Ambulances carry the bodies of Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik, who were killed in government shelling in Syria. (Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri)
Ambulances carry the bodies of Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik, who were killed in government shelling in Syria. (Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri)

Combat deaths at a high, risks shift for journalists

Murder is the leading cause of work-related deaths among journalists worldwide–and this year was no exception. But the death toll in 2012 continued a recent shift in the nature of journalist fatalities worldwide. More journalists were killed in combat situations in 2012 than in any year since 1992, when CPJ began keeping detailed records.

CPJ Special Report
Journalist deaths
spike in 2012

The 23 journalists killed in combat-related crossfire make up 34 percent of the worldwide death toll this year, about twice the historical average. And beginning in 2010, the number of journalists killed while covering street protests or similar dangerous assignments has risen well above the rates recorded since 1992. Journalists carrying cameras–still photographers, television cameramen, and videographers–paid an unusually heavy price in recent years. Freelancers and online journalists have also composed an increasing proportion of fatalities during this timeframe. Many of those killed during combat and dangerous assignments were relatively inexperienced, with some of the victims in Syria still in their teens.

So what does this say? It’s worth keeping in mind that the risks to journalists change with the news, and the conditions of 2012 won’t necessarily be replicated in 2013 or in the future. But a few things stand out from the recent death tolls that demand the attention of the profession.

Technology has allowed individuals to cover and disseminate news on their own, without having an affiliation with a news organization. The proportion of online journalists in CPJ’s annual death tolls has been rising since 2008, but the 25 online journalists killed worldwide in 2012 represent a record. In Syria, the government worked hard to block the international press, prompting numerous Syrians to pick up cameras to document the violence and upload hours of their footage to online collectives such as Shaam News Network. During the political uprisings that swept the Arab world, domestic and international freelancers were similarly called to action. Individuals with cameras were more likely to be in harm’s way as they sought to cover the tumult–and they were also more obvious targets for violence.

“I think we have to differentiate between local citizen journalists who report on what is happening in their own country and to their own people, and Western freelancers who go to places like Syria to report on the conflict,” said Peter N. Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch who leads a Facebook group composed of conflict journalists and others.

Citizen journalists “are part of a seismic shift in the media business, and we are just beginning to understand how we can use the materials they collect, and how we can work together to report better,” Bouckaert said. “The role of Western freelancers is totally different. In a shrinking, increasingly risk-adverse media environment, it is all too often freelancers who end up going to the places where the big media won’t send their reporters.”

Many inexperienced, young freelancers can be “lulled” into “a sense of false comfort,” Bouckaert noted. “The smartest ones who went through Libya took a step back, and went to take a first-aid course and hostile environment training.” But many media organizations that rely on stringers for news also need to step up, he added. “If we want to talk seriously about safety, we need to start getting the media organizations to start contributing more toward safety training and safety gear for freelancers.”

The annual death tolls in Iraq during the peak of that nation’s violence still exceed that of Syria: 32 journalists were killed in Iraq in both 2006 and 2007. But the large majority of deaths in Iraq, especially in the later years of the war, were not combat-related. They were murders. Local journalists working for Western news organizations and those working for local news outlets with perceived sectarian viewpoints were targeted for their affiliation, hunted down, and murdered by the dozen in Iraq. Murder has been the leading cause of death in Afghanistan as well.

Any conflict, including the war in Syria, could evolve in ways that would make journalists more vulnerable to targeted attacks than crossfire. That is what has happened, in effect, in Somalia. Government and allied troops largely ousted the militant group Al-Shabaab from the capital, Mogadishu, in 2011, but journalist murders have spiked in the aftermath as remnants of the insurgents and political factions jockey, violently, for control. All 12 journalists killed in Somalia in 2012 were murdered.

The 2012 death toll in Syria reflects the range of combat dangers. Many died in government artillery or aerial attacks on populated urban areas. Four were killed in crossfire between government and rebel forces. Four more were shot at close range, according to witnesses, during military operations by either government or rebel forces. Three were murdered outright in non-military circumstances. One journalist died in an explosion. Long-range snipers from either government or rebel forces killed three more. (The last time sniper fire claimed so many journalists’ lives was in Bosnia, in 1992 and 1993.)

Many combat-related deaths are hardly faultless. In many instances, armed forces act recklessly in firing upon civilians such as journalists. In other cases, they appear to have targeted journalists in violation of international law. Lebanese cameraman Ali Shaaban, who was working just over the border in Lebanon, was killed in a hail of 40 bullets fired by plainclothes Syrian security forces. U.S.-born correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik were killed in government shelling that struck their makeshift media center in Homs; journalists who survived believe the shelling was precise, indicating government forces had targeted the center.

Unfortunately, there is little accountability for attacks on journalists in Syria or elsewhere. “Most of these abuses remain unpunished,” the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said in a March 2012 report on journalist security. “States must therefore ensure that the perpetrators of crimes and acts of violence against media professionals and associated personnel are brought to justice, while also taking preventative measures to ensure that such crimes are not committed in the first place.”

Here is one more statistic from CPJ’s year-end analysis of journalist fatalities. The rate of accountability for journalist deaths in 2012? Zero.