Frontline journalists under the radar


A massive bomb attack has just struck the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo but, for members of the foreign press corp, it is just another day in the office.

Except, instead of wearing a suit as they career out the door, they don a bulletproof vest and a helmet with the word PRESS emblazoned across it.

It looks like the attack on this day has injured hundreds of people. The death toll is unknown, but the war correspondents need to stay on top of the situation, ready for anything that can happen; that’s just part of doing your job at the frontline of a war.

A journalist inspects a tunnel constructed by Daesh terrorists in Bashiqa town center, on November 08, 2016. 

As correspondents for a major news outlet, these women and men are not working from comfortable offices in Washington DC, London, Paris, or Sydney.

For them, taking risks is the norm and they’ll do what it takes to get the best angle on the story.  However, in a warzone this can end badly – they could be banned by a despotic regime, or even kidnapped or killed.

Journalist Ricard Gonzalez, a freelancer based in Tunis, has covered a range of conflicts during his career, especially during the Arab Spring.

“I was coming from a posting in Washington but the experience in Cairo was more interesting because you only had to step outside your office and things were going on. It was a job with some danger, but it was much more exciting,” Gonzalez says.

“I also had the satisfaction of being there at a historic time and reporting on a positive event, witnessing first-hand how citizens were rising up against a dictatorship.”

Gonzalez was not the only journalist to go from Washington DC to the Middle East. Albert Elfa is a former correspondent for Catalan television, TV3, who was based in Jerusalem after four years in United States.

“Once my period in America was over, there was an opportunity to go to Jerusalem, so I decided to take it. When I arrived different revolutions and wars started going off, so I got to report on them,” Elfa says.

Being there and explaining history also has its down side and when you are in a conflict area the stakes are high and so is the cost of insurance. Journalists must take measures to protect themselves unless they want to face a fatal ending.

Ethel Bonet is a freelance journalist working for Spanish media outlets based in Lebanon.

“You are always at risk – wars kill military, wars kill civilians and wars also kill journalists – so if you are in a place where people are dying you can easily become one of them,” Bonet says.

Journalists are seen as the security forces clash with Daesh terrorists in Domiz district of Kirkuk, Iraq on October 22, 2016. 

Despite the risks, it’s left to the individual correspondent to decide how much protection they want to take on any given day.

Amador Guallar, a freelance photojournalist and correspondent for Spanish newspaper El Mundo in Afghanistan explains.

“Sometimes I wear the vest and the helmet, and sometimes I don’t. Depends on the situation but if I’m with a militia and they don’t wear the vest and the helmet, then I don’t wear them either. I think it’s a way of gaining their trust,” Guallar says.

If you are a freelance journalist, the media outlets you are filing for are unlikely to be providing any of the protective gear, let alone bearing the cost of insurance. This is a  situation Gonzalez says is wrong.

“Normally if you work with a media outlet, they are obliged to provide them, but if you go by yourself, you are obliged to pay it yourself and normally a bulletproof vest is quite expensive,” he says.

“If people don’t have enough money, they tend to buy a cheap vest or they don’t even wear one.” 

In many cases, journalists depend on their relationship with the outlet to get their protection, while Elfa inherited his equipment from the previous TV3 correspondent.  

Francisco Carrión, Egypt’s correspondent for Spanish newspaper El Mundo, has a different agreement with the media outlet.

“I’m a frequent collaborator for the newspaper so we have, after all this years, achieved a relationship so I get my equipment and my insurance arranged by El Mundo,” he says.

Apart from the physical protection of a vest and a helmet, journalists, like anyone living in a warzone, need to keep an eye open for anything unusual.

Bonet says journalists need the support of specialists or locals to get the work done.

“When we are in a conflict zone, we [the journalists] always must go with a translator or fixer and use a secure car. If not, it’s going to be impossible to work there,” she says.

A fixer, as Wikipedia describes it, is “a local journalist, hired by a foreign correspondent to help arrange a story” and they “often put themselves in danger, especially in regimes where they might face consequences”.

But for Guallar, a fixer is more than just a local journalist helping a foreign correspondent get their story.

“The real key for a journalist’s security in a conflict zone is the fixer. He is the key to them getting out of there alive. Without a good fixer, you won’t get a good story and you won’t get out from there alive either,” Guallar says.

Sotloff was kidnapped in August 2013 near Aleppo, Syria and was recently shown on a jihadist video in which fellow US journalist James Foley was executed. 

Despite their importance in saving lives, there can be problems with fixers. Carrión says it is still a relationship with another human being, so day-to-day tensions happen.

But Elfa says the worst problem he’s ever had was with a fixer in Egypt when he was detained by the Egyptian army – and by his fixer. 

“While we were detained in an army tank, I asked my fixer to tell the commandant of that unit that we were journalists and we could erase our footage if the commandant wanted us to,” Elfa says.

“The problem was that my fixer was a really proud guy and he didn’t want to beg to the army for our freedom. So, I was a hostage of the army and of my fixer too.”

Correspondents risk their lives in different ways depending on their job, but in the heat of a conflict, journalists filing stories aren’t in as much danger as photojournalists and cameramen, Bonet says.

“There isn’t much risk in being a writer compared to being a photographer or a cameraman. Journalists don’t usually need to be at the frontline because we just need to speak with the people and get their stories,” she says.

But for Guallar, as a photojournalist, his experience in a conflict zone is quite different. The need to get as close to the conflict as possible obviously comes with escalating risks.

“After all your years working in these places, you discover that the key for your success is to be invisible. Invisibility is physically impossible but you learn how to be there without disturbing anyone,” he says.

Press members are seen in Suruc district of Turkey’s Sanliurfa near Turkish-Syrian border crossing as the clashes between Islamic State and Kurdish armed groups continue in Northern Syria, on November 12, 2014. 

In order to report in a country different accreditations are required, and this can be anything but straightforward when a conflict is going on, according to Elfa.

“The hardest part is getting an accreditation. Because if a country at war doesn’t want you to report on that, they won’t give you any authorisation to be in the country. So, you will be there illegally,” he says.

Guallar agrees.

“Getting to the frontline is not as easy as it seems. There are a lot of check-points and every commander has to validate you before proceeding. There is a lot of bureaucracy in a war,” Guallar says.

But for Carrión, constantly dealing with the red tape of warzones is a normal part of working as a foreign correspondent.

“We are journalists and it’s our daily job to apply for different accreditations and passes to be able to do our job, specially in a controlled zone,” he says.

Anadolu Agency photographer Salih Mahmud Leyla who was killed after a car bomb attack in Hireytan region of Aleppo, Syria on October 8, 2015.

Conflict zones that are visited by journalists are also visited by spies, which is another problem war correspondents can have. Bonet, a Spanish freelance journalist based in Lebanon, says it is quite common to be mistaken for a spy.

“Sometimes, when you are in some of these locations, local citizens wonder what are you doing there. If you aren’t a spy, or earning thousands of dollars, they don’t understand why you would be there risking your life,” Bonet says.

Gonzalez says being accused of being a spy comes with its own set of risks.

“You have to be aware that as a foreigner a lot of people can mistake you for a spy, so you have to be aware of that for your own safety, not only with the police but also with the citizens in the riots,” he says.

The Dart Centre for Journalism & Trauma has published Reporting War by Sharon Schmickle, which offers a range of  self-care tips for journalists reporting on a conflict.

These tips cover everything from looking after physical safety to mental health and the problems of returning to everyday life.

But these tips are no substitute for the experience of being on the ground during a war – often for years as is the case of the journalists interviewed in this piece.

EPA photographer Abed al-Hashlamoun (back) and local journalist Safia Omar (front) lie on the ground after they were injured by stun grenades thrown by Israeli forces while covering a protest. 

Bonet: “I’m a war correspondent by accident. As I’m a journalist in the Middle East and it is the most agitated zone in the world, I had to mould myself to the circumstances I found myself in.”

Elfa: “This is something that comes out for different reasons like passion or by chance. But in my case, it was something spontaneous.”

These spontaneous correspondents usually haven’t had any security training, but there are now organisations that run programs to help journalists avoid problems in these circumstances.

The International News Safety Institute (INSI) has been training journalists in safety issues for more than 10 years. Richard Sambrook is INSI’s chairman and explained that journalists now face bigger risks than before.

“The risk that journalists are exposed to has never been greater but, from the United Nations down, that issue has taken more seriously than ever before. […] And from INSI we share experience, we help train people and we work together the power of networks,” Mr Sambrook says on INSI’s webpage.

But apart from the risk these journalists face while being on the ground reporting on what is going on around the globe, there is something that they consider the most important part of their work.

Elfa says he is grateful for being a foreign correspondent.

“It’s a privilege being a correspondent covering a conflict is going on. I do it for the people that don’t have anything and are suffering the war,” he says.

“These people only suffer the consequences and for a correspondent it is a pleasure to give a voice to those who lost theirs through war.”