of countries where journalists, who do their essential job of shining lights into dark places, are silenced with the weapons of legal action, threats and violence. The growing tally of murdered journalists kept by the CPJ, the Committee to Protect Journalists, shows the high level of impunity with which the media is silenced. It directly threatens strong and accountable journalism by stopping coverage or invoking self-censorship. From the CPJ website:

  • 18 journalists killed in 2010
  • 831 journalists killed since 1992
  • 532  journalists murdered with impunity since 1992
  • 454 journalists in exile worldwide.

Impunity is a threat not just to journalists but all that we stand for — a free press, holding those with power to account, the public’s right to information, giving a voice to the voiceless.

We may be the converted, believing that journalists perform a vital role in a healthy society. We may believe that a free and independent media and the right to information are at the heart of transparent and accountable governance. But the figures show us that journalists are not safe and there’s a culture of impunity in many countries which leaves attacks on us unpunished.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that for all the talk about the fourth estate, journalism has relatively low status. Unfortunately it is partly because of the behaviour of journalists themselves. Some of the problems I see as a trainer are based in lack of training — the journalists are committed and courageous and want to do strong work, but are not well grounded in attribution, research and cross-checking, objectivity and the particular ethics of our profession.

This is no defence for attacking journalists. But where journalists are not trained and supported in pursuing journalism which is professional and ethical, their own behaviour can put their safety in further jeopardy.

Let me quote from last year’s report from the Centre for International Media Assistance. It’s called: Under Attack: Practising Journalism in a Dangerous World. And it said: “Biased, inaccurate and incendiary reporting not only do a disservice to readers, they can also be a primary cause of reactive attacks on reporters.”

It’s why there is a link between strong, accountable, professional practice in journalism, and safety.

For example, undercover reporting. Very exciting. The journalist feels important, courageous. The undercover team has a sense of excitement. The audience is titillated by scenes of  wrongdoing. It makes for great ratings. But it’s dangerous.

Preparation for the assignment to ensure the safety of the crew should be rigorous. But even before the reporter or cameraperson starts filling out a risk assessment for the job, they should have obtained the permission of a senior editor to go undercover.

The ethical considerations in undercover reporting are most serious because it is one of the first duties of a reporter to identify themselves. A decision not to do this should be approved at the highest editorial level. The reporting team must be able to show there is a good reason for going undercover, that there is a real public benefit and that other measures to collect the information have been exhausted. There should be thorough research and analysis before undercover reporting is used. Then the team can start looking at the possible threats to their physical safety and the safety of others. Safe journalism is firmly based in ethical journalism.

Attention is rightly given to the attacks on journalists, and the dangers for war reporters. But more attention should be paid to the dangers of being a journalist every day, at home.  The fact is that journalism is a dangerous business.

Here are some very common risk situations which many journalists will face almost daily:

  • interviewing grieving families.. which is sometimes called death knocks;
  • attending court to film or interview people involved in legal proceedings;
  • being an eye-witness to disasters and accidents: and
  • interviewing victims of trauma.

    Some assignments are inherently risky:

    • Climate change — we can expect to cover more natural disasters
    • Money and power — a dangerous combination, eg: illegal logging
    • Uncovering secrets which people want kept hidden
    • Interviewing people with mental health problems/substance abuse.
    • Attending rallies and protests which can become violent.

    Then of course there are stories of loss and tragedy where journalists are at risk of emotional damage, and post traumatic stress disorder.

    Journalists with high professional standards are less likely to find themselves in danger in these situations. There is research available through the likes of the Dart Center for trauma and journalism which shows how being sensitive to the impact of trauma can change the dynamics of an interview. It is only logical that a journalist who is knowledgeable and respectful to people, culture, and religion is less likely to aggravate a situation or escalate a problem.

    Recently I saw yet another film where a journalist took a survivor of the S21 Khmer Rouge prison, Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh. He was set on the floor and asked to talk about how he was shackled and tortured. This is a common piece of coverage. Can you imagine what it might be like to have not only survived the Khmer Rouge but then be asked by an unsupportive stranger prodding you to relive the experience?

    How much more damaging might it be to interview say a former child soldier in Africa and ask them to re-experience a horror. Interviewing children is already different to interviewing adults — how much more challenging is it for a journalist to do a good interview with the child and meet the key ethical mantra which is, to do no harm?

    Is there a danger to the journalist in those common situations? The point is the journalist should be assessing that. Risk assessment should be a much a part of the planning as the preparation for an interview, as thinking about where and what to film.

    A journalist who is trained for public disorder and sent to a rally or protest will be safer and do a better job. The safety training will teach them what to watch for, where to stand, how to exit. They are more likely to understand what is really going on, where trouble is likely to erupt, what the likely targets are, and how the situation could escalate. The safety-trained journalist becomes a much better eye-witness. Good journalism is firmly rooted in safe journalism.

    Why does safe equal good? A good journalist:

    • Prepares for situations meaning they are more likely to get access
    • Confronts difficulty, meaning that they might be able to travel to an area which would otherwise be ruled out as too hard
    • Is  more aware of what’s going on and so the reporting is more comprehensive
    • Because they are looking after their safety and that of others, they are more likely to demonstrate respect and understanding, and avoid aggravating the situation
    • They are more likely to survive a hostile situation, such as a kidnap, a remote assignment or a natural disaster
    • She or he is more likely to get a story because they are more likely to come back (this will motivate the editor!).

    I am not talking about journalists who have common sense but members of staff and freelancers who are insured, and given training, equipment and support by newsrooms.

    Why should media organisations spend money training their workforce and safety? Most already accept the need and obligation to conduct regular fire training and building evacuation procedures. But in the field,  journalists, like police, medical crews and firefighters have a different role when something goes wrong. While everybody else is running away from danger, journalists move towards it. They are running to risk.

    Journalists — and I include in that staff and freelance journalists, camera crews, and local staff — should be given insurance, training, equipment and support. That support should extend to their families in cases of injury or death.

    If the moral high ground or professional journalism practice doesn’t persuade managers of their obligations, there is this warning from the private security firm AKE which provides hazardous environment training to the media and non-government organisations.

    “Neglecting to provide risk assessments and mitigation systems, such as security briefings, training and equipment, will increasingly result in exposure to legal claims from NGO personnel suffering injuries, of from relatives for death.”

    What kind of courses should we be doing? Most major international media organisations require staff going to hostile environments to do a residential course in safety and first aid run by private training organisations usually comprised of former military people and first aid experts.

    There have been changes. Increasingly media companies are signing up to formal safety codes such as through the International News Safety Institute or the recent Australian News Safety Code. Journalism trade unions and membership organisations like the International Federation of Journalists and the Frontline Club in London are highlighting the safety of journalists and their colleagues — fixers, interpreters, and drivers. Research on violence and impunity is being tackled by a range of academic and professional organisations. The ICRC is teaching the protections for journalists under International Humanitarian Law.

    Individual journalists, such as my colleagues in that most deadly of workplaces — the Philippines — are actively seeking information and training about protecting themselves and those they interview from mental and physical harm.

    This year United Nations UNESCO nominated the Right to Information as the theme for the annual World Press Freedom campaign. Respect for others, pursuit of truth, accountability, ethical behaviour, the public right to know … we hold these truths to be self-evident. Surely those who hold the pen and not the sword should be entitled to get up in the morning and go to work safe in the knowledge that they will be going to bed that night in one piece?

    It is also important that we start giving more time and attention to the public image of journalism and the media. We need more than lip service to the idea of building relationships with community and audience. We have to constantly demonstrate understanding, respect and accountability. We vehemently insist on independence and self-regulation. We must also demonstrate high standards of transparency, and allow the public to see that we celebrate good journalism, and refuse to accept poor quality.

    We need to be prominent about our industry-run awards, our independent tribunal’s and ethics committees, and our policies and procedures for handling complaints and corrections.

    Finally, we need more voices to join the profession, the UN and other bodies which protest violence and impunity. We need to find and lobby leaders in all sectors who are willing to act against those who seek silence by threatening and killing journalists.

    *This is an extract of a speech Arthurs delivered to the Asia Pacific Broadcast Development Institute. Arthurs has 30 years experience working in Britain and Australasia as a foreign correspondent, reporter and journalism trainer. She has spent the past 12 years with the BBC World Service and is currently an independent journalist, focusing on the area of risk and journalism through a research project at the University of Queensland in Australia.

    Peter Fray

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