As press freedom organisations are mourning the death of Ali Hassan Al Jaber, we are reminded that new measures must be taken to improve the safety of journalists in the field.
2011 was particularly deadly for journalists. “Throughout 2011, at least 100 journalists were killed in the line of duty” reported DCMF’s Anealla Safdar in January.
According to UNESCO, over 500 journalists and media professionals were murdered in the last 10 years. According to the president of International Federation of Journalists, Jim Boumelha, there is twice more. “This comes to about two journalists or media workers dying every week” he added.
Not enough safety measures
Means used by editors in chief to protect their war reporters can be pretty basic – press jackets, sometimes the availability of more sophisticated means of communication (like a satellite phone) and life insurance policies. At times, journalists can be offered to go on a course, but these remain expensive and are not ran locally.
Omar Chatriwala is a journalist based in Qatar. In 2008, Al Jazeera invited him to attend a training for journalists working in hostile environments prior to an assignment in Iraq. The training, ran by a private security company based in the United Kingdom, lasted five days and Chatriwala’s participation was entirely financed by Al Jazeera – this included flights, hotels, food and course fees.
The journalist was happy with the training he received. Among other things, “We were put in a kidnapping situation, learnt to identify landmine fields and received basic medical training” he told DCMF.
But not everybody can go on these very professional courses. Most Al Jazeera journalists and cameramen sent to Libya last year were unprepared.
Make journalists’ safety accessible to all
International media outlets like Al Jazeera can still send a few employees to do these trainings, but are these accessible to journalists working for the local press of developing countries, sometimes exposed to danger on longer periods of time?
Organisations like DCMF or UNESCO can help reduce the lack of training of these journalists, as did UNESCO last December, when it ran a safety training for East African journalists.
Implementing preventive and cheaper measures should make journalists’ safety more accessible.
Example of a preventive system
In Britain, a company that specialises in developing bespoke software for the public and the corporate sector has set up “Mobile Alert”, a mobile phone application that can track journalists on the field. The director of MMCC Consultants, Sami Saoudi, was in Doha to show us a prototype.
A screen grab of the Mobile Alert software presented to Al Jazeera
The principle is simple. Reporters on the move set up this application on their mobile (android, blackberry, iPhone or windows phones) and use it to issue warnings – sometimes automatically – to someone on the back end who has subscribed to these alerts, usually their editor in chief, but it can also be a relative using the same username and password. They log on a website where they will be able to follow the journalist’s whereabouts on a map hosted by MMCC’s server. Thanks to these alerts that can locate the journalist. The phone uses the GPS feature included in 90% of new mobile phones.
A few months ago, MMCC started a partnership with a company producing badges also sending alerts. But these were far too expensive to be bought in great quantities. “ We had to find a cheaper way to do the same thing” said Sami Saoudi. They were not as convenient either.
Saoudi knows journalists and their needs fairly well – there is a few in his family. “When journalists are working on location, they forget everything” he said. His main challenge is to protect people who may not always see their own safety as a priority – although they are aware of danger, suddenly they can stop caring about it. Beyond the financial aspects, it was important to create a tool both useful and easy to use.
The Mobile Alert phone application will start being sold in 3 months. This system should be particularly effective in cases of kidnappings, provided there is good network coverage and that the phone hosting it is fully charged.
Evaluating the risk
But isn’t this type of solution only giving the illusion of improving journalists’ safety? If, on Januray 13, Gilles Jacquier’s phone had been sending red alerts to his boss in Paris when he entered the building, in Homs, where he lost his life, would he still be alive?
Jacquier’s wife, photographer Caroline Poiron, and those who were with him the day he died are convinced that they were ambushed. William Daniels and Edith Bouvier, the two french journalists who survived the bombing that killed Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik a month later, also think that their group of journalists was targeted.
For all these witnesses, the Syrian regime would try to scare journalists away. But while some are desperately seeking a way out of the Syrian hell, others continue to enter it, often illegally, and in extreme conditions.
Should journalists be treated differently?
On March 3, The Independent newspaper’s Middle-East correspondent Robert Fisk published a controversial article in which he praised the bravery of the journalists who reported from Syria but strongly criticised the celebrity status that fell on these reporters turned heroes on their way back from Syria.
“There's something faintly colonialist about all this”, he wrote. “We have grown so used to the devil-may-care heroics of the movie version of "war" correspondents that they somehow become more important than the people about whom they report.”
On the same day, Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy, who was on assignment with Marie Colvin in Homs, told the BBC that he worried about the absence of journalists now to “witness” the horror of the Syrian regime.
William Daniels also insisted on the crucial role that journalists played in Syria when he mentioned his collaboration with members of the Syrian opposition who helped them when they were still stuck in Baba Amr. "We never felt we were being exploited by the opposition," he said on French radio station France Info. "They did everything to help us leave as quickly as possible. It was not in their interest to keep us with them in Baba Amr. It was better for them if we left so we could speak out”.