From Issue 2- 2012 RCRC Magazine Journalists are often the first to expose the reality of war and the suffering of vulnerable people. But media workers are also targets. What can humanitarians do to help keep them safe — and get the story out?

On the early afternoon of 24 May 2012, radio journalist Ahmed Addow Anshur was walking through the Suuq Bo’le, a market in the Dharkenley district of Mogadishu, Somalia, when he was shot and killed by four men who witnesses say quickly sped off on motorcycles.

Anshur died instantly from bullet wounds to the head and the chest, making him the sixth Somali journalist murdered in the country this year. If the current trend continues, 2012 could become one of the worst years for Somali journalists since 2009, when nine reporters were killed.

“The violence towards journalists gets worse when there is a political transition,” says Mohamed Ibrahim, a freelance Somali journalist who also works as a New York Times correspondent and is secretary general of the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ).

“When the situation becomes very political, each group tries to manipulate the media by threatening or killing journalists,” he says. “Also, there are gangs not related to any political factions that could be involved in these killings as well.”

A photo journalist jumps over a smoke canister at a demonstration.  REUTERS M. del Pozo courtesy the Thomson Reuters Foundation – Alertnet
A photo journalist jumps over a smoke canister at a demonstration. REUTERS M. del Pozo courtesy the Thomson Reuters Foundation – Alertnet

As with most of the attacks on journalists here, the identity of Anshur’s killers is unknown and most violent crimes against journalists go unsolved. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), based in New York, 41 journalists have been killed in Somalia since 1992, making it the most dangerous country on the African continent for media workers.

On the murky front line of modern conflict, it’s local journalists such as Anshur who are most at risk. War reporters who move from country to country face extreme dangers — as the numbers killed since 2011 during violence in Libya and Syria attest. But local reporters, as well as the ‘fixers’, translators, drivers and media workers who help international war reporters, make up the bulk of media workers killed.

“Most of the journalists who are killed are local reporters covering local stories,” says Mohammed Keita, who directs operations in Africa for the CPJ. “They are far more vulnerable than international journalists because they have little institutional support and they live and work in countries where the rule of law is not very strong.”

Life expectancy: 24 hours This climate of fear has a chilling effect on those trying to bear witness to the humanitarian consequences of conflict or insecurity. “Our life expectancy is 24 hours — renewable.” That’s how Solange Lusiku describes the situation for journalists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where eight journalists have been killed since 2006. A champion of the free press, Lusiku is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Le Souverain, an independent newspaper in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province in eastern DRC, a region plagued by violence. Like many journalists and press advocates, Lusiku says a free press is not only vital to democracy and human rights, but to any effective humanitarian response. “Just as the press contributes to the promotion of democracy, it also promotes humanitarian assistance,” she says. “Humanitarian actors need the press to present facts requiring urgent intervention or to alert people about a dangerous and disastrous situation — even to inform the public about the work they have done.” While reporters often need humanitarian groups for mobility, statistics and access to dangerous areas, Lusiku says relief agencies also need journalists. “In situations of conflict, we need an independent press in order to have reliable information that has been neither censored nor self-censored,” she adds. “This also allows humanitarians to guide and plan their interventions.” This is why, maintains CPJ’s Keita, humanitarian groups should advocate for the protection of journalists. During natural crises such as the ongoing drought in the Sahel or Horn of Africa, the state of media freedom in the affected countries should be part of the discussion, Keita argues. “If a government is engaged in downplaying the extent of the crisis in the name of protecting the image of the country, and they can manipulate data about the humanitarian crisis, it will also have an impact on the response,” he says. Humanitarian responsibility? If this is so, what is the role and responsibility of humanitarian organizations towards the press? And do the laws governing armed conflict adequately protect those who risk their lives to get the news out about the realities of war or other dangerous emergencies? Recent events, from high-profile deaths and kidnappings of journalists in Afghanistan, Colombia, Libya, Pakistan and Syria to the growing global body count (25 killed as of mid-June 2012 by violent means, according to CPJ), suggest that journalists are increasingly vulnerable to attack in places where humanitarian reporting is desperately needed. Since 1992, in fact, CPJ has documented 919 cases in which journalists were killed due to acts of violence. Of those, 70 per cent were murdered, 18 per cent caught in the crossfire during combat and 12 per cent killed by violence while on dangerous assignments. Numerous national and global organizations (including CPJ, Reporters Sans Frontières and the International Federation of Journalists) campaign vigorously for press freedom and greater protection for journalists. Most offer training and guidelines for journalists on how to stay safe while on dangerous missions and they publicly push for prosecutions — even launching their own investigations — of crimes against media workers. Read more about Protecting Witnesses in the latest edition of RCRC magazine