Training Journalists to Report Safely in Hostile Environments: `... Fire Services Personnel Don't Go Fighting Fires without Proper Training.' (Coverage of Terrorism)

By Owen, John | Nieman Reports, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Training Journalists to Report Safely in Hostile Environments: `... Fire Services Personnel Don't Go Fighting Fires without Proper Training.' (Coverage of Terrorism)


Owen, John, Nieman Reports


Two and a half months into the war on terrorism, eight journalists had been murdered, many had been injured, and several had been. held hostage. At this writing, a few American soldiers had been killed. This comparison led the British journalist Phillip Knightley to observe: "It is now safer to be a member of the fighting forces than a representative of the media. What's going on?"

No journalist, however experienced or well trained to work in a conflict zone, can feel secure working in lawless parts of Afghanistan where armed gangs or defectors from the Taliban will rob and murder them. It is how Swedish cameraman Ulf Stroemberg lost his life, when gunmen burst into the home where he and other Swedish journalists were staying in a Northern Afghanistan town.

But could the lives of other journalists have been spared had they made other judgments? The experience of a British journalist who undertook a dangerous assignment is worth examining more closely.

When Yvonne Ridley, a British reporter working for the Sunday Express tabloid newspaper, was arrested by the Taliban for illegally entering Afghanistan, she assumed that the greater journalistic community would rally around her. After all, Ridley would say later, she was trying to "put a human face on the demonized Afghans."

Ridley, disguised as an Afghan woman, had nearly pulled off her journalistic coup. She had succeeded in making the journey from Pakistan across the border and was by her reckoning a 20-minute donkey ride away from returning with her scoop when her donkey bolted and startled her. Ridley momentarily lost control, shouted in English, and was promptly spotted by the Taliban police.

For her struggling newspaper with plunging circulation, the Ridley escapade did grab headlines and put her on the BBC newscasts. But it also tied up British diplomats who, allied with the United States, were about to begin bombing Afghanistan. It was a distraction that Blair's Labor government did not appreciate.

Remarkably enough, Ridley did survive and was eventually released unharmed by the Taliban. But instead of accolades, Ridley received brickbats from other British editors who had refused to allow their correspondents to do a "John Simpson"--the veteran BBC war correspondent who, along with his cameraman, had donned burkas and snuck into Afghanistan for their exclusive reports.

At the BBC, probably the world's most safety conscious news organization, the Simpson assignment had been discussed and debated before he'd been given a green light. Although one senior BBC news executive later told me he did have grave reservations about the assignment, he did in the end acquiesce, as Simpson, who had covered countless wars and had come under attack in Baghdad during the Gulf War, was adamant that he could pull it off. Simpson also had decades of experience reporting on Afghanistan and knows the country and its people exceptionally well.

Ridley, on the other hand, was rushed off to Pakistan without any of the standard equipment that newspapers and broadcasters were equipping their correspondents with--no laptop, no satellite phone, and none of the protective gear that she would need if she ventured out of Islamabad. Nor could she have had time to get the needed anti-hepatitis shots and water purification pills and kit that would protect her against malaria and other potentially life-threatening diseases. When her editors encouraged her undercover assignment across the border, they advised her to leave behind her passport and any other identification. Other editors were particularly appalled by that absence of judgment.

The Ridley experience points out the high risks that irresponsible news organizations are prepared to take to get an exclusive story, especially in Britain, one of the most cutthroat and competitive news markets in the world. But it also points out that many editors and news executives are now unwilling to have their reporters--especially those camped out with the Northern Alliance--push themselves beyond what is already a gruelling battle daily to survive the elements. …

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