No job in journalism is more difficult or more satisfying than war reporting. In a war zone, reporters have to deal with people who regard killing as just another part of the day, they have to get the story right and then deliver it on deadline in places where just stepping outside can be fatal.
But war reporting has a terrible downside. It can kill you. Every journalist going to war should remember one fact — this assignment could end your life, or leave you maimed in body and mind. No matter how experienced or careful you are, if you lose your luck, you could die.
Careful journalists and responsible employers can find ways to reduce the risks. But the only really safe way for a journalist to report a war is to sit in a newsroom and pick up wires.
So it is alarming for people who are already in a dangerous business to have to conclude that a whole new danger has arisen. It is not just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as Martin Bell was when he was wounded by shrapnel in Sarajevo in 1992. We are no longer collateral damage; we have become targets.
TV journalists are especially at risk, because they are more conspicuous and because of the power of TV news in a globalised world. These days, everyone with a message to push wants to get it on television. Killers seem to have realised that the impact of their actions expands exponentially once it is beamed around the world. Sometimes their reasoning is not that sophisticated. People who have concluded that the West is their enemy just want to kill one of its representatives.
The Saudi authorities — and the BBC — are investigating why Simon Cumbers was killed recently and Frank Gardner was left fighting for his life in a hospital in Riyadh. I have no idea what they have uncovered. But it is a fair hypothesis that they were shot because they were Westerners with a camera.
Journalists all around the world are in danger. Just glance at the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists (www.cpj.org). In recent weeks alone it detailed attacks on the freedom of the press in Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Grenada, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia and Venezuela.
Al-Jazeera believes it has been targeted by the Americans and in Jerusalem many Palestinian journalists believe they have been singled out by the Israel Defence Forces. Both governments deny it. My friend Mazen Dana, a Palestinian who worked in Hebron for Reuters, talked about it when he won a Press Freedom Award three years ago. “To be a journalist and cameraman in a city of lost hope like Hebron requires great sacrifices,” he said. “Gunfire, humiliation, beatings, prison, rocks and the destruction of journalists’ equipment are just some of the hardships.” Mazen was shot dead by an American soldier outside Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq last year.
So, if we accept that a new danger exists, what do we do about it? In Baghdad some reporters operate with armed bodyguards. The BBC employs unarmed former military safety advisers to work alongside its correspondents. There has been a lot of discussion in BBC News about hiring armed bodyguards for news teams in the field. If director of news Richard Sambrook and his advisers decide the circumstances are exceptional, it might happen in the future.
If it does, it would not be the first time. In the Somalian civil war in the early 1990s, we all drove around Mogadishu with armed guards. We also subcontracted some of the gunmen used by Save the Children. We tried not to think of what would happen if our hired guns got involved in a shootout.
Journalists and crews on the ground have always taken safety seriously. But since the war started in Bosnia in 1992, management has taken it seriously too.
The first time I went to a war, in El Salvador in 1989, on the day that the Sunday Times journalist David Blundy was killed, I had no safety training, no flak jacket and no idea about first aid. I packed a pair of running shoes because I had a hazy idea, which turned out to be correct, that they would be useful. I was shown what to do by other journalists and by the Salvadorian camera crew with whom I was working. We were still not wearing flak jackets when the war started in Croatia in 1991. We travelled to the battlegrounds in a fibreglass Renault Espace.
When flak jackets, helmets and bulletproof vehicles started to come in about a year later, some of the older journalists disapproved of them. The theory was that it made you look military, which was dangerous. But we soon found out that everyone got shot at anyway.
It is now normal for journalists in war zones to have thousands of pounds worth of body armour and safety training. Perhaps in a few years from now it will be just as routine for us to work with a bodyguard with a Glock in his waistband, grenades in his pockets and an M-16 in his hands.
I hope not. Even wearing flak jackets, we are still non-combatants. Sometimes the best protection is for people to know you are defenceless. But remember, reporters who were doubtful about flak jackets in Bosnia started wearing them when they were shot at. If more journalists get killed, wounded or kidnapped, perhaps armed bodyguards will be the only answer. The implications are serious. It might deter a potential bandit , but what could two bodyguards do against 20 armed men?
If you carry a gun, or employ people who do, you have to be prepared to use it. That might mean killing people. Is that what reporters want to be doing? Maybe, if the alternative is being killed. Or perhaps news organisations are just going to have to be much more cautious about the places they go to. — Â