Egypt has entered a new phase in its current crisis following the ousting of former President-elect Mohammed Morsi and it’s a bloody one.
Scores of people have been killed and hundreds injured since the military clamped down on pro-Morsi protestors in Cairo on Wednesday. Among the dead were three journalists that were on assignment when the violence broke out.
Sky News cameraman Mick Deane, Gulf News journalist Ahmed Abd Elaziz and Al Akhbar reporter Ahmed Abdel Gawad Al Akhbarare now part of a worrisome statistic of journalists who have lost their lives for their work.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has confirmed the death of over 150 journalists since 2012 worldwide (105 of which were working at the time). Last year was also one of the worst years on record for journalists killed in the line of duty, according to CPJ, with Syria being the worst offender.
A free press is instrumental in today’s democracies, or any functioning society for that matter, and it is increasingly under threat.
War can never be safe and reporters bleed just like everyone else. War reporting and dangerous assignment have always been risky business and the international community has borne witness to it. The brutal beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002 has had a residual effect on the journalist community, especially in the West.
Pearl’s case is different in the sense that Pakistan was not at war at the time, but it still highlights how journalists are not only a casualty of war but are often a direct target. The Wall Street Journal confirmed that Pearl was working on a story related to Islamic Militants in Pakistan at the time he was killed. Some might argue that he knew the risk given the subject matter, but if that would have deterred Pearl he probably wouldn’t be one of the most revered journalists amongst his peers.
With today’s information technologies the pressure to report the story first, especially in conflict zones, could be adding pressure on journalists. Thus, prompting them to take greater risks. Keep in mind that for many of these slain journalists, their livelihoods depended on reporting on war. On the other hand, ones line of work can also be considered a choice.
The changing journalism landscape has reduced the number of foreign correspondents abroad. With many legacy media houses as big as The New York Times and The Washington Post closing down entire bureaus, there has been a sharp increase in freelancers operating in war zones such as Syria. These reporters are not protected by their employers and they work on much tighter budgets. According to CPJ, 39% of the total number of journalists killed in 2013 was freelancers. They are also more prone to exposing themselves to dangerous conditions because they are relying on as little as $70 per piece.
Francesca Borri, an Italian freelance in Syria, wrote an eye-opening personal account of her time in Syria for CPJ. Having spent 10 years working in war-ridden countries, Borri’s testimony holds a lot of weight.
She referred to freelancers as ‘second-class’ journalists who have to work extra hard to provide information that is somehow different from the standardized reports that are making their rounds on the internet.
“So, for example, sleeping in this rebel base, under mortar fire, on a mattress on the ground, with yellow water that gave me typhoid, costs $50 per night; a car costs $250 per day. So you end up maximizing, rather than minimizing, the risks. Not only can you not afford insurance—it’s almost $1,000 a month—but you cannot afford a fixer or a translator. You find yourself alone in the unknown. The editors are well aware that $70 a piece pushes you to save on everything,” she wrote.
The changing nature of wars has also increased the risks for journalists. Gone are the days of embedded reporters on either sides’ army. Reporters were protected and had direct access to troops and information, even in Iraq. In order to get the real story they must get close to the ‘other’ side, which in Syria’s case are the rebels and in Egypt’s case, the pro-Morsi protestors. Thus leaving them more vulnerable.
Syria has been the most deadly country for reporters this year with 17 killed (5 freelancers).
Media watch dogs and those looking out for the interests of journalists, such as CPJ, have published guidelines to help minimize risk in conflict zones but anything can happen at any time.
Journalists operating in volatile and potentially violent conditions need to ask themselves, is it worth it?