A child looks at a U.S. soldier in Mosul, November 17, 2008 (AP/Petros Giannakouris)
A child looks at a U.S. soldier in Mosul, November 17, 2008 (AP/Petros Giannakouris)

CPJ Safety Advisory: The Mosul offensive and psychological injury

The military campaign to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) group, known as the Mosul offensive, has resumed with Iraqi forces engaged in a second phase attempting to take further neighborhoods in eastern parts of the city. A number of journalists, freelancers and staffers, remain in Northern Iraq and travel up to the frontlines daily. The Emergencies Response Team (ERT) at the Committee to Protect Journalists has issued the following advisory for journalists covering or planning to cover the Mosul offensive.

IS has put up heavy resistance and exacted a heavy toll on the Iraqi military. According to a statement issued this week by Iraqi Prime Minister Dr. Haider Abadi, since October 17 has targeted the Iraqi army with car bombs in the streets of Mosul on at least 900 occasions since. Though the Iraqi Army does not release official number of casualties, US military figures suggest the death toll is as high as several thousand.

As noted in a November 9, 2016 ERT safety advisory, a number of crews and journalists have been ambushed when embedded with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). According to CPJ research, one journalist has been killed and more than a dozen injured since the offensive began in October 2016.

In addition to physical dangers, organizations, managers and independent journalists covering Mosul should now be considering the possible effects of psychological injury, including acute traumatic stress and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This could be affecting journalists who have been exposed to near-death situations and who have witnessed traumatic incidents on the job, particularly if they have been covering the Mosul offensive for a protracted period.

CPJ is aware of several cases where journalists reporting on the offensive have been concerned that they are showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress and other psychological injury.

Trauma related stress can be as detrimental to long-term well-being as a physical injury. Unrecognized PTSD and related psychological injury may affect a journalist’s judgement and ability to work effectively, and has the potential to put a journalist, as well as colleagues, at greater risk while they are reporting in the field. For this reason news professionals and media companies have as much responsibility to themselves and their colleagues to address psychological trauma as they do the threat of physical injury.

Research shows that journalists covering conflict are on the whole resilient. But repeated exposure to extreme trauma and violence, a personal or professional history of repeated exposure to trauma, and other factors heighten PTSD risk.

Evidence also indicates that trauma awareness by managers and reporters alike can make a difference in preventing psychological injury or addressing it in early stages. Social support, psychological self-care and professional trauma-specific psychotherapy when appropriate are all effective in preventing, mitigating or treating PTSD in journalists.

Although news professionals are now more aware of PTSD than in the past, stigma and fear of negative career impact may still inhibit journalists or managers from educating themselves or seeking essential assistance.

The protracted nature of the Mosul offensive makes it essential that individual staff journalists, freelancers, news managers and media companies all recognize and address the threat of psychological injury. Specifically:

  • Managers should consider the frequency and duration of journalists’ deployment to the Mosul conflict zone, and the necessity of periodic rotations. Managers should also educate themselves about managing PTSD in the workplace, ensure that their company makes appropriate resources available without stigma, and clearly communicate to all staff that no journalist will be denied an assignment or promotion for seeking help.

  • Reporters on the ground in Mosul, particularly freelancers who work without a support structure, should review self-care techniques, learning to recognize the signs of difficulty in oneself and colleagues; and encourage a culture of open discussion of traumatic stress and getting help when needed.

CPJ encourages all journalists and managers responsible for Mosul coverage to review resources available online through the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia Journalism School which supports media professionals covering violence and conflict. The Dart Center offers online resources and tip sheets on trauma related issues that are specific to journalists covering events such as the Mosul offensive. This includes tips for managers and editors, tools for how to manage stress while reporting, information on the symptoms of trauma related stress, as well as pre-assignment awareness of trauma.

CPJ also encourages local, freelance journalists and media organizations covering the Mosul offensive to closely follow the safety principles and practices of the ACOS alliance, which can be found here.

For more information on conditions for journalists working in Iraq, visit CPJ’s devoted page on our website. For additional and detailed safety information, visit see CPJ’s Journalist Security Guide.