Journalists who regularly cover violence are considered a hard-boiled bunch. But a year ago this month, even the toughest were crying. There was no emotional body armor to deflect the horror of the beheading videos of freelancers James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and other Westerners held hostage in Syria by the self-styled Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL, or IS.
The slayings confirmed a long-simmering fear among foreign reporters that journalists, particularly in the upended political and security structures of the Middle East, were no longer just witnesses to a story. They were the story. Capturing a Westerner, especially an American, brought insurgent Islamist groups a political and propaganda advantage that far outweighed using the foreign press to spread their message as in the pre-YouTube and Twitter era. Islamic State ransomed off some European captives, but hostages from the United States and Britain, whose governments publicly refuse to pay kidnappers, were ruthlessly exploited and murdered for shock value.
It is hard to imagine amid the pain and sadness that anything positive could come of such brutal murders. But in the past year the families and friends of U.S. hostages have successfully rallied support for changes in the way the U.S. government deals with the relatives of captives. And media companies have been nudged–and yes, sometimes shamed–into looking at how they pay freelancers like Foley and Sotloff and ensure their safety on dangerous assignments.
“There is no doubt that these appalling beheadings have stimulated many people in the news industry to work together in a way I haven’t seen before to try to make incremental improvements to freelance welfare and safety,” Vaughan Smith, founder of London’s Frontline Club, told CPJ.
The point that often emerges in conversations with reporters, editors, and news executives since the killings is that of heightened awareness: awareness by commissioning editors, outside of a core group of news organizations that have long paid and treated freelancers fairly, that they have a duty of care towards stringers, both local and international; awareness by freelancers new to the industry that they may have to ensure their own security and first-aid training, and provide their own safety equipment and insurance; and awareness by a wider public, which still might put journalists alongside lawyers in the least-liked professional category in opinion polls, of a growing group of courageous reporters who take enormous risks to bring us the news.
And it is risky. CPJ data show that the past three years were among the deadliest for journalists. The Syria story alone has exacted a heavy toll: at least 85 dead, nearly half of them freelancers, since 2011, and more than 90 abducted, the highest number of kidnappings in any conflict zone that we have documented. We estimate that about 25 journalists are still missing in Syria, presumed kidnapped. Six of them are from Western countries and Japan.
The intense public scrutiny that followed the Foley and Sotloff murders highlighted the inconsistencies in the U.S. approach to hostages and eventually led to an overhaul. In June, the parents of several hostages, including the Foleys and Sotloffs, met with President Obama, who six months earlier had ordered a review of how the U.S. had handled hostage cases since 9/11.
Obama accepted the report‘s recommendations and removed the threat of prosecution for families seeking to negotiate with or pay ransom to their loved ones’ kidnappers. James Foley’s mother Diane Foley, who set up a foundation in her son’s memory, had earlier revealed that her family had been threatened by U.S. officials when they tried to gather ransom money to free him. Obama also set up a Hostage Response Group to look at cases, and a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. A Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell housed in the FBI was established to coordinate across government departments to ensure efforts and information are not siloed. If implemented fully, the new policies should address many of the concerns of families. However, the U.S. has not changed its core policy of refusing to pay ransom to groups it designates as terrorists and to “malicious actors.”
Horrified by the beheadings, journalists, security experts, media companies, and press groups, including CPJ, began drafting a set of standards for news organizations and freelancers designed to reduce security risks. The Global Safety Principles and Practices launched in February commits news organizations to treat freelancers on dangerous assignments as they would treat staff. Freelancers in turn pledge to take appropriate training and precautions before undertaking such assignments.
After Foley there was a feeling in the industry that it couldn’t just be business as usual.
“There was public awareness that journalists really are at risk and there’s less a sense of blame that they shouldn’t have been there,” according to Frank Smyth, executive director of training company Global Journalist Security and senior security adviser to CPJ. He said he believed more news outlets were now sending staff and stringers to hostile environment and first-aid training courses than in the past. There is no global data on training, but others in the industry said that they too believed that more news organizations, particularly those born in the digital age, are beginning to provide security training.
“People get it, editors get it,” Smyth said.
It’s not that journalists weren’t working to improve safety before the beheadings. The deaths in Libya in 2011 of photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros spurred colleagues to set up the RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) organization to train freelancers in first-aid. And Foley, who was himself abducted in Libya in 2011, highlighted the plight of the many local journalists upon whom the relatively small band of roving international reporters rely. In Syria, for example, it’s those local journalists who continue to bear the brunt of the onslaught against independent media and who supply the bulk of the news that now trickles out of the conflict zone as most international journalists deem it too dangerous to venture in. And CPJ, in partnership with other media groups, just this month set up the Syria Media Safety Resource to help local reporters.
So far this year, some 70 media outlets and press freedom groups have signed on to the Safety Principles, including major international news services and the BBC. But some notable newspapers and TV networks, many of which rely heavily on freelance content, have yet to sign.
“It is groundbreaking for there to have been a document signed that broadly commits those many organizations that have signed it to treat freelancers on commission in a similar way to employed people,” said the Frontline Club’s Smith. He helped set up the Frontline Freelance Register, a group that represents nearly 500 independent journalists and was a leading force behind the principles.
But he, like other signatories, acknowledges that there is still a mountain to climb both in ensuring that those who have signed implement the principles and also in persuading those news executives who have not done so to get their pens out.
“The best argument to persuade people is the moral argument…I don’t think it is going to be possible to hold your head high in this industry and not collaborate with other organizations to try to see freelancers treated fairly.”
Let’s hope he’s right.