Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Writeup of the week: Safety First

MEDIA MATTERS / SEVANTI NINAN in The Hindu/The Hindu, January4, 2009
Is a story worth dying for?
And is the quality of journalism sometimes responsible for the fate a journalist suffers in an increasingly dangerous world?
It is the time of year when grim figures about the state of press freedom worldwide come out. This year the good news also amounts to bad news. Substantially fewer journalists were killed, arrested, attacked or threatened in 2008 than in 2007, fewer media outlets censored. But that is partly because the insecurity is taking its toll on the profession. Reporters Without Borders says that the quantitative improvement in certain indicators suggests that journalists are becoming disheartened, turning to a less dangerous trade or going into exile.
Danger zones
Fifteen of 60 deaths in 2008 were in Iraq, one of the two countries which has seen journalists fleeing. Halfway through the year the Committee to Protect Journalists issued figures to show that in the previous twelve months 22 journalists fled Iraq on account of kidnapping and death threats. Another 21 fled the war zone of Somalia, which could have accounted from a fall in the death toll for Africa from 12 in 2007 to 3 in 2008.
The Internet has only added to the dangers the profession faces. For the first time last year a blogger was killed: a Chinese businessman who was beaten to death by municipal police officers while filming a clash with protesters. Fifty-nine bloggers were arrested (10 in China, 18 in Iran), 45 were physically attacked, and 1,740 websites were blocked, shut down or suspended.
South Asia has become a really dangerous place to work. Nepal's Federation of Nepalese Journalists just released a year-end report which is a hairy account of 284 incidents in one calendar year. More than 62 journalists manhandled, 18 media outlets forced to shut down for periods, 16 incidents of obstruction from agitators and hooligans in various parts of the country, and more than 12 media houses ransacked.
Nepal has fewer deaths than Pakistan which had seven, according to RSF. The Pakistan Press Foundation's monthly tally of incidents (there were 17 in December 2008) always includes CD shops and Internet cafes being torched or bombed, less about journalism than about the Taliban's intolerance of what it considers sinful media. This is a country where you have rocket attacks on press clubs and journalists are kidnapped almost every month. Afghanistan too is dangerous for the profession, even as Western aid to "grow" journalism in this region results in a steady influx of briefly trained youth into the ranks of journalists.
News safety therefore is increasingly becoming a vital issue. A body of wisdom is evolving on the subject which suggests that journalists have to reassess their professional methods. At a media development conference in Athens last month there were panel discussions and a workshop which suggested that one way to decrease the vulnerability of both journalists and media workers is to increase the standards within newsrooms.
Basic standards
Do not crusade, say, against a drug mafia, because crusading is dangerous. Take threats seriously. Examine your news process. Is it fair, balanced, independent? Stay away from personal issues. Don't try to embarrass people. Check all facts and issue corrections immediately. The emerging wisdom on the subject is that while 90 per cent of journalist safety training is about riot and war zone preparedness, 99 per cent of the opportunity for deflecting harm lies in the newsroom. Eliminate the desire to kill reporters — if a criminal element is being exposed, put their point of view into the story. The point was made that the Internet now helps the militia to see what is being written about them. And it's not just about physical danger. If you publish something on the Internet, you can be sued in any part of the world.
Professional lapses
It is interesting that one of the reasons given for the vulnerability of media in the Nepal year-end report mentioned above, is bad journalism. And for each well-known case of media martyrdom, be it in Dublin or Chechnya, a post mortem now exists to show what should have been done differently.
Since there is no rule of law in conflict ravaged areas and countries and the pattern has been that in nine out of 10 cases of a journalist's killing no one is brought to book, journalists, including freelancers, have to learn to look after themselves, be prudent, rather than macho. When they set out on a dangerous assignment they have to work out what they will do if things go wrong. Hostile environment courses have been designed by places such as the International News Safety Institute, and more news organisations should feel the moral obligation to expose their staff to these.
Alan Johnston of the BBC, who has been held hostage in Gaza in the past, said at the conference that the underlying philosophy of the BBC now is safety first. "No story is worth dying for. Any time a reporter in the field is not happy going forward, he need not. It is never a question of editors."
To stake out within the range of fire as so many reporters did during the Mumbai siege was to be foolhardy, not brave. And it should not happen again.

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