BOOK REVIEW: ‘Reporting Dangerously: Journalist Killings, Intimidation and Security’

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I wrote this review for the current issue of ‘Media, War and Conflict’. It deals with an issue which is not sufficiently discussed, and certainly not sufficiently addressed: the killing of journalists. Hopefully this important book will help to change that.    

‘No story is worth a life,’ is a phrase often heard in newsrooms when the talk is of working in war zones. ‘Sadly,’ as Simon Cottle notes (p. 149) in Reporting Dangerously, news organizations are often most rigorous in implementing safety measures, ‘following the shock of losing one of their colleagues.’ In a world where war, especially in the Middle East, has come to seem like the normal state of affairs, good journalism is needed much as ever to illuminate and explain not only what is happening, but also what happened in the past to influence the present. ‘What about the Balfour Declaration?’ Any British correspondent covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely sooner or later to be chastised – or perhaps, praised – for their country’s historical role in creating the modern Middle East. This is especially in true this year which marks the centenary of that controversial note. For if history is largely absent from day-to-day political discourse in Western Europe (Ireland and Spain perhaps being among the exceptions) it is not in other regions of the world. Correspondents reporting on armed conflict commit a serious oversight if they overlook that.

The authors of Reporting Dangerously make no such mistake. This engaging volume begins with the well-documented premise that covering armed conflict is becoming more dangerous. While accepting that, methodologically, ‘There are difficulties that persist, and perhaps have increased,’ (p. 52) in compiling statistics, it offers plenty of evidence to support the argument that journalists ‘are being targeted, murdered, and intimidated more regularly and in increasing numbers.’ (p .1). In seeking to understand why, the book draws on substantial scholarship on violence and globalization from a variety of fields, especially history and sociology. Cottle is persuasive when he argues that western societies have led the way in ‘violent military conquest’ (p. 71) since the sixteenth century, but also – and here the point relates to journalism in particular – inspired ‘“modern” dynamics of increasing empathy and moral repugnance at violence’ (p. 71).

If this duality explains some of the trends which have created the ‘Violent History of the Globalised Present’ (Chapter 4), then the book advances a disturbing case that journalists themselves are no longer permitted the benefit of any doubt as to their own roles. Presenting the Kurt Schork Awards for International Journalism in 2015, the respected correspondent Peter Greste – referring to his and his Al Jazeera colleagues’ incarceration in Egypt – linked his fate to the aftermath of September 11th. Since then – when President George W. Bush warned the nations of the world, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists’ – Greste suggested it had become much harder for journalists to be seen as neutral observers. Richard Sambrook argues (p. 20) that, ‘The attitude of “you’re either with us or against us” denies the legitimacy of independent journalism.’ Greste’s ordeal is mentioned here, along with his reflection, written in his prison cell, that, ‘Never has clear-eyed, critical, sceptical journalism been more necessary.’ (p. 56).

It is to the authors’ credit that this is one of their recurring themes. Journalists may sometimes be dismayed – rightly or wrongly – about some of the conclusions drawn in scholarly studies of their activities, and production. This volume recognizes this early on, accepting that academic studies are too often guilty of ‘failing to recognise the professional motivations and practical dangers’ (p. 6) involved in today’s journalism. It is heartening to see the authors thank the journalists interviewed for the volume, ‘for their enduring commitment to this work which regularly places themselves in harm’s way’ (p. 112). It is also good to see the wide variety of cases considered. This volume does not confine itself to a consideration of international correspondents working for major news organizations such as the BBC or Al-Jazeera. It rightly recognizes and discusses the many hazards faced by journalists covering crime and drugs stories in countries such as Mexico and the Philippines.

This breadth of approach is mirrored in the backgrounds of the authors themselves, and their different experiences of scholarship and senior management in news organizations, combined with interviews with leading journalists, work well together. The different perspectives are, however, united around a recurring core argument which insists upon the importance of ‘appreciating the contribution of journalism within civil societies’– and recognizing that, ‘By seeking to report from uncivil societies, journalists act in the interests of both local citizens and the wider international community’ (p.96). It is in situations such as these that journalists face the greatest physical danger. The experience in an Iraqi minefield of the BBC’s Stuart Hughes – which led to his losing a leg, and his colleague, Kaveh Golestan, losing his life – is well documented here in first person testimony. The sense of changed circumstances which has come with the rise of Islamic State is also well communicated. The prospect of an encounter with their murderous fighters is seen as just too dangerous. ‘Forget it, I’m not interested,’ Hughes concludes of any assignment which might run that risk (p. 128).

While the physical risks are well documented here, less attention is paid to mental health. In a western world which feels increasingly willing to discuss such issues, this seems like an oversight. There are only a couple of passing references to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and apparently no space for discussion of Anthony Feinstein’s pioneering work on the mental health of journalists covering armed conflict. Although financial constraints are mentioned, they might also have merited more consideration – especially as Sambrook’s earlier work ‘Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant’ identifies this as a significant challenge to the future of international reporting. In the particular case of the present study, dwindling budgets have implications for the resources which might be allocated to safety training and equipment. This issue could perhaps be considered at greater length. It is a relatively minor issue, but a frustrating one nonetheless: editing of the section on the discussion of the differing views on violence of John Gray and Steven Pinker has permitted typographical errors in the spelling of both names – ‘Stephen’ (p. 67) and ‘Grey’ (p. 68) – to slip through.

The authors are level-headed in their conclusions, accepting (p. 202) that, ‘Zero risk in newsgathering is not attainable, and should not be pursued.’ They are right to highlight impunity as a major issue – unfortunately, absent the political will to enforce them, no amount of declarations from Journalists’ organizations, or U.N. resolutions will change this. That said, Reporting Dangerously is an important addition to any bibliography of journalism and war, and its arguments must be heeded if journalism is to be allowed to fulfil its role of informing a world whose inhabitants face countless challenges of conflict and climate change.

Reporting Dangerously: Journalist Killings, Intimidation and Security

Simon Cottle, Richard Sambrook and Nick Mosdell

(Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2016, 224 pp, ISBN 978-1-137-40672-9, Paperback) 

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The break up of a union: news and history

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A monument to Vladimir Lenin, USSR, 1991 ©James Rodgers

CONFLICTS AROUND HE WORLD are daily stirred by the hand of history. How can you understand the Middle East today, or Yugoslavia in the 1990s, without knowing at least something of what had passed in those places in the preceding century?

Political discussion in western Europe is largely free of that. There are exceptions, of course: Ireland is one; recent discussions of how Spain should remember, or not, its civil war of the 1930s may become another. In Britain in recent years, mass public discussion of history and its relevance today has tended to focus on victories, however costly, in the two world wars of the last century, and on landmark moments of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

That has changed during the campaign leading up to the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. There has been debate over whether or not the E.U. has kept the peace in western Europe since 1945. The views of the wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, have also been used to back both sides. One BBC story even went back as far as the Duke of Wellington — victory over Napoleon — to guess what Great Britons of the past might have thought.

War was one part of European life and history which Churchill and Wellington both knew well. This is an experience which today’s leaders largely lack: perhaps a partial explanation for the eagerness of Messrs Bush and Blair to launch the invasions they did in the first decade of this century.

As I noted in my previous post, I was there a quarter of a century ago when the USSR fell apart. In the years which followed, there was great hardship for millions of people. There were predictions of civil war. Russia avoided that — although, in the decade which followed the collapse of communism, there was fighting in the streets of Moscow, in 1993, and tens of thousands (perhaps as many as a hundred thousand or more — no one has ever come up with a reliable count) of people were killed in separatist conflicts in Chechnya  .

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Troops in Russia’s ‘anti-terrorist’ campaign, Chechnya, Summer 2000

Yugoslavia was another matter. The breakup of that union did lead to civil war; a refugee crisis; and a challenge to Europe’s security systems which they were unable to meet without the assistance of the United States.

No one in this referendum campaign has gone so far as to predict war if the U.K. decides to leave, although the Prime Minister, David Cameron, came close when he asked, ‘Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking?’

Responding to a dangerous and terrifying world 

We cannot be sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured. As Christopher Clark persuasively put it in the introduction to The Sleepwalkers, his recent book on the causes of the First World War, ‘what must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914 is its raw modernity.’ Clark continues, ‘Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers – a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.’

The European Union is not the Soviet Union — although some ‘leave’ campaigners might enjoy trying to make the comparison. Nor is it Yugoslavia. Yet the consequences of any massive political change can be catastrophic — especially when they are not addressed by good leadership. Chechnya is a case in point. The Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, was remembered even in his obituary for having boasted that the separatists could be sorted out in a couple of hours. Fifteen years after the military campaign was launched, the then President, Dmitry Medvedev, described the region as Russia’s biggest domestic problem.

In the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, I covered some of the bloody conflicts which followed the Cold War. In that world, the one in which we live today, all that is necessary is a lack of foresight, and a refusal to learn from the past, in order for disaster to strike. The ‘unpredictable array of forces’ will do the rest.

International journalists often have an insight which politicians lack.  We talk to people, not just to other politicians. We also know that, while today’s world can be a dangerous and terrifying place, we cannot cut ourselves off from it any more than we can stop it raining in London in June (given some of their claims, it is almost surprising that neither side in the referendum has promised better weather).

That is one reason why I will definitely be voting for the U.K to remain a member of the European Union. There are many others. I believe that we in Britain should better direct all the energy which has gone into an increasingly poisonous referendum campaign into making the E.U. work better. I have been privileged — if that is the right word — to witness the wars of others as an observer who could usually leave if I wanted to. The conflicts I covered had an element of evil, of course, but also large measures of folly and irresponsibility. Both are better avoided. Leaving he E.U. risks doing quite the opposite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fixing the risks of war reporting

This week, the Times correspondent Anthony Loyd, and his colleague, photographer Jack Hill, were held captive in Syria. Antony Loyd was shot twice in the legs; both men were badly beaten. I wrote a piece for The Conversation looking at what the incident said about the hazards of finding help as a journalist in a war zone. You can read it here, and a version follows below (as does a photograph of me looking rather younger than I do now).

It all happened so quickly I barely realised how much danger we had been in. The door had opened. The cameraman and I were immediately rushed into another room. We were told to remain completely still and silent.

We were not supposed to be in Chechnya. Then, in early 2000, the region on Russia’s southern edge was a war zone. Russian troops had launched a major campaign against separatist fighters some months before.

The Moscow authorities – presumably mindful of unfavourable media coverage of an earlier war – had declared the region a “zone of anti-terrorist operation”. It was closed to journalists. If you did manage to get in, as we did on occasion, you were on your own or, at least, in the hands of those you had hired to get you there.

We had stopped at the house of a distant relative of our fixer. He had suddenly taken fright when another relative – a member of a local militia – also arrived for a visit. All I saw was the door being opened by a hand below a camouflaged sleeve. That’s when we were rushed out of the room. Our fixer had feared we might be kidnapped and held for ransom.

Now we sat, waiting for the coast to clear. I wondered if I would spend another ten minutes in the room, or another ten months. I wondered too whether we had placed our trust in the right person. Had he perhaps actually brought us here to hand us over?

The man left soon after. So did we. My fears were misplaced. But it was a lesson I have never forgotten in the impossibility of guaranteeing safety for journalists in areas of armed conflict.

In Grozny, Chechnya, June 2000. This picture was taken a few months after the incident described in this post.

In Grozny, June 2000. This picture was taken a few months after the incident described in this post.

The dangers then were real. A little over a year earlier, in late 1998, a group of telecom engineers from Britain and New Zealand had been taken captive in Chechnya. When no ransom was paid, they were beheaded.

The recent ordeal of Anthony Loyd and Jack Hill of The Times is a terrifying example of the dangers journalists can face. The fact is that in war zones, in order to get where they need to go to tell a story, reporters often need to rely on people they barely know.

In most cases, the guides, drivers, and translators want to help because the money is good, they genuinely want the world to know of their people’s plight, or both. Just sometimes, they see in a foreigner from a wealthy country the potential for an even bigger payday.

I have met Anthony Loyd on a couple of occasions, most recently when we were on a discussion panel together in late 2012. I am not alone in considering him the best war correspondent of my generation. He, of all people, understands the potential risk.

So why do it? Loyd himself wrote about this extensively in his book My War Gone By, I Miss It So. Anyone seeking to know what draws journalists to cover armed conflict should read it.

For the past two decades, as journalists seem increasingly to have become targets in war zones, bigger news organisations have sought to mitigate the danger by offering hostile environment training. In addition to learning first aid, and how to take cover when under fire, these courses often include tips on how to behave if you are kidnapped.

Ultimately, you may have to trust someone you barely know with your life. Anthony Loyd and Jack Hill’s escape has shed light on the risks journalists routinely take to get news from dangerous places to our newspapers and screens. We would all be much more in the dark if they did not.

Dark and Dangerous Designs on World Press Freedom

This is my latest piece for the website of The Conversation. You can read it on their site here.

I have recorded a short video introduction to explain why I decided to write the piece.


You can sense the outrage across the centuries. In the first issue of his provocative newspaper The North Briton, John Wilkes championed the “liberty of the press”. It was “the terror of all bad ministers; for their dark and dangerous designs, or their weakness, inability, and duplicity, have thus been detected.”

Wilkes was writing specifically for a British audience. He could hardly have foreseen the news media of today, when his words could have been read on the other side of the world as soon as he posted them. He lived in the 18th century, an era of a different type of globalisation – one driven by ships sailing out to trade or conquer.

Imagine Wilkes were to return to earth now. Let him set aside for a moment his inevitable astonishment at how technology has transformed journalism, and continues to transform it. He would still be dismayed at how little has changed. For there are plenty of “bad ministers” with “dark and dangerous designs” in many different parts of the world.

Judging by the way things have unfolded for the news media in the last two decades especially, many governments continue to see the news media as a source of “terror” – not excluding the UK, which is slipping precipitously down the press freedom rankings.
Guilt by association

Wilkes presumably intended “terror” to mean extreme fear. In the case of Al-Jazeera’s Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed the word has, absurdly, taken on the meaning more often used since September 11 2001.

I should disclose that Peter Greste and I are former colleagues at both Reuters Television and BBC News. Our previous professional association, as much as the reports I have read of his arrest and detention, means I use the word “absurdly” advisedly.

Greste and his colleagues are on trial in Egypt charged with assisting a “terrorist organisation”. Needless to say, they deny the charges. Their trial has been adjourned until May 3 – a date which the United Nations has designated annual World Press Freedom Day.

What is ominous for the cause of press freedom in general, and for individual journalists in particular, is the way reporters are so readily associated with the policies of governments in their home countries. Journalism does not operate in a vacuum separate from politics and diplomacy; in this case, the government of Qatar, which funds Al-Jazeera, supported the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement now driven from office and declared “terrorists” by the country’s current rulers.

Meanwhile, Simon Ostrovsky, a reporter for Vice News, was detained in April by a pro-Russian militia in Ukraine. The reason, according to a report on The Guardian website was that he was “suspected of bad activities”. Thankfully, he was released, seemingly unharmed, a few days later.
Deadly decade

Ever since journalism began to take on its modern form, it has often been in conflict with political and military authorities. Yet the situation seems to have deteriorated in the past twenty years or so – the instability after the the Cold War and the wars which followed 9/11 proving especially hazardous for reporters.

A 2009 report from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) took the title End of a Deadly Decade. The report highlighted areas which are less frequently covered in the western media: the Philippines, Somalia, and the drug wars of Mexico. All were the site of multiple media deaths, and all continue to be lethal arenas for reporters.

Governments today face the challenge of coping with a media environment which is much harder to control than in the pre-internet age. New emphasis is placed upon media messaging, especially in time of armed conflict.

As Shota Utiashvili, a Georgian Interior Ministry official, told me in an interview for the BBC after his country’s 2008 war with Russia: “In this century, and in a conflict where you have a huge power against a small state, I think that’s almost as important as the military battle,”

The point is more generally relevant. Unlike The North Briton, much of today’s journalism is available around the world, around the clock. One consequence seems to be that reporters themselves are increasingly singled out. If you can’t muzzle the medium, you can jail the journalist – or worse.

The result is that attempts to gag the news media have gone global: Egypt detains an Australian journalist working for a Qatari News Channel; pro-Russian forces detain a U.S. citizen reporting from Ukraine.

As the IFJ’s 2009 report noted:

The adoption of Resolution 1738 by the United Nations Security Council in 2006, which called for the protection of journalists in conflict zones and for proper investigation into violent attacks on media, has largely been ignored.

So while World Press Freedom Day is welcome, action would be better. Armed conflict, economic uncertainty, climate change and all the other challenges the world will face this century need to be reported. Trying to do so should not carry the risk of detention or death.

Sport, Politics, and War

It was at this time of year in 1995 that I paid my first visit to the North Caucasus.

As a student of Russian literature in the 1980s, the mountains at Russia’s southern edge had come to fascinate me, providing as they did the backdrop to one of my favourite books (it is to this day) Mikhail Lermontov’s Hero of our Time. It remains a marvel that such a book could be written by someone in their early 20s. He was to die in duel aged just 27 — a fate which could well have been that of one of his characters.

My work as a journalist took me to back the Caucasus — northern and southern sides — on numerous occasions. One of those was to report on the visit of the International Olympic Committee to Sochi in 2007 as they sought to decide where to award the 2014 games.

As the games get underway, I have published a piece for The Conversation on what is at stake in terms of security, and for the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. You can read it here.

There’s also a second piece of mine on the site, about press freedom in Russia — where not everything is as controlled by the Kremlin as we are sometimes led to believe.

‘Security sources say…’

It was terrifying news — if it was true. In October 2004, the Head of the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service, and the main successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, told the Russian Parliament that more than 80 suicide bombers had been trained for attacks on targets inside Russia.

The FSB chief, Nikolai Patrushev, went on, ‘We don’t know what route they might take to get into Russia, and this creates definite problems.’

The quotation above is taken from a BBC News website report published at the time. I was then working as editor of the BBC’s Russian language site. I remember a long discussion with my colleagues in the BBC Russian Service about how we should treat the story. We were wary of simply headlining what a senior official had said  — just because they had said it. We had no obvious means of checking the claim.

Our colleagues on the English-language site did not fully share our reservations, and ran the piece which you can still read today. Even that story, though, did note of Mr Patrushev’s claims, ‘He did not explain how the FSB had gathered the information on potential attackers.’

Troops in Russia's 'anti-terrorist' campaign, Chechnya, Summer 2000

Troops in Russia’s ‘anti-terrorist’ campaign, Chechnya, Summer 2000

Nor would you expect him to — and that is the major challenge for journalists reporting on intelligence issues, especially where issues such as potential suicide bombers are concerned.

Every journalism student or trainee reporter knows that a news story needs to have the 5Ws and the H: ‘Who, what, when, where, why, and how.’ The material available for many stories dealing with alleged terrorists often has more than one of those missing.

In the case of Mr Patrushev’s remarks above, as so often, it is very important to consider the context of recent events. He was speaking the month after the massacre at the school in Beslan in which more than 300 people were killed. Russia was still stunned by the shock.

Still, that was no reason for journalists simply to report his claims without first considering the basis for them. They should not be propagandists for the FSB or any other security service. Yes, Mr Patrushev’s remarks were newsworthy — but they might have been better placed in a piece about the security situation in Russia, rather than granted the immediate headline the FSB perhaps sought.

More recent debates on issues of journalistic sources and security forces have focused on the consequences of the material leaked by Edward Snowden. When the head of Britain’s domestic security service, MI5, Andrew Parker, spoke earlier this month at the Royal United Services Institute, one part of his speech in particular (had reporters’ attention perhaps been gently guided there by helpful spin doctors?) generated the most headlines.

‘It causes enormous damage to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques. Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will,’ Mr Parker said, according to the text posted on the RUSI website.

It made the lead story on the BBC Ten O’Clock News that night, October 8th. Both as a viewer and a former BBC journalist,  I accepted that the speech was newsworthy. Of more concern was the way that Mr Parker’s remarks were simply reported, rather than analysed. Apart from a short contribution from Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty, the coverage mostly seemed to consist of what the MI5 Director had said.

There are times when journalists willingly comply with requests from security and police forces. In July 2005, as police in London pursued suspects in a series of failed suicide bombings, broadcasters agreed not to show live coverage of the ongoing operation. The security services were concerned such coverage might alert the suspects to their impending capture.

The real challenges that journalists face in reporting security issues are absences both of facts (those 5Ws and the H), and of secondary sources. Working with incomplete information can lead to errors of judgement.

The relationship between journalists and security sources is in many ways a conflict — one in which both sides may sometimes do things they should not. From a journalist’s point of view, it is a conflict in which security forces, whatever their motives, should not be allowed always to get their way — or to reach a point where they dominate completely.

The extent of the damage done by Mr Snowden’s revelations, or the extent to which they should be welcomed, is a different argument. The extent to which they should be reported is another argument again — although I think many journalists would say that, like the comments of the Chiefs of the FSB and MI5, the fact that they exist is a story.