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Westgate siege shows press' lack of security training

Kenyan journalists film outside the Westgate mall in September. (AFP/Carl de Souza)

Rumor had it that thieves and police had exchanged gunfire during the robbery of a bank at the Westgate Mall. That was the word that first reached some Nairobi newsrooms that Saturday about the gunshots many Kenyans heard coming from the luxurious shopping mall.

"Trusting the source and given that our weekend papers are usually full, we only needed a photo. We sent a trainee photographer," said one newspaper editor. "The girl" began to position herself to get a good picture of the scene, and soon found herself "stepping on bodies" and did not take a single picture. "She has not been the same again, and is yet to come back to the newsroom," the editor added.

"I was called by the news desk and asked to rush to the scene of a robbery and update the editor if there was anything worthy," a reporter for another daily newspaper told me. "I ended up facing the worst scene of human blood and deaths I had seen in my life."

The siege of Nairobi's Westgate Mall that began on September 21 was not only shocking and emotionally demanding; it was physically threatening too, as most journalists learned only after they arrived on the scene. At a meeting hosted last week by the Media Council of Kenya to discuss the safety of journalists, many editors admitted they had failed to help properly train and prepare journalists to cover such stories.

By the time the Westgate Mall story was over, four days after it began, 67 people had been killed and over 300 others were injured. Not that this was the first, or even bloodiest, tragedy journalists have had to cover in Kenya in recent years. Ethnic clashes following the disputed 2007 presidential election killed over 1,000 people, with thousands more injured, and the twin U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania in 1998 killed 212 people and injured another 4,000 in Nairobi alone.

Yet, somehow, Westgate seemed more personal. Many editors at the Media Council meeting spoke of the challenges they now face just holding on to staff. One editor after another narrated how their media house was losing many young and dedicated journalists, largely due to the emotional stress related to their work. A number of editors also admitted sending their reporters out without proper briefings, guidance, or preparation. After journalists returned from the Westgate assignment, the same media houses did not, by their own accounts, organise psychological counselling sessions or workshops, or, in most cases, even give their reporters any time off.

Educators and trainers from universities and colleges across Kenya also attended the Media Council meeting. They expressed concern that none of the courses offered to journalists include anything about personal or emotional self-care. Many editors admitted they sent reporters to the Westgate Mall that Saturday without realizing the nature of the story.

The editors and educators at the Media Council meeting on October 5 reached a consensus on at least one point: the current level of preparation and training available to journalists in Kenya is wanting.

Less than one month before the mall attack, the Media Council released a Study on Training, Welfare and Working Conditions of Kenyan Journalists. Close to one-third of those polled said they had been given dangerous assignments, including combat assignments, without proper preparation. Less than 5 percent of those sent to cover dangerous stories said they had received protective gear from their employer. The level of insurance coverage is even worse. Only one of over 180 respondents reported receiving any insurance coverage while working in a war zone.

Nearly half of the journalists said that they had received some security or related training. But none of the respondents said they have been trained on how to prepare for dangerous assignments, how to protect sources and sensitive information, or how to deal with possible captivity.

"The training was on journalist safety and protection organized by the MCK [Media Council of Kenya] and IMS [the Copenhagen-based group International Media Support]. We were also trained by the Kenya Red Cross on basic first-aid," said one respondent. "We did a three-day workshop on personal journalist security organized by the African Child and Women's Feature Service, a three-day training by MCK on safety of journalists, and another two-day workshop on the same organized by the Kenya Correspondents Association."

The study, along with comments by individual respondents, underscored the disparate nature of security training for journalists in Kenya and the lack of any coordination over the curriculum. Organizations have failed to work together to streamline the content, reduce or eliminate duplication, and to ensure that training in many needed skills is provided.

Of course, individual journalists need to start thinking about their own safety too. Many reporters who covered the siege did so without safety gear. Others had safety gear but chose not to wear it.

"Those things are very uncomfortable and made me look strange," said one television news anchor, referring to helmets and flak jackets. "Guys could not recognise me, so I took them off," he added. "This was an opportunity to make a name in journalism."

Media house managers and foreign donors alike should now be encouraged to make the protection of journalists a priority, including training on how to navigate hostile environments. Kenyan journalists also need help in coping with the emotional toll of covering the siege at the mall.

"I have been unable to be at peace with myself since that incident. The bodies and wrecked vehicles, police sirens and gunfire are ever present wherever I am," said Ouma Wanjala, of the Daily Nation.

"My head is full of bodies and bomb scenes from Somali, Syria, Nigeria and wherever, but who cares?" said an editor from another media house.

Training focused on personal self-care, trauma and stress management, and preparation -- including adequately briefing journalists before sending them into the field, and debriefing them about their experiences, whenever circumstances require, upon their return -- is needed. So are in-house training sessions and written guidelines on how to deal with distressing human tragedies.

These measures have been neglected for years by media enterprises and journalist associations in Kenya. The Westgate Mall siege should be taken as a wake-up call to finally commit to preparing and protecting journalists in keeping with the risks of our times.

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