This article originally appeared on the website of the journal Arab Media & Society.
Under the banner “Journalism at Risk—Safety and Professionalism in a Dangerous World,” the 2016 World Congress of the International Press Institute (IPI) held in Doha, Qatar in March tackled the dangers of covering terrorism and other forms of political violence, examining ongoing developments in the Middle East and around the world.
In a wide range of panel discussions and workshops, congress delegates looked at regional and international trends and patterns, identifying and encouraging best practices for journalists to cover events independently and in a timely and safe manner. Topics ranged from covering violent extremism to digital security; from keeping your team, newsroom, and reputation safe in a rapidly changing high-risk environment to the obligations and responsibilities of media toward citizen journalists; and from covering the refugee crisis to promoting safety through international mechanisms and newsroom protocols.
The proceedings began with a group of expert panelists—joined by editors, media executives, and leading journalists from the audience—discussing the important and not-just-regionally relevant issue of covering violent extremism.
Among the questions brought up: How can those who risk their personal and mental health daily better prepare for the job of covering terrorism and other forms of violence? What can those on the news desk do to ensure the safety of their journalists in the field? What is the responsibility of news organizations toward freelance journalists, and other sources without staff jobs, who supply content at great risk? How important is language when reporting on violent extremism?
Moderated by Sue Turton, a British television journalist and filmmaker who was one of nine Al Jazeera journalists convicted in absentia in Egypt of aiding and abetting a terrorist organization and sentenced in 2014 to ten years in prison, the panel discussion featured Baker Atyani, senior international correspondent for the Dubai-based Al Arabiya news channel; Wahyu Dhyatmika, managing editor of Tempo.com in Indonesia; Jahanzaib Haque, editor of Pakistan’s Dawn.com; and Mariam Oubaiche, senior journalist for the Qatar-based Al Jazeera Media Network.
Do Your Homework
Asked by Turton what journalists—as well as “editorial staff and those sitting on the news desks and concerned about [their] safety”—should do when “preparing to go into conflict zones, war zones, or even just countries where it’s difficult to report,” veteran journalist Atyani and the others agreed that “doing your homework” was crucial.
“One of the main things a journalist should do is to know with whom he is working,” Atyani observed. The Jordanian national, who gained prominence as the last journalist to interview Osama bin Laden before the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., has covered conflict zones in Asia for the past 16 years and is an expert on militant groups in the region. From 2012 to 2013, he was held hostage for 18 months by the Filipino Islamist rebel group Abu Sayyaf while working on a film about the decades-old conflict in Mindanao in the southern Philippines. To this day, Atyani says he believes that he was “sold out” by his producer and handed over to Abu Sayyaf for money.
“I always tell journalists, you need to know who your producer is,” he said. “Who is the journalist you are going with? Are you going with someone from the government, or an activist who belongs to a militant group? I failed to do [my homework] myself.”
Turton, a reporter for Sky News, ITN, and Channel 4 News before joining Al Jazeera English in 2010 as their first ever Afghanistan correspondent, agreed. “It’s not just the producer—it’s the local fixer, the driver, it’s everyone involved with you who you need to be worrying about.”
The Editor’s Responsibility
“But how much of the responsibility is on the editors and bosses to make sure all the preparations are done properly?” Turton pressed panelists to answer.
Wahyu, a former investigative reporter for Jakarta-based Tempo magazine and today in charge of the news gathering unit in Tempo’s integrated newsroom, said: “The main responsibility of those in the newsroom is to make sure that the reporters are in safe hands, that they are working with trusted parties, and that they know what they are doing—that they understand the issues. We make sure that we don’t mismatch—that we don’t send someone who was embedded with the police or military to a group who have an antipathy toward or problems with the authorities.”
Turton, elaborating on the responsibility of the editor for the safety of his or her journalists, asked: “How important is it for those back at base to be seeing the bigger picture and actually working more closely with other organizations when it comes to safety, security, keeping your journalists alive?”
Haque, as editor of Dawn.com, the online version of Dawn newspaper, Pakistan‘s oldest and most widely read English-language publication, is responsible for some 500 to 600 journalists within the Dawn Media Group. He said that one of the things his organization has done in Pakistan is to “put every single important news director and editor across the media groups into a WhatsApp group.”
The journalist said the advantage was that when a journalist is kidnapped or there is a bomb scare inside the building of a media organization, the WhatsApp group can quickly make a decision about whether or not to go public with the information.
“It’s a very simple solution,” Haque commented. “But what this does is that when news breaks or something happens with regard to violence against our journalists, we can quickly make decisions about what we need to do across the media.”
Freelancers, Citizen Journalists, and Online Activists
The panel then turned to non-staffers—freelance journalists, activists, and citizen reporters—on whom news organizations are increasingly relying for content. Turton asked how these sources, who take on more risk with much less security than journalists with staff jobs, should be used and what can be done to improve their situation.
“This is something we are all worried about—that freelancers are being used as cannon fodder by some organizations,” she said. “What can we, as a body, do to try and protect those we rely on?”
Oubaiche, who joined Al Jazeera Arabic in 2002 and reports from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, said that since the beginning of the Arab Spring, there have been more activists than journalists on TV screens. While their contribution is important, she said, activists used “another vocabulary, another editorial style,” and this difference did not help her “to do other stories, to be accepted by certain sources, and sometimes even by certain states.”
“We have to filter their work and teach them to differentiate between their own opinion and what you can broadcast on TV,” she said. “A certain balance is needed.”
Haque concurred: “At Dawn TV, activists with absolutely no experience come on the channel and what they say has an immediate impact. The Taliban hears what actually shouldn’t have been said and immediately assumes this is the voice of the Dawn Media Group. That’s hugely problematic.”
Atyani stressed that media organizations must do more to train, equip, and protect these sources, while Turton drew attention to the important work that NGOs such as the Frontline Club and Rory Peck Trust were doing to improve the safety and welfare of freelance news gatherers across the globe.
A Matter of Language
“How important is it to get the language right when you’re reporting from the field?” Turton asked. “If you don’t get it right, how much can that backfire on you?”
Atyani replied that if a media organization didn’t have a balanced editorial line or language “it can really backfire.” An editor can always “fix” the language of a citizen journalist or activist on the ground, he maintained, but “when an organization has an editorial line that is with one party and against another, journalists in the field are harassed, [and] kidnapped because the editorial policy is not a balanced one.” He pointed out that Al Arabiya’s offices were twice bombed because of its editorial line.
Wahyu emphasized that while every media outlet was entitled to its own editorial policy and its own perspective, a more important question was how they made sure their reporting was independent and not driven by the editorial line. He explained: “I think the audience can see the difference when news reporting is driven by certain ideological or editorial policies or when it is independent and objective, even though it’s being reported in a media that has a very strong editorial policy toward one camp or another.”
What We Got Wrong
Finally, Turton asked the panelists what they got wrong in the past that might help other journalists reporting on violent extremism.
Haque said that one of the most significant mistakes his organization made was “internalized self-censorship that has gone through the reporters, the editors, through everyone.”
“We have a mental checklist of things you cannot talk about—self-censorship engrained in our heads because we are terrified, because if you look at the [number of] journalists who are kidnapped, murdered in Pakistan, it’s pretty high,” he said. “We have bomb scares. Our vans are shot at. There’s violence virtually every week, so the self-censorship kicks in. Everybody has this list in their head: the blasphemy law, anything religion-related, the Pakistani army, etc. This is a huge problem. I wish I could overcome it, but I also have to keep my 500 to 600 people safe, so I’m not sure where it stands, but that is the problem.”
Wahyu, on the other hand, judged that his organization’s biggest mistake was likely not self-censorship, but the “lack of filters.” In the wake of bombings in Jakarta and Bali, and stretching back to the Christmas Eve bombs in 2000, he observed, the media “was too eager to follow the lead, join the police in getting the terrorists.”
“We lost our sensitivity,” he said. “We lost our understanding of the bigger context. We have to understand this hatred of the West in order to give our audience a better understanding of the root cause of these terrorist acts.”
Turton said that that her biggest mistake was “what happened [to her] in Egypt.”
She recounted: “Although not a war zone [and] not a conflict zone, it was a very tricky situation for anybody covering events at the time. We didn’t recognize quickly enough how things had changed and how we as journalists are not protected—even when we think we are—from the regime coming and picking us up and throwing us in jail and going the full course, throwing us in court and convicting us.”
Turton said the lesson to take from that was “that even when you have been in a country for quite some time—and we had been operating under the crackdown for some time—we didn’t recognize that the worst could happen, and so when it did, it was too late.”
She stressed that regular checks to assess the level of danger or risk in the environments in which journalists operate is crucial for journalists reporting on politically motivated violence.
A video recording of the session is available here.