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Foley killing raises journalist safety concerns

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The beheading of US journalist James Foley at the hands of Islamic State (IS) righters has sent shockwaves across the media landscape, bringing into question the safety of journalists in such conflict zones. Foley’s murder echoed the similar killing of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in 2002, and highlighted an alarming trend that has seen more than 1000 war reporters being killed since 1992.

A number of companies and organizations have emerged with the sole aim of providing training to journalists heading into war-zones. One such group is Global Journalist Security (GJS), who specialize in hostile environment training to journalists, conflict resolution experts, and humanitarian workers.

GJS covers safety training in terms dealing with civil unrest, sexual assault, street crime, contingencies, digital safety, as well as emotional self care. They cover both war-zones, as well as inner city unrest.

Such security for journalists was vital in the eyes of GJS executive director, Frank Smyth, who stressed the importance of proper preparation before heading into such conflict zones. Apart from hostile environment training, he said proper risk assessment was also vital between the journalists and editors, before being deployed to these areas.

“It means acquiring body armor and other equipment that is recommended for the situation. It also requires, perhaps most importantly, that people obtain proper health and life insurance before going into these areas. A great many journalists operating in conflict zones are doing so without any kind of health or life insurance at all,” he said.

The case of James Foley has brought attention to startup news agencies that send journalists into conflict areas. Foley notably worked for GlobalPost, a small news site founded in 2009.

Smyth said many of these startups were giving journalists their first opportunity at getting published, despite having limited budgets to provide sufficient support and security to them. He said it was important that these companies took at least some stock of the risks, and did what they could to provide some level of training and insurance for journalists, before going into the field.

“It’s a combination of ignorance and economic constraints, and quite frankly a desire not to deal with the issue because it would be too burdensome. But I think now after the case of James Foley, they have to be dealt with,” he stressed.

Despite the mantra that ‘no story is worth dying for’, Smyth said it was not necessarily that many journalist casualties were due to personal error. He noted that some of the most respected journalists in the profession were dying through reasons out of their control.

It was not uncommon for many journalists to experience cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) upon returning from assignments in such high risk area. He said it was vital that when these journalists returned, for them to receive some sort of support and be allowed to take time to emotionally recover.

“That could mean going to see a therapist, or it could mean doing yoga. There are a variety of techniques, but the most important thing to recognize is that emotional self-care is important. Journalists need to be given support and space, without being judged,” he said.

He added that in the last 15 years, there was an alarming increase in journalists specifically being target in conflict zones, either because of their nationality, occupation, or ethnicity.

“The fact that they are journalists has not been respected by a variety of armed groups. That’s the game that has changed. It was clear that it was changing when we saw what happened to Daniel Pearl, now of course in the case of James Foley, it drives that point home,” he said. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)

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