The mantra sounds so logical: “No story is worth dying for”. Yet journalists and media workers continue to be killed, attacked and intimidated more than ever before. The critical threats they face at increasingly complex and interrelated levels – on battlegrounds and in cyberspace, from repressive governments to organised crime – require well-designed and carefully chosen approaches to make them less vulnerable.
IMS utilises a combination of methods and tools to enable local journalists and media workers to survive and continue to provide the public with accurate, reliable information under the most challenging of circumstances.
Our work on media safety goes beyond simply ensuring physical safety. Journalists and media workers need to be able to assess and mitigate the risks they face, to deal with the psychological consequences of working in conflict, and to practice professional journalism under pressure.
The IMS approach to media safety combines training, practical measures, and advocacy. Some of the tools we use are reactive: designed to protect journalists and media workers when they are in danger. Others help prevent them from getting into danger in the first place. Rarely are all the tools used at once. Rather, they are applied strategically to suit the needs of the media and the political contacts in each country.
Training ranges from basic first aid and learning how to make a risk analysis of the working environment to enabling journalists to produce stories that are professional and which defuse rather than exacerbate conflict. Where possible, IMS qualifies local trainers to deliver training in indigenous languages and adapt course content to their local context.
Practical measures cover legal advice and trauma counselling, logistical support, and safety equipment. When there is an immediate need for protection or for taking journalists out of harm’s way, we employ safe houses where they and their families can seek refuge. We also make telephone hotlines available that journalists in danger can call for advice and assistance. IMS also administers safety funds to help journalists under attack to seek refuge, and to pay for urgent medical treatment or legal assistance.
Advocacy spans local and global campaigns on media safety aimed at influencing both media and government policies and practice. Media violations are documented and, where possible, the evidence is used in court. IMS also supports the production of handbooks for journalists on safety. At a local level we encourage dialogue and understanding between journalists and members of the government and security forces to overcome mutual mistrust.
Before intervening anywhere, we assess the needs of journalists in the country concerned. We do this in close consultation with local partners and other international press freedom organisations to ensure that subsequent interventions address local priorities and complement existing efforts.
In an armed conflict or in areas of human insecurity, our response is likely to include personal protection equipment and training in conflict sensitive journalism to ensure journalists are protected from further attacks, and avoidexacerbating the conflict with their coverage.
In countries where a democratic transition is underway, but some repression or pockets of violence remain, our efforts may focus on trying to influence policies and practice through advocacy and media law reform. In an emerging democracy, media also have a crucial part to play in furthering dialogue and peace by practicing journalism according to recognised professional standards.
In authoritarian states where there is little possibility of influencing government policies, our priority may rather be to ensure journalists are less susceptible to intimidation or surveillance by providing legal protection or training in secure online communications.
To be effective in the long run, our safety work must be anchored in local organisations and ultimately integrated into government policy. Therefore, our media safety initiatives are implemented through trusted and influential local organisations and individuals, as well as with international bodies. Launched in 2012, the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity provides a common platform on which media and civil society organisations, UN bodies and crucially governments can share and harmonise their approach to improving the safety of journalists. In partnership with UNESCO and Open Society Foundations, IMS will be rolling out the Plan over the coming years in Pakistan, Nepal, South Sudan, Iraq, Honduras, and Mexico.
Afghanistan: The personal cost of surviving a story
Aasif used to work for one of Kandahar’s most prominent media outlets. A young and committed journalist, he reported critically on the Taliban and the Afghan government. He was aware his writings might cause him and his family trouble, but dedicated to his trade he felt compelled to go on.
After months of continuous threats from the Taliban and the Afghan intelligence agency, including warnings that he would be stoned to death unless he ceased his reporting, the intelligence agency paid a visit to Aasif’s workplace while he was away on business. They also stopped by his home to threaten and mistreat his wife.
Following this escalation of threats, Aasif’s employer contacted the coordinator of the IMS-founded Afghan Journalists’ Safety Committee in Kabul. After investigating the case and verifying the threats against Aasif using its network of provincial representatives, government authorities, tribal elders, and other sources, the Safety Committee determined his threat level at 5, the highest level on a scale from 1. This warranted immediate protection and evacuation of Aasif and his wife.
While they sought refuge in a safe house at a secret location, the Safety Committee and IMS arranged the practical details of their evacuation out of the country. Aasif and his wife were provided with new passports, but fearing that their family members might suffer revengeful attacks, they were torn between whether to go or stay. After days of unbearable contemplation they decided to flee. The couple now lives in Europe, but remain traumatised by their experience. Members of their family have since been killed as an act of retribution by the Taliban.The IMS Afghanistan safety mechanism
The Afghan Journalist Safety Committee manages a country-wide safety mechanism which includes a Freedom of Expression monitoring unit that documents violations against journalists; a provincial safety team, a 24-hour telephone emergency hotline, safe house facilities, a safety fund for emergency support and practical safety training for journalists that includes trauma counselling and conflict sensitive journalism training.