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Teaching journalists how to survive

In 2014, two years after kidnapping my son, James Wright Foley, while he was working as a freelance correspondent in Syria, the Islamic State tortured and killed him. Jim’s murder underscored the extraordinary risks journalists take to report the news in dangerous areas – and the need for stronger action to protect them.

In 2018, 80 journalists were killed worldwide, with more than half having been deliberately targeted. While many of these crimes took place in conflict zones, especially Afghanistan and Syria, nearly half occurred in countries not at war, led by Mexico, India, and the United States, where four journalists were killed when a man opened fire in their Annapolis, Maryland, newsroom.

Journalists are not safe in Europe, either. In Slovakia, the 27-year-old Ján Kuciak was killed in his home, along with his partner, Martina Kušnírová, after investigating allegations of tax evasion and fraud involving high-ranking officials and businesspeople.

Perhaps the most prominent recent example is Jamal Khashoggi. A Washington Post columnist and prominent critic of the Saudi government, Khashoggi went to Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul to pick up documents he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée. Soon after he entered the compound, he was tortured, murdered, and dismembered.

As violence against journalists has risen, calls for greater accountability have grown louder. As it stands, impunity is rampant, not least because of the frequent involvement of government officials or other powerful figures. Bringing those responsible for abducting, imprisoning, torturing, and murdering journalists to justice is critical to create an effective deterrent.

But working to increase accountability is not enough; steps must be taken to increase the safety of journalists now. First and foremost, this means ensuring that journalists – especially the freelance and locally based journalists who are most at risk – have the knowledge, skills, and resources to protect themselves while engaging in potentially dangerous reporting.

That is the goal of the A Culture of Safety Alliance. Founded in 2014 – following the murders of Jim and three other American journalists (Steven Sotloff, Marie Colvin, and Luke Somers) in conflict zones – the ACOS Alliance is an international coalition of media outlets, press freedom organizations, and journalists championing safe and responsible journalistic practices for freelance and local reporters worldwide.

The ACOS Alliance urges news organizations and journalists to adopt the Freelance Journalist Safety Principles. Recommendations include securing adequate medical insurance; carrying out a careful risk assessment before traveling to hostile or dangerous environments; and ensuring sustained access to expert safety information. Moreover, the principles emphasize that news organizations must “show the same concern for the welfare of local journalists and freelancers that they do for staffers.”

The James W. Foley Legacy Foundation – a US-based non-profit that Jim’s family founded a month after his murder – supports the ACOS Alliance, as part of our mission to promote the safety of journalists worldwide. For example, in line with the safety principles, we are working to expand access to Hostile Environment and Emergency First Aid Training (HEFAT) courses.

Because HEFAT courses can be prohibitively expensive for freelancers, we collaborate with ACOS partners to provide grants covering the full cost. We must continue to find creative ways to deliver HEFAT to the journalists who need it most.

But the need for education on safety arises long before a journalist receives an assignment in a dangerous environment. That is why our foundation, in partnership with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, has also developed a safety guide for graduate schools to use to educate journalism students on how to protect themselves. We are now piloting a similar guide for undergraduate journalism students at Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communication.

These modules identify the potential dangers of reporting not only in conflict zones, but also in ostensibly non-threatening environments. And they provide aspiring young journalists with the risk-assessment and digital-security skills they need to keep themselves safe as they perform a range of tasks, from interviewing subjects to meeting with sources. That way, when they start their careers, they will already be in the habit of taking the necessary precautions. All journalism schools should add such modules to their curricula, thereby ensuring that their graduates are as skilled at staying safe as they are at reporting the news.

Journalists provide a vital public service, but they should not have to give up their lives to do it. As the world commemorates the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists on November 2, we must not only seek justice for the brave journalists who have died in the line of duty, but also give current and future journalists the tools they need to stay safe.

Ed.’s Note: Diane Foley is President and Executive Director of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation. The article is provided to The Reporter by Project Syndicate: the world’s pre-eminent source of original op-ed commentaries. Project Syndicate provides incisive perspectives in our changing world by those who are shaping its politics, economics, science and culture. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.

Contributed by Diane Foley

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