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Professional Journalism, citizen journalists, militaries and protestors: telling the story, setting the context and staying safe

Emma Jane Kirby writes:

David Schlesinger's sobering talk began with the hard facts - last year, 71 journalists were killed worldwide while doing their job.  Almost all of those who died were locals working in their own countries. And 75% of those deaths were "targeted killings" - in other words, the journalists were murdered because of the subject matter (often corruption, crime or drugs) of the stories they were writing or reporting on.

No one was brought to justice over the deaths. Why, asks David Schlesinger are so many journalists being killed and what can we do to stop the death toll continuing to rise?

Last month, a Reuters cameraman, Hiro Muramoto was killed while filming the rioting between Thai troops and anti government protestors in Bangkok. A short video clip of the footage he took just before he was shot dead showed he was working bang in the middle of the action, alone (his colleagues had gone to move their vehicle) and without a flak jacket. "In the grammar of our profession," says Schlesinger "We have to be in the thick of it...reporting needs to be evocative, emotional...but are our expectations too high? Can a journalist be removed or must he be in the thick of it?"

A second chilling video clip, released by the whistleblower's website Wikileaks.org shows Iraqi journalists killed by US helicopter gunships who mistakenly thought (from their position 600 meters away) that the cameraman, whose camera was clutched under arm, was holding a rocket propelled grenade. "So how do you tell?" asks David Schlesinger, "Who is friend and who is foe? To the US Army, anyone walking near soldiers or armed men must be considered a foe." He went on to remind his audience that the posture a cameraman crouches into to shoot a picture is "frighteningly similar" to that of a man about to fire a grenade. While the language used by the soldiers was horrifying ("Yeah...look at those dead bastards…nice shooting") it's also very clearly the adrenalin of combat; "We're often talking about young, inexperienced soldiers," the Reuters editor in chief reminds us. "They have no desire and no time to differentiate…there are too many variables." He also notes that the journalists who were killed were locals and the Americans simply didn't imagine that an Iraqi man could be a journalist and not an enemy.

Schlesinger said Reuters had now put tighter regulations on the movements of its staff working in war zones (such as proximity to armed groups) and that Reuters (who employ staff of 80 different nationalities) continue to give obligatory hostile environment training. The army he suggested also needed training - to help them recognise the difference between a camera and a gun, to be made aware that in war zones, there will be journalists present and that these may often be local men ("not every journalist is a white American or Brit") who may look similar to the groups the that the military are fighting.  Despite 3 years of putting pressure on the US army, Reuters was not given access to the footage of the killings.  "To say "this is what happens when you get in the way," is not acceptable," insists David Schlesinger. "Even through tragic accidents, people, individuals and institutions can be held to account and lessons can be learnt… I'm not saying you can have safe battle fields but you can have some degree of accountability."

So how do you cover war more safely? Embeds with the military "have their place" suggests Schlesinger, "but they only tell half the story…You can't do your job if that (an embed) is all you do." While stressing the need for a "mosaic of coverage" he also raised concerns about the role of citizen journalism in conflict zones fearing that the casualty list could only rise further if untrained people were running around chaotic and dangerous situations. "War", says David "has become very messy and journalists are more exposed than ever…" The military, knowing the journalist is no longer acting as a patriotic propaganda tool to cheer on "our boys" is wary that a bad news story might be spotted and therefore isn't too keen on having reporters around. And the demand from society for vivid images also puts the modern war or conflict reporter at greater risk - TV expects immediacy and the journalists know they are competing with other professionals to get those action pictures first.

There are high stakes for journalists and reporters covering conflict zones - and huge responsibilities for the editors who send them to tell the story and set the context.