Newsrooms and war zones are both on the frontlines

There was a time when journalism safety was seen as the preserve of those deploying to conflicts or crises overseas. In today’s new world order, newsrooms and war zones are both on the frontlines. 

Journalists and media workers are at risk from killing and kidnapping, in countries where corrupt regimes and groups want to control the flow of information.

Our colleagues are also under mounting political pressure

Across parts of Europe, states are tightening their control of public sector media companies and imprisoning journalists in increasing numbers.

Wherever the media works nowadays – be that online or offline – there are physical, psychological and digital risks to consider.

The risk and reality of domestic terror threats has affected the news media in ways we might not previously have imagined. Some colleagues, more at home in the studio or newsroom and certainly unused to conflict and crises, have found themselves reporting on breaking news for  which they were neither physically or psychologically prepared.

Fortunately, there’s much that can be done now to prepare, to plan and to counter, to continue.

At INSI we provide our members with a global network where news organisations like the BBC, NOS, RTL, the Guardian, among others, access the most up-to-date and relevant safety information so their media staff can and do stay safe wherever and whenever they are working.

Faced with this new reality of risk, newsrooms have put into place plans for what they will do if they find themselves right on the frontlines. What they will do if their city, or their company, comes under attack, how they will carry on reporting if they become the story, how they will keep their business going in the event of a critical incident and how they will communicate if they lose the forms of communications on which we rely so heavily. It’s no longer enough to assume it will never happen.

Failing to prepare, as a colleague often tells me, is preparing to fail.

The risks are not just restricted to attacks like those I’ve just mentioned. The past few months have seen a sickening rise in the vitriol directed against journalists. Countries that we prized as the cradles of free speech are now no longer safe havens. Countries we regarded as problematic are now no-go zones.

Local journalists are bearing the brunt of assaults where international colleagues are absent. According to INSI research, every week, an average of two journalists are killed for their work: 115 last year. Multiply that by many more and you get the number of journalists who live in fear for their lives and the lives of their children, their families, their friends. Journalists who are threatened, attacked and harassed, simply for doing their job.

The rise of Donald Trump has thrown a dark shadow over our profession

In public and legal protests, in their exercise of free speech, in their work holding power to account, journalists are now apparently legitimate targets for attacks by him, his cronies and an army of thugs and trolls.

Elsewhere, we’re seeing the contagion spread as though the clarion call of fake news was enough to encourage anyone with a grievance to attack the messenger. And one of the most insidious ways in which this is happening is through online harassment and assaults on digital security.

This has left journalists and their sources exposed and at risk. From the organised trolling campaigns we’re seeing from Russia to the doxxing of journalists in the US and the Ukraine, to the significant gendered harassment that many women journalists are receiving simply for having a public presence.

Online harassment and digital insecurity is something that we can’t ignore. And we’re not. INSI is working with a core team of members to try to find a way to come together as an industry to put pressure on those who give free rein to the perpetrators.

It's just one way that INSI is trying to encourage the news industry to come together when faced with the insidious scourge of insecurity that we’re dealing with in so many ways – physically, psychologically and digitally.

That doesn’t mean it’s all doom and gloom. I firmly believe there’s never been a more important time to work in the media. In today’s multi-faceted, multi-platformed, digital landscape, the value of well-researched, accountable, analytical, responsible journalism from trusted organisations is absolutely crucial.

Unless we can guarantee the safety of journalists, we can’t guarantee the freedom of the press. And at a time when we – as an industry seem to be facing an onslaught from more angles than ever before – I believe if we recognise the risks, we’re more likely to be able to face the reality.

If collectively, we hold power to account – we call out the abuses, we rail against the injustices, we put pressure on governments and international institutions to investigate miscarriages of justice, to track down and convict the murders and attackers of journalists, then I believe we all stand a much greater chance of being safe and sound.

INSI director Hannah Storm delivered this keynote speech at the media conference Radiodays Europe on 22 March 2017

Wednesday's attack in London underlines the importance of newsrooms being able to plan to respond safely and effectively to security incidents closer to home. INSI is committed to supporting our members to help keep their journalists safe wherever and whenever they work.

Photo by AFP