In today's world, journalists face greater dangers

Embedded, but not immune: along with today’s faster pace of war and conflict, comes faster news - and sometimes, faster injury and death. Lee Woodyear, a former Human Rights Officer for the International Federation of Journalists and a freelance journalist, examines how bringing today’s news into living rooms and computer screens gets ever more dangerous, and what some organizations are doing about it

GAs the old adage goes, the first casualty of war is truth. Is the second casualty the truth-teller? In the battle to win the “hearts and minds” of the public, the media - and its “ground troops”, the reporters who cover the news - are taking greater risks than ever before to bring the news home, “live” and in “real time”.

But at what cost? Many are maimed physically or psychologically, or both. Others die.
Recent conflicts bear this out. During four weeks of fighting in Iraq, 15 journalists and media workers died and two are still missing. Accidents killed some, but most died in combat.

During the 1991 Gulf War, no journalists died in the actual liberation of Kuwait, but in the aftermath, four freelancers were killed. Last year, in Afghanistan, eight journalists died in a two-week time span. At one point in that war, media casualties outnumbered military deaths.
Ninety-four media workers and journalists died in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Some 60 journalists died during the Vietnam War and the fighting in Cambodia.

Recently, the new system of “embedding” journalists in military units - in which journalists are attached to a military unit in the field - has given the press more access to the battlefield, and along with it, more exposure to risk. Some 700 journalists were embedded in coalition units.

The “embedding” system, however, has also been criticized. Just after the war began, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), among others, protested against the differences between the treatment of journalists who were “embedded” and other reporters seeking the war on their own.

New systems, new risks

Journalists have some international protection. Under the Geneva Convention, journalists are to be treated as civilians in times of conflict; harming or killing them is a war crime.
Yet some journalists believe the new types of war - and war coverage - may blur the line between civilians and combatants, unless opposing forces are close enough to tell who is shooting pictures rather than bullets.
Economics are also taking a toll. Some media organizations, in a bid to save money, use freelancers or “stringers”, as opposed to full-time staff. While employers’ definitions and treatment of freelancers vary considerably, some freelancers may not have insurance as part of their fees, or a supply of ready cash to buy their way out of trouble.

Commonly, but not exclusively, stringers and freelancers are also often younger, less experienced journalists. Many are keen to get “scoops” which can make their names - but sometimes this can come at great cost.
Data and anecdotal evidence from various conflicts seem to indicate that a considerable number of injuries and deaths occur among journalists working on temporary contracts.

Fighting for survival

In the late 1980s, the question of journalists’ safety came to the forefront in the trade union movement. Spearheaded by the Dutch Union of Journalists (NVJ), a worldwide action programme was launched by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) to reduce the risks which journalists face when covering armed conflict.
It published a safety guidebook, investigated insurance policies for staff and freelancers, and developed safety courses with employers, including first aid courses and training on the types of weapons encountered on today’s battlefields.

The IFJ also insisted that media companies take their share of the responsibility. Against the backdrop of the war in the former Yugoslavia, and with the death toll mounting, the IFJ and its member unions pushed hard to create a tripartite approach to the issue.
Today, many IFJ member unions, in cooperation with media companies and military authorities, have created intensive war preparation training programmes for their members.
Many media unions include the right to safety training in their collective agreements. The IFJ and its members have also strongly advocated equal benefits for freelancers.

In March of this year the IFJ, with support from the European Union, published a comprehensive and in-depth “survival guide” for correspondents covering conflicts.
“Live News: A Survival Guide for Journalists” can be downloaded from the IFJ’s Web site at
It includes information on equipment, training, precautions, preparations, insurance, first aid, and post-traumatic stress disorders.
The IFJ has also championed the establishment of an International News Safety Institute (INSI). In partnership with the International Press Institute (IPI), a publishers’ press freedom organization based in Austria, and with the support of more than 80 media companies and press freedom groups, the Institute was launched on 3 May of this year.
Objectives include developing safety assistance programmes in hot spots, setting standards for safety courses and equipment (body armour, gas masks, chemical suits, etc.), making sure that equipment is available for staff and freelancers, raising awareness about the need for comprehensive training, and supplying safety training materials to concerned companies and unions.

The Institute will focus on all aspects of the safety and welfare of journalists and media staff, including promotion of cut-price insurance schemes for freelance and media staff, and promoting trauma and stress counseling initiatives to help media staff cope with the pressures of reporting in difficult conditions,” explained IFJ Secretary General Aidan White.

But how much will this really help? In the end, covering armed conflicts is always going to be dangerous.
It seems from the statistics that the greater the access journalists have to a war zone, the greater the number who die, but the better the general public is informed.

TMedia companies and trade unions can chip away at the dangers through training and preparation. But in the end, journalists, like truth, will continue to be casualties of war.