The kidnapping and beheading of freelance photojournalist James Foley by Islamic State militants in Syria is a grim reminder of the dangers facing reporters in danger zones. Many journalists enter hot spots with minimal safety training and little institutional protection, especially if they’re freelancers. We consider the risks involved in covering today’s international conflicts and examine how the new media landscape is affecting best practices for journalists.


  • Frank Smyth Journalist; executive director, Global Journalist Security; senior advisor for journalist security, Committee to Protect Journalists


  • 13:06:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the hour, we explore the idea of a guaranteed basic income and its appeal to people across the political spectrum. But first, the gruesome death of journalist James Foley has brought questions about safety for reporters in dangerous regions front and center. Questions that are increasingly difficult to answer as both the media landscape and front lines in nebulous war zones continue to shift.

  • 13:07:21

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to help us understand what protections are available to people in the industry is Frank Smyth. He is a long-time journalist who is currently executive director of Global Journalist Security. He also serves as senior advisor for journalist security for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Frank Smyth, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:07:41

    MR. FRANK SMYTHMy pleasure, Kojo.

  • 13:07:43

    NNAMDIYou can join the conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850. Do you think that media organizations do enough to prepare and to protect their reporters? Have you worked as a journalist in a dangerous environment? Tell us how you prepared, if so. 800-433-8850. Or send email to Frank, your career as a journalist began in the '80s. You've covered lots of dangerous ground. But how would you compare your experience with what today's journalists are facing?

  • 13:08:16

    SMYTHWell, I think, when I started as a journalist in the mid- to late-1980s in Central America and then later on in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, being a journalist brought you a certain measure of respect and perceived neutrality on the part of various combatants and other groups. Journalists were seen as playing a positive role. Groups might have a problem with a particular journalist, but they didn't necessarily have a problem with the role of journalism and journalism as an action of informing the public and as a way of them getting their story told and their point of view expressed through a wider group of people.

  • 13:08:55

    SMYTHBut I think what's changed since -- certainly since 9/11, certainly since the abduction and murder of Daniel Pearl, and now of course with the tragic case last week of James Foley -- is that journalist have been increasingly -- been perceived as being an enemy of different groups and by different groups around the world. And that is not just limited to Western journalists. There was a case in Iraq of Atwar Bahjat who was with Al-Arabiya who -- after reporting on the dome mosque bombing in Samarra -- was hunted down because of her reports and perhaps because of her perceived identities, and was later abducted, tortured and killed.

  • 13:09:37

    SMYTHSo what we're seeing is that journalists are now the perceived enemies of a great many groups. And that was something that wasn't the case back in the '80s and early '90s.

  • 13:09:47

    NNAMDIBut even in the '80s and the early '90s, when the rule was that journalists would be left alone, there was the occasional exception to the rule. However, today, the exception, it would appear, in certain parts of the world in conflict zones, is becoming the rule. James Foley's story is a stark reminder -- maybe an extreme example of just how dangerous the current climate is for reporters working in countries like Libya and Syria and Iraq, where it's dangerous for all reporters now.

  • 13:10:15

    SMYTHI think that's the case. And it's also important to keep in mind that most journalists that are killed around the world are actually murdered. They're not killed in combat, they're outright murdered. And it's usually two guys on the back of a motorcycle or someone waiting for a journalist to come back from work, as they're entering their home. And the overwhelming majority of these journalists that are murdered around the world are local journalists. So it's local reporters that are trying to bring accountability and report on situations within their own communities that are most at risk, in addition to journalists like James Foley.

  • 13:10:47

    NNAMDIYeah, we talk a lot about the American or foreign correspondents who end up in these places and get killed. But you make the point that most of the people who are abducted, most of the people who are killed, are local reporters that we hear -- almost never hear about.

  • 13:11:02

    SMYTHThat's right. Not to say abducted, but murdered -- just murdered outright. And that's in countries like the Philippines and a great many democratic nations. Because what murder affords perpetrators is plausible deniability. If you imprison a journalist, everyone knows that you've imprisoned the journalist. You pay a political price for that. But if you're upset with somebody's reporting, ordering the assassination of a journalist is something that's all too common. And the reason it's so common is that the killers -- the murderers of journalists get away with it in nearly 9 out of 10 cases worldwide.

  • 13:11:33

    NNAMDIWith so many news outlets shuttering foreign bureaus and cutting their budgets, which often means hiring more stringers, what kinds of protections are available to today's freelancers at work in dangerous areas?

  • 13:11:45

    SMYTHI think it's very difficult because I think the freelancers, like James Foley -- and I didn't know him, but we had a number of friends in common -- is that young journalists, freelance journalists, people starting out are looking to get a break. They're looking for somebody to publish their material. And so if they put too many demands on publishers, the publishers are going to turn the other way. At the same time, you've got startups, like GlobalPost and others, that have limited resources. You have other startups that are starting to have more resources, and that's a different story. But certainly a number of organizations, most of them don't seem to have the resources that the major networks or newspapers did years ago.

  • 13:12:25

    SMYTHSo I think we need to find a balance that allows news organizations to make use of the young journalists and the aspiring journalists that are out there and still give them at least a baseline of basic support in terms of equipment, training, and also support after they come back from being in the field. And it's hit or miss as to the degree that which different news organizations are providing that support.

  • 13:12:50

    NNAMDITalk about training and the kind of training that you are providing for journalists who are thinking of going or headed for conflict areas.

  • 13:12:56

    SMYTHWell, what we do is we provide hostile environment training that helps prepare journalists to learn skills about how to stay safe from different kinds of gun fire. But also that helps them learn about their own reactions to stress, their own reactions to being confronted, let's say, by a street criminal or by a sexual predator or by a hostile mob or by a hostile interrogator. And teach people how to navigate their way around people who are hostile and armed and have more power than journalists. And it's not just for journalists. It's also for humanitarians, conflict-resolution experts...

  • 13:13:31


  • 13:13:31

    SMYTH...researchers, NGOs, that's right. And because they -- all of those people are civilians who operate among -- amidst a world of armed actors. And I think you need training that gives -- provides a baseline of skills, but also creates scenarios that allows people to learn not only their -- how others may -- how they respond to different situations, but really how they respond themselves and so they can take measures to make the best decisions possible under the toughest circumstances.

  • 13:14:01

    NNAMDIOur guest is Frank Smyth. He's a long-time journalist who is currently executive director of Global Journalist Security. He also serves as senior advisor for journalist security for the Committee to Protect Journalists. We're discussing journalist safety in conflict areas in particular, but journalist safety in general. Inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Would you like to see more coverage of dangerous conflicts, like the one occurring in Syria or Libya, in the news that you consume? The indications are that networks since the 1980s, Frank, have cut down by more than half of the minutes that they give news stories about foreign countries in newscasts.

  • 13:14:41

    NNAMDIPeople who were not watching newscasts in the '80s would not be aware of that. But our international coverage was a lot broader, wider and deeper than it is now.

  • 13:14:50

    SMYTHThat's absolutely right. And I think what we're seeing now is the gap is being filled by young journalists who are going out there, journalist who don't have the kind of institutional support, who are reporting for outlets like BuzzFeed or Vice News and others, and bringing international stories to an audience via the Internet. But they don't have the kind of support that people that were working for CBS News did years ago or The New York Times. The New York Times, it still has many foreign bureaus. But they're one of the only major newspapers that is still investing money in foreign news.

  • 13:15:23

    NNAMDIInsurance is available to people in the field and can cover a variety of risks. One form, kidnap and ransom insurance, is something of a double-edged sword through. Why is that? And what type of coverage is most likely?

  • 13:15:35

    SMYTHWell I -- kidnapping and ransom insurance is something that news organizations that have it would prefer not to talk about it. And I think there are good reasons for that.

  • 13:15:44


  • 13:15:44

    SMYTHAnd it's very expensive. And the costs of a kidnapping could be very expensive. A number of organizations, if they have it, they may not necessarily even tell the correspondents that they have that kind of insurance. I think -- and not all news organizations can afford it. When you get into this situation, it gets to be a very difficult set of circumstances. You want to confirm the person is still alive. And in training, for example, we provide proof-of-life documents that we encourage people to fill out with their editors or their superiors at other organizations. Once you've established this proof of life, then you want to see what the motivations of the kidnappers are.

  • 13:16:22

    SMYTHThere are some kidnappers who have political motivations. And ISIS certainly falls into that category. Al-Qaida, when they abducted Daniel Pearl, certainly fell into that category. There are other captors that are interested in money. And often you can have captors who are criminal actors, who are pretending to have a political orientation. But you can also have criminal actors like we've seen in Syria, who can then sell an individual to political actors. You've also seen that in Colombia. A criminal band could grab someone and then sell him to leftist insurgents who may then try and seek a ransom.

  • 13:16:55

    SMYTHAnd then the ransom -- ransom demands become very tricky. And it's unclear who pays. There's rumors that different nations will pay to release a hostage. Other nations will not. Certainly the United States has a reputation for not paying. And it's very dicey. Because if you were to -- if the word gets out that an entity, a nation is willing to start paying for this -- for these kinds of -- the ransom in exchange for getting someone back, then of course it may only encourage more hostage taking.

  • 13:17:30

    NNAMDIWe got an email from -- well, let me go to the ransom issue a little more first. Because in the case of James Foley, we know that ISIL was demanding a very high ransom. And that U.S. policy dictates that we do not negotiate with terrorists. How hamstrung are private news organizations and families by that U.S. policy?

  • 13:17:49

    SMYTHI think they're hamstrung to some degree. I think if somebody wanted to try and make out some kind of arrangement, I think it's possible that that could be done. I think the problem is that even if you make a payment, there's no guarantee that you're going to get the person back, especially when you're dealing with political actors in different parts of the world. A payment can be made and they could still be killed or continue to be held. We've certainly seen cases in Somalia that have remained unresolved. So the problem I think is there's no guarantee, even if one wanted to go that route, which of course is fraught with peril.

  • 13:18:25

    NNAMDIOn to Paul in Hyattsville, Md. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:18:30

    PAULKojo, thanks for taking my call.

  • 13:18:32

    NNAMDIYou're welcome.

  • 13:18:32

    PAULMy question is, didn't the U.S. journalism industry sacrifice a lot of its claim to safety when the U.S. journalists were embedded in the U.S. military?

  • 13:18:47

    SMYTHWell, that's, I think, a very good question and point you raise. If journalists are perceived to be associated with any particular combatant force, then that can work against them. And I think that started to become the case after 9/11. We also have seen cases where journalists have been held hostage and military forces have launched rescue attempts without -- there's a case of a New York Times reporter -- with out asking for the permission of either the journalists family or the news organization and without giving them any warning when it might occur. And that happened in the case of Steve Farrell from The New York Times, and his fixer was killed in the process. And it was -- and a number of others were also killed in that attempt.

  • 13:19:31

    SMYTHSo I think that it's really up to the journalists and the news organization to try and maintain your neutrality and your perceived neutrality. But the problem is, partly because of events since 9/11, certainly contributed to by the events in Iraq and the Iraq War, Western journalists are increasingly perceived to be not journalists first, but member of their particular nation before a journalist. And that's very dangerous when you're out in the field.

  • 13:19:58

    NNAMDIBecause we got an email from Alan, who says that it's no secret that many journalists have become advocates instead of neutral observers. Can your guest comment on how this might affect journalists' safety?" Perception, I guess, is everything.

  • 13:20:12

    SMYTHWell, that can work in a variety of directions. There isn't necessarily -- I think objectivity is an overrated concept. There isn't anything necessarily wrong with being an advocate as long as one's reporting is accurate and verified, and one is transparent about what one can verify and about what one cannot. The problem is, especially in a digital age, there's been increasing balkanization or partisanship dividing up the news, both in the United States and outside it.

  • 13:20:43

    SMYTHSo an al-Qaida journalist, for example, may be perceived one way by one government and another way by the Egyptian government. And it goes -- it transcends geography or ethnicity. Certainly we've seen the Egyptian government react by imprisoning -- trying and imprisoning or allegedly trying and imprisoning Al Jazeera journalists showing the way they react.

  • 13:21:02

    SMYTHAnd for American reporters, Vice News recently got exclusive footage in northern Iraq with the group ISIS, the Islamic state, and it's still unclear how they were able to do that. but other journalists certainly would not be able to pull that off and operate in those areas without incurring great risk.

  • 13:21:21

    NNAMDIWe got Harriett writing on Facebook, "Some things you cannot protect against. Other things war journalists know what they're getting into. They just hope for the best." And Rameen tweets in response to the question of whether media outlets do enough to prepare and protect reporters working in dangerous areas, "No, because they're still operating on an old school gentleman's agreement that journalists are not targeted. Those days are long gone."

  • 13:21:46

    NNAMDIIf, in fact, those days are long gone, Frank Smyth, in the wake of Foley's death, a lot of people have been wondering if freelance journalists are being exploited by major publications or whether this is an unavoidable new reality for media. What's your take?

  • 13:22:02

    SMYTHI think it's a little bit of both, that it has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. Certainly there have been examples of journalists being exploited, being heavily used by news publications and getting a minimal amount of support. And we've seen that since the 2000s by some major news organizations. But we also know that certainly in the war going on in Syria, it's only been freelancers that have been able to -- that have made the effort for the most part to do frontline reporting. And those freelancers want to get that story out so they're hungry to find outlets that'll take that news. So they have a limited amount of leverage in terms of the demands that they can make. And I think it's a little tricky.

  • 13:22:42

    SMYTHYou've also seen David Schlesinger formerly of Thompson Reuters gave a speech some years ago where he said, maybe it's not worth sending correspondents into harms' way in certain situations. Maybe it's just not worth it because it's too dangerous. And I think that's a very fair point as well that news organizations might decide for a major news organization if someone gets killed or injured, the cost of that injury to the news organization is extremely high.

  • 13:23:09

    SMYTHAnd that's one of the reasons, in addition to declining interest, but why news organizations have cut back on foreign stories. So it really is -- there is exploitation but there's also the desire to get the story out. And you have to look at each case individually.

  • 13:23:23

    NNAMDIHere's Chris in Washington, D.C.. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:23:27

    CHRISYes. Hi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. Your guest kind of touched on it but in terms of, like, the rise of the digital age, I feel like the utility of reporters and journalists through terrorist groups has decreased since now groups are really astute at putting their own narrative out there. So they don't necessarily need the journalist to do that job for them anymore in terms of their decreasing immunity, you know, being taken captive and being killed. So I just wanted to make that point.

  • 13:23:56

    NNAMDI(unintelligible) by that?

  • 13:23:56

    SMYTHYeah, that's a very good point and I think that's absolutely true. News -- terrorist organizations don't need news organizations or journalists to get their story out. They can bring it to the internet directly. And that's one of the reasons why they're -- journalists are increasingly being perceived as being hostile.

  • 13:24:12

    NNAMDIThe training you offer isn't useful just in foreign hotspots. We've seen a number of reporters arrested or detained in Ferguson, Mo. over the last few weeks. And though we mainly have been talking about this in terms of foreign correspondence, I want to underscore the point you made earlier that more than 95 percent of journalists jailed worldwide are members of the local population.

  • 13:24:33

    SMYTHWell, that's right. And hostile environment training is important for any situation of civil unrest clashes. Certainly we've seen from Seattle during the demonstration some years ago the World Bank protests in Washington to Ferguson now to political party conventions, both Democratic and Republican. We've seen tremendous clashes between police and protestors. And journalists often getting arrested often without cause by police. And so I think it's important for journalists to get civil unrest training.

  • 13:25:05

    SMYTHAnd I think it's also important for police forces to get professional training in terms of how to handle not just civilians but also civilians who are journalists attempting to cover the story. And I think what happened in Ferguson shows -- and elsewhere that there's a need for a great -- more police training including on how to handle the press.

  • 13:25:24

    NNAMDIFrank Smyth is a longtime journalist. He's currently executive director of Global Journalist Security. He also serves as senior advisor for journalist security for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Frank, thank you for dropping by.

  • 13:25:36

    SMYTHMy pleasure, Kojo.

  • 13:25:37

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we are exploring the idea of a guaranteed basic income and why it seems to have appeal for people across the political spectrum. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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