Risk and reporting

Last night at London’s Frontline Club, CPJ launched its global survey of press freedom conditions, Attacks on the Press. The topic of discussion was the safety of journalists covering conflict and the panel consisted of journalist and documentarian Jenny Kleeman, ITN safety guru Colin Pereira, and journalist and filmmaker Maziar Bahari, who was imprisoned in Iran following the disputed 2009 presidential elections.

I opened the discussion by citing some of the grim statistics from the last year. Of the 46 journalists killed in 2011, 21 were murdered. Eight died covering combat, and 17 were killed covering dangerous assignments like street demonstrations from Cairo to Sana’a. All told 19 died covering conflict in the Middle East.

For the next 90 minutes we talked about the challenges faced by frontline reporters, from sexual violence to post-traumatic stress.

During the questions and answers period, several young freelancers raised their hands to ask for practical advice about working in conflict zones. They recognized the danger, but wanted to pursue conflict reporting for the same reason people have always done so, because they were both idealistic and ambitious.

The panelists duly dispensed our collective wisdom — make sure you have life and health insurance, have first-aid and hostile environment training, have the proper equipment, have a security plan, find a good local stringer, stay close to an experienced reporter, hone your judgment.

The next morning we awoke to the devastating news that journalists Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik had been killed while reporting on the relentless shelling of Homs, Syria. Two of their colleagues were badly injured. Colvin, who lost an eye while covering the civil war in Sri Lanka, was widely regarded as one of the fearless reporters of her generation. Ochlik had already compiled an impressive body of work as a combat photographer.

The killing of Colvin and Ochlik, coming on the heels of the death of New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid in Syria from an apparent asthma attack, has shattered the journalist community. And at least five other journalists have died working in Syria since the unrest began, including local videographer Rami al-Sayed, whose live streams of the shelling formed a basis of much international coverage.

Still, I am certain this has not diminished the desire of young journalists, like those who raised their hands last night at the Frontline Club event, to follow in their footsteps. That’s because what Colvin, Ochlik, and Shadid did mattered tremendously; because their reporting from Homs has amplified global awareness of the devastating brutality of the Assad regime and the unspeakable humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria.

Many lives have been lost.

Because of courageous reporting, how many might be saved?