Dying in pursuit of the news
President and CEO
The Associated Press
Foreign Correspondents Club
Every time I go in the newsroom at our headquarters in New York, I pass by the AP Wall of Honor -- a memorial to the 35 journalists who have died on assignment since AP was founded nearly 170 years ago.
The first was Mark Kellogg, killed in 1876 while covering the Battle of the Little Big Horn between Native Americans and the U.S. cavalry, led by General Custer. Last year, we added four more names to the list. It was as deadly as any year in AP history.
As you might imagine, it was also one of the most difficult for our staff and for colleagues around the world.
Today I want to talk to you about the growing risks that journalists face in trying to gather and report the news -- and what can be done to reduce those risks. At stake is the first-hand original reporting from trusted sources, like those of you in this room, that lets citizens around the world make informed decisions and hold their governments and other large institutions accountable.
Last year, 61 journalists were killed in the line of duty, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. More than 1,000 have died since 1992.
With our global footprint, gathering news in more than 100 countries and covering war and conflict wherever it happens, The Associated Press sees these dangers up close every day.
In one of the most high profile killings of a journalist last year, AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus was essentially assassinated when an Afghan policeman who was supposed to be protecting her turned his rifle on her instead, calling out “Allahu Akbar”-- “God is Great.” AP special correspondent Kathy Gannon was severely wounded in the attack, although I am happy to report that she is recuperating and is determined to return to Pakistan and Afghanistan and continue her work.
AP takes the safety of its staff very seriously. Our global security team regularly visits and updates security at all our worldwide locations, particularly those in conflict zones. Reporters covering dangerous situations, from Afghanistan to the front lines of the Ebola outbreak, carry the latest safety equipment and receive intensive hostile environment training. Covering conflict or dangerous environments is voluntary for AP journalists.
We also understand that there will always be risks: Two of our staff killed last year -- videographer Simone Camilli and translator Ali Abu Afash -- died when an unexploded missile went off in Gaza. One of our photographers lost a leg as a result of the explosion.
But the nature of conflict today compounds the dangers.
Wearing PRESS on your jacket once offered some degree of protection for journalists in the most dangerous areas. Today, it more often makes them a target.
Extremist organizations don’t need us to get their story out-- they can use social media and other means. And they certainly don’t want an independent media to observe them. They want to control their message from start to finish. The larger world, however, needs us there to get out the real facts.
Adding to the danger, the kidnapping and ransoming of journalists has become a business model for these groups.
Now, most perniciously, we find ourselves in the sickening situation where terrorists are killing journalists not to stop a story -- but to create one.
However, there are steps that can and should be taken to reduce the risks that journalists face and to increase the chances that those who kill them are brought to justice.
One immediate step is for media organizations around the world to follow common safety principles and practices, even when freelancers or contractors are involved.
Last month, AP and other journalism organizations endorsed just such a set of guidelines in a new report, A Call for Global Safety Principles and Practice. It calls for news organizations to treat freelancers just as they would regular employees. They should, for example, make sure freelancers have first-aid and survival training and have proper safety equipment.
News organizations should not make or accept assignments with a freelancer unless they are prepared to be responsible for the freelancer’s wellbeing. There is a “moral responsibility” to support them from the start of the assignment to the finish, the group said.
AP wholeheartedly supports these guidelines.
But there are further steps that should be taken to protect journalists.
Under existing international law -- the Geneva Conventions and additional protocols -- journalists are considered civilians in conflicts between states. The most recent action involving journalist safety occurred in 2013 when the United Nations adopted a resolution condemning attacks on journalists and underlining the obligations of nations to bring perpetrators to justice.
But the framework sets forth that protections for journalists stem from laws within each country, making each nation responsible for investigating and prosecuting those who kill journalists.
It is at best a patchwork system. At worst, totally ineffective: In 90 percent of journalists’ murders, there are no legal proceedings or investigations. Only four percent of killers are convicted.
The nature of both war and media have changed dramatically in recent years, and it is clear that existing protocols no longer address the increasingly perilous challenges facing journalists.
AP believes there needs to be a new international legal mechanism for protecting journalists --one that makes killing journalists or taking them hostage a war crime. One approach would be to create a new protocol to the Geneva Conventions that makes the assassination of a journalist a specific war crime. Another approach would be to adapt articles of the International Criminal Court, which deals with war crimes, to specifically cover journalists.
At least when Anja Niedringhaus was killed the policeman who murdered her was put on trial. Last week he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. There was solace in knowing justice was done, and we are grateful for that.
I'm not naive. I realize that many extremist groups routinely ignore international law and that making the targeting and killing of journalists a war crime likely won't change their behavior. However, there are many places and circumstances where I believe it will have a beneficial effect, especially over time and when it comes to prosecuting the killers.
The single most treacherous threat to journalists is killing with impunity. Impunity for those who kill journalists only empowers them. AP believes that international actions must be taken to assure that those who kill journalists are brought to justice.
Journalists cover conflicts so the rest of us can know what is happening in the most dangerous places. The growing challenges to their ability to gather news should be a worldwide cause for concern. When independent media cannot provide eyewitness original reporting, freedom suffers. A free press is the most powerful bulwark against tyranny.
We must never forget that.