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Safe coverage in the Israel-Gaza conflict

One element that underpins all reporting of the Israel-Gaza crisis, and applies universally to every news organisation, is how safe their journalists are and whether lessons learned from previous conflicts are being effectively applied, says Andrew Heslop, and explains why, with inputs from senior editors and experts

Framing coverage of the Israel-Gaza conflict with sensitivity, balance and – above all – accuracy has been an extremely difficult task for newsrooms across the globe. It has led to deep discussions around nuance, perspective, and context in relation to every word, image and video piece – standard practice for many, but seen at unprecedented levels over recent days. In an environment that already produces the most heavily scrutinised reporting of any foreign affairs coverage, the pressure on newsrooms to ‘get it right’ has massively, and urgently, intensified. 

Underpinning all reporting of this crisis, and applying universally to every news organisation, is how safe their journalists are, and whether lessons learned from previous conflicts are being effectively applied. “In my view, media organisations have never been so serious and professional about security issues,” says Phil Chetwynd, global news director at Agence France-Presse (AFP). “We have also got a lot better at cooperating and sharing information on security issues. But the threats are becoming more complex, in large part because of technology.”

Stephen Smith, CEO of SEPAR International, a security, risk management, training and logistical support company, and lead advisor for WAN-IFRA’s current SaferMedia Programme for African newsrooms, agrees. “More journalists are now trained than ever and there are certain caveats for you to go into. For instance, if you’ve got X newspaper from X country and they want to send you to Israel, then you’ll need to have done a HEFAT [Hostile Environment and First Aid Training] course within the last three years, and that’s a given. If that’s not a condition, then you’re rolling the dice and it makes you uninsurable because it’s a stipulation of insurance as well.”

However, since the incursion of Hamas militants into southern Israel this past weekend, news teams have rushed to cover the area, in many instances while events were still unfolding. Numerous reports have been aired against a backdrop of falling rockets, and from areas where active military operations were still ongoing. “At the moment, just like initially in Ukraine, most journalists are likely to be staffers or people on some kind of contract. If, as anticipated, this goes on for a while… you’re going to start getting people taking over who are perhaps not staff,” cautions Smith.

For the journalists currently on the ground, a number likely to increase as the war goes on, the main issue, according to Smith, will become the lack of good local fixers. “A fixer is so important for safety, particularly for those people with less of a budget; they will be looking for someone to help guide them to the frontline, and they’re the ones that will be mindful enough not to take journalists into a situation where they get into trouble. When you start running out of the good fixers, then you get people that think, ‘Oh, I can do that job’, and the problem with that is they may be so keen to get the person the action shots they want that the risk management goes out of the window. Then they take them into a situation that they can’t get out of.”

For Gazan journalists, coverage so far of Israel’s response to the atrocities has been a portent of worse to come. Seven journalists have been reported killed*, with countless others amongst the hundreds of thousands of displaced people attempting to at least distance themselves from the border, despite having nowhere currently to reach for safety. So far, journalists in Gaza have been faced with “bombardment using multi-weapon systems (from the air, land and sea), with – or without – seconds of warning; falling buildings; health hazards; essential supplies (food, water, medicines) running very low; scarcity of electricity and internet,” says Monir Zaarour, director of Policy and Programmes – Arab World and Middle East, for the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). “In less severe circumstances, we tell journalists to get out, but there is nothing you can do there, the journalists have nowhere to go.”

As the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) prepare for what many suggest will be a major ground offensive into Gaza in pursuit of Hamas, the risks yet to come for journalists separated by the bombs and bullets on both sides fall sharply into focus. While the nature of conflict reporting means journalists will inevitably face significant risks as part of the news gathering process, to effectively manage the wide range of considerations before, during and after coverage requires everyone connected with a story – from editors in the newsroom to journalists on the ground – to decisively manage and take appropriate responsibility. The aim is to report a story as safely as possible.

“We dedicate only our own resources to covering conflict, and our general rule of thumb is that when we deploy, we have a structure at home base that can support a years-long kidnapping of one of our staff,” says David Walmsley, editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail in Canada. “We choked off the supply of at-risk freelancers by deciding many years ago we would not accept on-spec pitches from those in war zones. That reduces how many people we can put into the field, but for those who do go into the field, they are insured against injury and are up-to-date with hostile environment training. Few journalists on staff want to cover conflict so we rely disproportionately on a small number. Those currently on the ground in the Middle East are all experienced hands in both that region and other areas, including most recently Ukraine.”

Ideally, any news crews operating in a conflict environment will already have received specialist safety and first aid training, and be in possession of specific protective equipment, to at least plan for and mitigate some of those risks. Many newsrooms have in place safety policies and protocols written to cover precisely how to operate in such conditions; defining roles, responsibilities, and what to do in specific situations, particularly if things go wrong. But many do not, including underfunded newsrooms or those based in weak or unstable markets, as well as many freelancers, local producers and fixers – upon whom news outlets may increasingly come to rely for coverage in difficult environments. 

Particularly important for freelancers is having the right advice. “There are journalists that look after and take their safety seriously, and there are some that don’t,” says SEPAR’s Stephen Smith. “But if you’re too careless, that can cause you problems – if you’re on your own, that’s fine. But if you’re with a team or group or creating peer pressure, where maybe a journalist with not much experience is feeling compelled to do something that they intrinsically feel is very dangerous, that can be a problem.”

Part of WAN-IFRA’s work across the globe is to build-up the skills of newsrooms and individuals to apply standards, best practices, and increased knowledge in the face of significant gaps – all in an effort to move news organisations and the people they employ towards adopting a more effective safety culture in their work. “Because, despite the positive accounts of some of the bigger, better funded and equipped news organisations, we see the majority of smaller or mid-size newsrooms struggling with inadequate safety preparedness,” says Mariona Sanz, senior programme director for WAN-IFRA.

“Accounts of inexperienced journalists being sent to report on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, having limited training, no specific equipment, no local knowledge, and no prior experience of covering conflict were also deeply concerning. In the rush to ‘get the story’, newsrooms can be guilty of sending underprepared colleagues into dangerous situations without understanding the risks. We do not want to see a repeat of this in Israel.”

Some journalists reporting to camera over recent days have done so with no visible personal protective equipment, despite explosions and falling ordinance occupying the frame behind them. Each organisation has its own methods, but at the very least the message this sends of a profession failing to look out for itself is not a good look. “While ultimately there is only so much we can do, we must at least ensure we have done it,” says Sanz.

For AFP, the advice is clear but pragmatic. “We have a large team of text, video and photo journalists in Israel and Gaza, and our advice is to always wear vests and helmets in situations of risk,” says Phil Chetwynd. “We know from Ukraine that you can try to do everything you can to limit the risks for your teams, but that once you decide to stay and report inside a warzone, you do not control your environment. When you choose to cover conflict you have to understand the risks you are taking and constantly challenge your processes and reassess.”

For journalists covering Israel’s retaliation to the deadliest attacks in its history from inside Gaza, there are multiple threats that are only set to intensify as Israeli forces continue to gather around the enclave. Like the rest of the Palestinian population, Gazan journalists cannot leave, with Israel having closed its border crossings and military forces having completely besieged the territory. As a result, there are limited practical steps for journalists to consider. 

“You need to know that there will be a determined effort to attack groups of people. So, if you’re a journalist in the proximity of a Hamas rally or talk, you need to be careful and think about how you will manage that, as chances are it will be targeted,” says SEPAR’s Stephen Smith. “When it comes to body armour and helmets, you can improvise. But you just need to think about escape routes, about what can be used as a bunker if there’s a strike. And then think about how you can put together a medical kit and those basic things of keeping airways open, plugging leaking blood.”

With power out and communications limited, there is growing despair and frustration that journalists are being prevented from doing their jobs as this vital story unfolds. “The dangerous situation has severely hindered their ability to report on the unfolding events,” confirms Shuruq As’ad, WAN-IFRA Women in News’ country coordinator for Palestine, who is in Gaza. “The streets have sustained extensive damage, which makes it impossible for them to move, and more than 48 media offices have been either completely or partially destroyed due to Israeli missile attacks. Besides this, the bombing of at least three journalists’ homes has left them and their families without any shelter. Israel has long prohibited the entry of safety vests for journalists in Gaza and the West Bank, except through special, strict arrangements, but journalists emphasise that even with protective gear, their lives remain perilously at risk.”

“Normally we’d produce advisories and guidelines on planning and risk assessment,” says the IFJ’s Monir Zaarour, “but it just seems of no use in this situation.”

* At time of publication, the death of journalist Salam Mema had not been confirmed.

(By special arrangement with WAN-IFRA. The writer, based in France, joined WAN-IFRA in 2010, initially as editor and project manager working across the organisation’s Press Freedom and Media Development portfolio. As executive director since 2014, he has led WAN-IFRA’s Press Freedom team with responsibility for global advocacy and delivering multi-million-Euro journalist safety and support programmes to media worldwide.)