The week-old conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia has already claimed its first journalist fatality after Dutch cameraman Stan Storimans, working for RTL News, was killed in a Russian bombardment of the city of Gori on Tuesday.
According to the International News Safety Insititute some five journalists and media workers have been killed covering the troubled region.
Jon Williams, world news editor for BBC News, said the safety situation during the conflict was ‘catastrophic”.
He added: ‘Journalists aren’t being targeted, but if you’re flying a plane it’s difficult to distinguish whether somebody is a fighter or a journalist.”
Covering the conflict placed huge challenges on news organisations after it broke out at the same time as the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony on Friday.
The Independent claimed to have the first two newspaper correspondents in the worst-hit area of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia, Kim Sengupta and Sean Walker.
The Guardian’s Moscow-based correspondent Luke Harding cut short a holiday to jet into Georgia and has been reporting from Gori and Tbilisi. Stringer Tom Parfitt reported from North Ossetia on Monday and Helen Womack reported from Moscow.
The Times has reporter Tom Halpin in Gori, Georgia.
Telegraph Moscow correspondent Adrian Bloomfield travelled to Georgia in time to file copy from the front line for Saturday’s paper.
Reuters carried extensive coverage from the conflict, helped by its Georgian and Russian-based staff.
On Tuesday this week, just before the Russian suspension of hostilities, a Reuters reporter’s vehicle narrowly escaped several bomb blasts near Gori while the agency’s journalists reported seeing piles of dead bodies in the streets.
The agency already had two text reporters and a photographer in Tbilisi and claims to have been first in recognising that the clashes in South Ossetia were more serious than the frequent skirmishes between pro-Russian separatists and Georgian troops.
Correspondent Margarita Antidze sent reports with a South Ossetian dateline on Saturday. Tbilisi happens to be home to one of Reuters’ most experienced war cameramen, David Chkhikvishvili.
Known as ‘Big Dato’to his colleagues, he has been based in Georgia since 1993 and has reported from Chechnya, Nagorno Karabakh, Macedonia, Afghanistan and Kosovo.
It was his spectacular video images of Georgian rockets being launched into the sky towards South Ossetia that made most TV bulletins on Friday morning.
Reuters then added an extra text reporter and a TV crew from Moscow and, once fighting broke out, brought in staff from London and Istanbul as well as a satellite uplink to transmit live video.
The Reuters World Desk in London, depleted by staff holidays and at the same time working on the Olympics, worked through the night on economic and security analysis pieces on the Friday.
The BBC World Service was already covering the build-up to the conflict at midnight last Thursday, ahead of most other news organisations who were focusing on the build-up to the Olympics. The BBC was lucky to have a permanent BBC correspondent based in Tbilisi – Matthew Colin. He was joined by the BBC’s Moscow correspondent Richard Galpin on the Friday, and by 6pm BBC News was broadcasting live from Tbilisi.
Saleem Patka, editor of BBC Worldwide’s main news programme World Briefing, said: ‘The World Service was across the story much sooner than most other outlets, we’d been covering the build-up when it all blew up. Nobody was talking about it, but we were because it is one of the areas we keep an eye on, when it all kicked off we were the place people could turn to for expertise. We’ve got specialist experience because we have a regional specialist Steven Eke who can give background at the drop of a hat.”
Sky News has bureaux in China and Moscow, and the Moscow office had been tracking the developments in South Ossetia for some time. ‘We were ready and had the necessary accreditation to go south,’said head of foreign affairs Adrian Wells. ‘As soon as it became clear that a conflict had broken out into gunfire, our team of three at the Moscow office headed down.”
A team of four were sent from London, including chief correspondent Stuart Ramsay, senior foreign news editor, a cameraman and a freelance satellite engineer.