More journalists risk kidnap, despite improved safety protocols


The recent disappearance of three Spanish freelance journalists, Antonio Pampliega, José Manuel López and Ángel Sastre in Syria, has once again highlighted the risks journalists face in high conflict zones.

Though the Spanish daily newspaper El País reported that Spanish government sources have not been able to confirm whether the trio are victims of kidnapping, Spanish press organisations and international NGOs fear the worst.

“We are very concerned about the fate of these three Spanish journalists, who disappeared in Aleppo, a city controlled partly by Islamic State and partly by Al-Nusra Front, another armed group,” Reporters Without Borders (RWB) secretary-general Christophe Deloire said to Equal Times.

“We appeal to all parties in the conflict to respect the work of the media and to stop taking hostages for political ends,” Deloire added.

The days of diving headlong into a war zone to report as an independent witness are long gone.

Reporters Without Borders estimates that 119 journalists were kidnapped worldwide in 2014, a 30 per cent increase from 2013, with the highest concentration of kidnappings in Libya, Syria and Iraq.

No institutional memory

Journalist and documentary filmmaker Sean Langan was no stranger to war reporting when the Taliban took him and his translator hostage in 2008. He had covered the war in Afghanistan for a decade when a commander in the insurgency group the Haqqani network accused the pair of being spies, and held them captive for three months in a blacked-out room in a farmhouse in the Afghan countryside.

Though Langan followed safety protocols at the time, his rescue didn’t come soon enough. "My ten years of war reporting was the best preparation for my captivity," Langan told Equal Times in an interview. “In every case I’ve been involved with since my own abduction, it seems there’s no institutional memory in place," Langan said.

Courtney Radsch, Advocacy Director at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), concedes: “In the past, everyone took varied approaches. Media blackouts are not as effective as they used to be, and CPJ believes that publicity is more in the interest of safety. We have learned from past experience, even though each case varies.”

Since Langan’s own kidnapping and captivity, he believes that risk assessment and safety protocols are paramount for every local, international, staff or freelance journalist and their media organisations, because, “a week in captivity, feels like a lifetime”.


Syria’s Civil War: a turning point

The Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011, ushered in an era of unprecedented brutality against journalists reporting from within high conflict zones.

Rebel groups in Syria targeted media workers as lucrative hostages, causing Syria to surpass Mexico and Brazil as the most dangerous countryin the world for journalists.

CPJ research revealed that by the autumn of 2013, 62 journalists were killed, and the kidnapping of journalists had skyrocketed to a rate of one a week.

Agence France-Presse stopped sending their staff or accepting reports from freelance journalists within the rebel held territories of Syria from August 2013.

But the barbarism journalists faced in Syria only gained worldwide attention when the so-called Islamic State (IS) militant jihadist group broadcasted the beheading of kidnapped American freelance journalist James Foley in August 2014. Foley’s death was soon followed by American-Israeli journalist Steven Sotloff and Japanese journalists Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto.

Newsgathering organisations scrambled to secure their staff, and debates raged about the effectiveness of existing check-in/check-out safety protocols and risk assessments, the emphasis of which was borne out of the Syrian crisis.


Journalists get more backing, but is it enough?

“A contractual and moral issue comes to the forefront when journalists are kidnapped in high conflict zones," Caroline Neil, Security and Risk Management Consultant and Director at RPS Partnership, a London-based organisation specialising in conflict management and hostile environment training.

“Media organisations are putting much more time and effort into training, planning and preparation for journalists from ten years ago, but I would still like to see local journalists get the same standard of training as international journalists," Neil told Equal Times.

In response to the situation in Syria, 67 media organisations have signed up to Global Safety Principles and Practices set up by CPJ in conjunction with David Rohde of Thomson Reuters. The Guidelines, launched in February 2015, set out the minimum safety standard for conflict zone training of local and international staff as well as freelance journalists.

According to Neil, many London-based organisations are putting their journalists through training with TV and radio leading the way, but there are no figures on exactly how many UK or international organisations participate in the training programmes.

The BBC and other large organisations have security advisors who can step in to rescue local freelancers, but smaller organisations might not have the budget to cover a training programme or hire specialists.

“The key is the local journalists. They are taking the greatest risks because local government officials and opposition parties are targeting them for killing because they’re the ones who are implicated. International journalists are killed or kidnapped for different reasons. The CPJ data reveals trends that enable us to tailor our responses to each case, instead of applying a one-size fits all approach.” Radsch said.

In the early hours of the morning of 7 July 2014, local Libyan freelance photojournalist Nader Elgadi and a friend walked through Tripoli after photographing the protests in Algeria Square for a story. Three armed militia men abducted the pair, stuffed them into a car and drove them to a secluded building where they were beaten and tortured for two days.

“I didn’t think it would happen to me,” Elgadi told Equal Times. “But having gone through training with the help of the Rory Peck Trust, I now know better about what to do and how to stay safe. I’m more cautious now. I just wish I had the training before I was kidnapped.”

Frontline Freelance Register (FFF), a network of international freelance foreign and conflict journalists who take physical risks in their work, is expected to publish the Hostile Environment Training for Freelancers in the Media in September 2015.

Amongst many safety pointers, FFF recommends freelancers to keep personal information up-to-date, to use more than one method of communication, e.g. a tracker and a mobile, to keep social media profiles limited (and never include personal contact details), to use separate phones for sources and personal contacts and, if possible, to get training on anti-surveillance, medical aid and risk assessment.