When journalists become targets

Mar 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Journalism can be a dangerous business. Last year alone, 51 journalists worldwide were killed in the line of duty, according to the Freedom Forum.
But in the wake of the gruesome death of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was abducted in Karachi, Pakistan, on Jan. 23, news organizations with reporting teams in dangerous places have looked hard at security in hopes of protecting their journalists from similar fates.
Geraldo Rivera, who’s working for Fox News, provoked controversy when he spoke recently about the gun he’s carrying in Afghanistan. Other networks quickly announced that it’s against their policies for their journalists to carry guns-or in the case of CBS and CNN, just not customary.
Fox News said it has no official policy on guns, but it does its best to protect its journalists, and after the Pearl killing has decided to bring both its teams in Karachi back to Islamabad, Pakistan, the capital city. “We decided that it was better to have all our people in one place where we could keep track of them and where we have better contacts with local people who know where it’s safe and where it isn’t,” said John Stack, VP of news gathering for Fox.
Working together
Mr. Stack believes the spirit of cooperation among the various news agencies covering dangerous areas has increased with the death of Mr. Pearl, and that will make newspeople safer. “While we are very competitive, there is a determination among the Western media to look out for one another,” he said.
CNN typically has more journalists in so-called hot zones than any other U.S.-based network. Tom Fenton, VP of international news gathering for CNN, was formerly a field producer in Sierra Leone and has seen security issues from both sides. When he first heard reports of the Pearl kidnapping, he immediately wondered whether a situation would develop similar to the one that resulted in Terry Anderson, an Associated Press bureau chief, being held by Islamic extremists in Lebanon for seven years before his 1991 release.
After it became clear that Mr. Pearl was dead, Mr. Fenton and others reassessed the situation in Karachi but decided against pulling the reporting team out. CNN did, however, pull out of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, after British journalists were killed there. “We decided that situation was lawless and volatile,” Mr. Fenton said.
Assessing the danger
He also said it doesn’t take a committee decision for a news team to decide whether it feels a situation is too dangerous. Anyone who’s frightened and wants to leave is free to do so without penalty, he said. “I would never force someone to go someplace where they didn’t want to go or stop someone from leaving a place where they didn’t want to stay. I think that’s unethical. I certainly don’t think a story is worth your life.”
Mr. Fenton said a situation in which a reporter feels at home and comfortable in a dangerous area can pose an even bigger problem for management. Reporters may know an area well and have friends among the natives, and it can be difficult to persuade them that they are really in danger.
Mr. Fenton recalls that after Associated Press and Reuters journalists were killed during the civil war in Sierra Leone, “CNN made a decision to pull us out, but we wanted to stay. You cover a story and you really get sucked into it. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the network did the right thing.”
Good preparation is the most important preventive measure, he said. CNN news team members assigned to areas of conflict such as Afghanistan, Colombia, the former Soviet republic of Georgia and the southern Philippines are always the most experienced reporters on staff. And before they take on dangerous assignments, they attend a course given by AKE Ltd., a British-based security company whose survival course is designed especially for journalists. The class includes information on how to respond to attackers, what to do in a hostage situation and health and first aid training.
Beyond that, Mr. Fenton said, CNN urges its news teams to keep a low profile, stay in groups and socialize at the hotel where they are staying-good advice not only for Pakistan but also for any city where there are dangers after dark. “We always want people to be smart. These threats are more prevalent in a war zone, but they could happen anywhere.”