Managing travel for journalists in conflict zones

BRITISH JOURNALIST JOHN SCHOFIELD was only 29 when he was killed during the Balkans conflict in 1995. The young man from Weybridge was reporting for BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight, close to the border between Croatia and Bosnia. Croatian soldiers mistook the BBC World Service unit that he was travelling with for a Serbian surveillance team. They opened fire. John was the 76th journalist to be killed in the war in the former Yugoslavia.

The BBC’s senior management learned of the tragedy when it was announced on the radio. That may seem shocking to many people nowadays, but until the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, in the media travel risk management as we understand it today simply didn’t exist.

Auntie Beeb realised it owed a duty-of- care to staff and slowly began to address the issue. By the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 it had established a fully-fledged security team. One of its members was Colin Pereira, now head of high-risk security for Independent Television News (ITN), which encompasses ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. “The BBC was the pioneer, and other broadcasters followed,” he says.

Pereira once dreamt of becoming a journalist; but it was while studying Islamic fundamentalism at St And of Iraq in 2003 it had established a fully-fledged security team. One of its members was Colin Pereira, now head of high-risk security for Independent Television News (ITN), which encompasses ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. “The BBC was the pioneer, and other broadcasters followed,” he says.

Pereira once dreamt of becoming a journalist; but it was while studying Islamic fundamentalism at St Andrew’s university in the 1990s he developed a passion for international affairs and security. Combining academic expertise with his enthusiasm for media and communications was somewhat inevitable. “We are operating in a very niche area,” he says. “Journalists and crews are rushing towards places from which others are running away. There is enormous risk associated with being in a war zone or an area destroyed by a natural disaster. But these reporters and crews have a much higher-than-normal tolerance of risk. We must enable them to do their jobs in the safest possible way,” he says. “The person responsible for travel risk within a normal global company may only have to deal with two or three crises in their career. We see six to eight a year.”

Pereira jokes that to do his job, or be on the front line, you have to be “gung ho”. And it is precisely because of the organisation’s relentless desire to get to a story that risk assessments take place. “You don’t want to be known as the person who says no, and prevent the correspondents from chasing a story,” he admits. “You have to think about how to mitigate risk and support the teams as much as you can.” At the time of writing, ITN still has crews operating in Syria and Iraq, but has not sent teams to Egypt this year partially because of the risk faced by international journalists. Three Al Jazeera reporters are currently serving seven-year jail sentences, and threats are continually made to the media.

Contact networks

ITN has a travel management company (TMC) implant at its London headquarters responsible air and hotel bookings. The American Express Business Travel team, which also manages the company’s arrangements to non-conflict zones, works closely with Pereira and journalists in the field. However, the nature of being on the front line means correspondents and cameramen must often rely on local fixers and networks of contacts. The travel programme is, therefore, unique when compared with other industry sectors.

Tim Campbell supervises a team of business travel consultants at Statesman Travel. In recent years the TMC has worked with a number of newspapers and media companies. “Travel programmes and policies for these types of organisations have to be extremely flexible,” he says. “It’s impossible to forward-plan. The nature of breaking news means travel is pulled together at the last minute. We book flights and assist with visas in places such as Baghdad and Erbil, but movements on the ground tend to be lead by the journalists and their fixers. What’s important is that we maintain an open line of communications with news desks, editors and correspondents.”

Non-conflict zones

Reacting to breaking news stories in non-conflict zones also has its challenges, according to Campbell. When Nelson Mandela died in December 2013, one of Statesman’s clients needed to send a six-man team to South Africa. “The world’s media were descending on one place at one time, so finding flights and accommodation for a group carrying equipment was a real test,” he says. In 2012, five-year-old April Jones was abducted and murdered in the small Welsh village of Machynlleth. With the world’s media again on location, TMCs faced even more acute challenges. “A lot of people were being sent there, but it was a very small town with limited accommodation. You turn into an old-fashioned travel agent, combing through websites for local B&Bs,” says Campbell.

Statesman’s consultants were booking flights and hotels in Crimea during the initial stages of the regional conflict. But as the situation escalated, playing the role of booker became untenable. “That’s when it becomes more journalist-led on the ground. After the MH17 flight was shot down over Ukraine, many clients were asking us to check aircraft flight paths to try and avoid flying over war zones,” he says. “That was a whole new level.”

Conveying risk levels

Back at ITN, a traffic light grading system is used to convey risk levels after pre-trip assessments have been carried out. Green applies to areas with a normal risk level, such as London or other cities in Western Europe or North America; amber destinations are rated slightly higher (Caracas, for example, is one of the most dangerous places in the world, in certain districts); red is reserved for war zones, such as Syria, Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan. “We assess every case on its own merits, but red-light trips have to be signed off by the chief executive. This is mainly because we’re asking people to risk their lives, and it’s not a decision that should be taken lightly.”

Any ITN journalist travelling to an amber or red destination must undergo a four-day course, during which they learn about combat medical skills, dealing with battlefield casualties, road traffic accidents in remote locations, evacuation under duress and coping with hostile interrogations. “Much of it is not for the squeamish,” says Pereira. “There is kidnap awareness and survival techniques, but they also learn about how to be aware of electronic communications, such as what information to keep on phones and how to safely use social media in an area of conflict. It’s important because these things are discussed daily in the newsroom. And given what is happening in Syria and Iraq these are topics we address every day.”

Guidance and training are also personalised to meet the requirements of each traveller. Gender, sexuality, ethnicity and experience are all taken into account. “That doesn’t mean there is discrimination, but we have frank discussions about risk,” says Pereira. And always with an eye on the future, employees with mixed levels of experience are made to travel together. Pereira describes ITN’s philosophy as not just a ‘factory’ of news, but also, more importantly, a factory of journalists. “We have people who have accumulated years of knowledge about the areas in to which they are travelling. If we have more junior staff with them they develop by osmosis and so the flow of information continues. This is also why every traveller goes through a thorough de-briefing after the trip. Refresher training courses are also delivered regularly,” he says.

Lines of communication

The physical well-being of travellers is not ITN’s only concern. The nature of working in war zones and disaster areas means many are exposed to situations that can lead to post-traumatic stress. For example, many of the journalists covering the Beslan siege in Russia, or the recent conflict in Gaza, were parents.

“There were a lot of children killed in both cases,” reflects Pereira. “And our people then have to go home to their own kids. It can be very tough to deal with.” Counselling is, therefore, made available to all returning from the field. But this duty-of-care is also extended to workers’ families. “We are very aware that our staff do things and go to places that can be extremely stressful for their families. There can be a lot of anxiety. We really make a significant effort to keep communication lines open with next of kin during major, high-risk operations.”

The last 12 months have thrown up some of the most disturbing news images in recent memory. The loss of MH370 and MH17, the conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine, and the executions carried out by extremists in Syria and Iraq all create the impression that the world has never been so dangerous. But the truth is, journalists have faced this level of risk for many years and will continue to do so.

Some 40 members of the press have been killed in conflict zones somewhere in the world so far this year. That’s just over half the number that perished in 2013. Without travel risk and security programmes, these numbers would be terrifyingly higher.

RISKY BUSINESS

BEFORE TURNING TO A CAREER in politics, Sir Winston Churchill was one of Britain’s most celebrated war correspondents. He reported for The Morning Post, a daily conservative newspaper, from the front line of the second Boer War in South Africa in the late 19th century.

BBC journalist Alan Johnston was kidnapped in Gaza City on March 12, 2007, and held in captivity for four months. There were claims that the reporter was to be executed if any rescue attempt was launched. However, on July 4, Johnston was set free.

Freelance journalists are prone to taking higher risks in war zones, because they have to sell stories and are not paid a salary. Many global news agencies have stopped buying freelance work from Syria since the murder of James Foley by Islamic State extremists. 65 journalists have been killed in Syria since the start of the civil war.

Risc (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) has offered first-aid training to freelancers since photojournalist Tim Hetherington died in Libya in 2011 from a potentially-treatable wound. Hostile environment training prepares journalists o deal with checkpoints, war zones, kidnappings, interrogation, suicide bombers and land mines.

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