By Cosmas Odoemena
The other day, a British correspondent, Stuart Ramsay, working with SkyNews along with four of his colleagues was shot and wounded after he came under fire in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.
They had tried to escape from the car they were in, but Ramsay took a slug in his lower back while a cameraman named Richie Mockler had two rounds splattered on his body armour. Russian reconnaissance unit was alleged to have been responsible for the attack.
The Prime Minister of Britain, Boris Johnson, praised the crew for their bravery, saying that they were risking their lives so that “the truth is told”. In a tweet, he said: “Free press will not be intimidated or cowed by barbaric and indiscriminate acts of violence.”
Meanwhile, CNN’s Matthew Chance was on-air from Ukraine as he talked about the war and whether Ukraine’s determination was going to wane.
He suddenly looked to the ground to see that he had been standing next to a grenade all the while.
The experienced journalist quietly moved away from that area while beckoning on his crew to follow him.
There are other journalists like BBC’s Clive Myrie and chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet who have kept millions of viewers gripped with their chilling dispatches from the war zone in Kyiv.
During the war in Libya, Sara Sidner of CNN braced up to feed viewers information of happenings in that country. Even the helmet she wore on her head and the bulletproof vest did little to mask the fear that was visible in her eyes.
As I wrote in an article during the Libyan war, journalists are often caught in the crossfire during wars.
As the war raged, rebels took over Tripoli in the endgame of Muammar Gaddafi’s 46-year regime.
At the Rixos hotel, 35 journalists whom Gaddafi had permitted to cover the war were held for some days before they were released.
Incidentally, Matthew Chance was among those journalists. Recollecting that experience.
He said: “As a foreign correspondent I have covered conflicts all over the world: in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, the Balkans, and Georgia, but I have never experienced anything like the five days I have just spent in the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli; held captive by a group of Kalashnikov-brandishing young fanatical Gaddafi loyalists.
There were moments when I did not think I’d come out of the place alive, but what I found hardest to cope with was accepting my complete loss of control. My fate was out of my hands.”
He went on: “One morning, the second day of us being held there, we took refuge from the shelling in the basement.
When we came back upstairs, I found that the door of my room had been kicked in by the guards and my things ransacked. Nothing had been taken, but it was a chilling moment…I felt a curious mixture of emotions.
I was frightened. My right to leave had been taken away, I was in a dangerous place, and I had no control over what was happening.
I’d spoken to my family and told them of the predicament I was in and urged them not to worry…”
During the Iraq War, embedded journalism was introduced by the U.S. Department of Defence, which allowed journalists to be attached to a military unit on the battlefield.
This made the press have more access to information as it was happening.
But with this, there was an increased risk to their lives. In a 2006 book entitled Blood Brothers, TIME senior correspondent Michael Weisskopf wrote about how he lost his right hand in Iraq in 2003 on his way to profile the American soldier as “Person of the Year” for the magazine.
In a heroic show, he had picked a hand grenade that had landed into the humvee in which he had been “embedded”.
By that quick reaction, he saved his own life, and those of TIME ace photographer James Nachtwey, and some soldiers.
It is good to have real-time reporting; it is also good to consider these journalists in the frontline. Under the Geneva Convention, journalists are to be treated as civilians in times of war; so killing or harming them is seen as a war crime.
Many media organisations, in order to conserve funds, engage freelancers or “stringers”, instead of full-time staff.
They are often not protected with insurance; some of them are young and inexperienced.
In the late 1980s, the Dutch Union of Journalists championed the issue of journalists’ safety; and a worldwide action programme was later launched by the International Federation of Journalists, IFJ, to reduce the risks journalists face during wars.
It went on to publish a safety guidebook, and also looked through insurance policies for staff and freelancers, and came up with safety courses with employers, as well as first aid courses and training on the types of weapons that journalists could confront in warfare.
The journalists’ body ensured that media
companies took their share of responsibilities. Now, several IFJ member unions, together with media companies and military authorities, have intensive armed conflict preparation training programmes for their members.
Some media unions have included the right to safety training in their collective agreements with their companies.
The IFJ and its members have also lobbied for equal benefits for freelancers.
The IFJ has an all-encompassing “survival guide” for correspondents who cover conflicts. “Live News: A Survival Guide for Journalists.”
It has information on equipment, preparations, training, precautions, insurance, first aid, and post-traumatic stress disorders.
Journalism is like a humanitarian aid group, just like Doctors Without Borders, and the Red Cross, so they should get equal treatment.
It is also reprehensible to abduct or kidnap, or kill journalists. Governments, the military, and warlords should help protect journalists in their domain, whether domestic or foreign.
The first casualty of war is truth. It is also true that many families of journalists who want to tell the world the truth would be grateful if their loved ones return to them safely.
Dr. Odoemena, a medical practitioner, wrote from Lagos.