Journalism hostage resource unit to be set up

A new resource unit is to be launched to provide assistance when journalists are taken hostage. The initiative came out of a discussion on hostage taking at the News Xchange conference in Berlin last week. The International News Safety Institute will house the new advice resource.

Rodney Pinder, director of INSI told the assembled news executives: ‘The whole safety issue is not taken as professionally as it should be across the industry. The problem is growing and we are not prepared for it.”

Pinder said that since each case was different, it would be difficult to conceive of a code of conduct that would apply to everyone in all circumstances.

He suggested the creation of a series of accessible resources like a 24/7 hotline that people could contact free of charge. He also advocated post-kidnap programmes to help victims deal with the trauma of their experiences, but said that presently the INSI did not have the resources to provide this.

Pinder said that freelances represented ‘a big challenge’for news organisations. INSI, he said, was being contacted by freelances in the likes of Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan, asking for help. An all-time record 168 journalists and media staff were killed while reporting the news in 2006 and 156 have died in the first 10 months of this year.

‘We just need to look at the numbers and see how serious this is,’Pinder told Press Gazette. ‘It means an investment in resources. But when you look at what the BBC did with Alan Johnston, they spared no expense and it’s had a terrific result. How do you put a cost on Alan Johnston’s freedom and survival?”

The panel for the session entitled Journalism Held Hostage included BBC’s Alan Johnston who spoke of his experiences in captivity earlier this year. He described how, in the weeks before his capture, he worked with the BBC to increase his security in a bid to avoid capture. Johnston said that he was set to work on a 15-minute video to be included in the BBC’s hostile environment training course in a bid ‘to distil some of the lessons learned”.

BBC head of newsgathering, Fran Unsworth, said that the BBC had a blueprint it worked from when Johnston was kidnapped. Speaking about the lessons learned she said: ‘Journalism carries a risk. There is a balance between that risk and editorial justification. On this occasion, we fell on the wrong side of it.”

She said the corporation had failed to project forward when drawing up its blueprint. ‘We didn’t say if [it goes to] four months, how do we deal with that?’Unsworth said the BBC would happily share knowledge gained from the Johnston experience.

She said in the first few days of his kidnapping, the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, news organisations with experience in having their journalists taken, offered their advice.

The session was hosted by former BBC correspondent Anita McNaught, whose husband Olaf Wiig was one of two Fox News journalists kidnapped in Gaza for a fortnight in 2006.

She told Press Gazette the kind of resources INSI advocated were crucial to families caught up in a kidnapping situation who needed constant support and back-up in the crisis.

McNaught, who was on Gaza reporting herself when Johnston was kidnapped on 12 March, revealed he gave her a lift that Monday morning and his last words to her were ‘Don’t get kidnapped.”

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