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BY MOHAMMED IQBAL
Ali Hassan Al Jaber, a Qatari cameraman working for Al Jazeera who was killed in Libya in March 2011 became a symbol of media freedom, his death triggering heated debate in the Qatari community about the safety of citizens working as journalists in conflict zones.
Al Jaber was killed in an ambush near the city of Benghazi in eastern Libya. He was returning to Benghazi from a nearby town after filing a report from an opposition protest when unknown fighters opened fire on a car he and his colleagues were travelling in. He was hit by three shots and was wounded through the heart.
Al Jaber was not the first, nor will he be the last, of the growing number of journalists killed or wounded every year all over the world while doing their job in risky and often life-threatening environments.
The Middle East and North Africa, the springboard of the Arab revolutions, has become the deadliest place in the world as far as journalists’ safety is concerned.
The latest report from Reporters Without Borders shows that the year 2012 was exceptionally deadly, with a 33 percent rise over 2011 in the number of journalists killed in connection with their work. A total of 88 journalists lost their lives in 2012 — while covering wars or bombings or murdered by groups linked to organised crime.
Alarmingly, the Middle East and North Africa region accounted for the largest number of journalists killed (26), while the other badly hit regions were Asia (24) and sub-Saharan Africa (21).
Reporters Without Borders says in its report that this was the worst set of figures since it began producing an annual roundup in 1995. The number of journalists murdered or killed was 67 in 2011, 58 in 2010 and 75 in 2009. The previous record was in 2007, when 87 were killed.
A total of 47 netizens and citizen-journalists and six media assistants were also killed during in 2012. A total of 879 journalists were arrested, 1,993 journalists were threatened or physically attacked, 38 journalists were kidnapped, 73 journalists fled their country, 144 bloggers and netizens were arrested and 193 journalists were in prison as of December 18, 2012, according to the report.
While several Arab Spring countries, including Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are returning to normalcy following the success of popular revolutions, Syria, where fierce fighting continues, has become a deathtrap for journalists as well as civilians.
“The reason for the unprecedented number of journalists killed in 2012 is mainly the war in Syria, the chaos in Somalia and Taliban violence in Pakistan,” says Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire.
“These men and women act as reporters, photographers and video-journalists, documenting their day-to-day lives and the government’s crackdown on its opponents. Without their activities, the Syrian regime would be able to impose a complete news blackout on certain regions and continue massacring in secret,” says Reporters Without Borders in its report.
At least 17 journalists, 44 citizen-journalists and four media assistants were killed in Syria in 2012.
The report lists the other deadly countries for journalists as Somalia, where 18 journalists were killed in 2012, Pakistan (nine journalists and one media assistant killed), Mexico (six journalists killed) and Brazil (five journalists killed).
“Pakistan was the world’s deadliest country for the media from 2009 to 2011, and Balochistan continues to be one of the world’s most dangerous regions. With its Tribal Areas, its border with Afghanistan, its tension with India and its chaotic political history, Pakistan is one of the world’s most complicated countries to cover,” says the report.
With several journalists from Qatar still working in the Arab Spring countries and other conflict zones, the report is a rude reminder of how they are risking their lives to inform the world about the brutalities committed against innocent civilians by oppressive regimes and militant groups.
The killing of Ali Hassan Al Jaber in Libya caused an uproar in Qatar, with the Qatari community at large and the media and intellectual circles in particular raising serious questions about the lack of mechanisms to protect the lives of journalists working in dangerous situations.
A number of issues were raised, most importantly the need for proper training to journalists working in such places. With this in view, the Doha Center for Media Freedom (DCMF) launched the Ali Hassan Al Jaber Safety Training Programme for journalists, named after the slain Qatari cameraman.
The Center said while launching the programme that it had identified a serious need for increased safety awareness training to reduce the numbers of journalists who lose their lives in the line of duty.
DCMF special programmes manager and policy advisor, Hassan Rachidi, and training coordinator Omar Mafkhi met with representatives of the local media and officials to discuss the programme and possible future collaborations to improve safety training for journalists in the wider region.
“We need to do something, and we are hoping to work with local partners to improve safety training for journalists in the region,” said Rachidi, explaining that the programme will focus on journalists in conflict zones such as Somalia, Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and work with local media workers covering events in these countries.
“One of the main issues the journalists spoke about was the issue of impunity for killers of journalists, and this is something we are working on following our participation in the UNESCO meeting in Vienna in November,” he added.
“The issue of safety of journalists in the Arab region is frightening. As well as monitoring the situation, we are trying to do something about it. We have found that training for journalists in the Arab world is either incomplete, sporadic or irrelevant to the needs and dangers journalists face,” said Mafkhi adding “that is why we are trying to introduce a programme that covers all aspects of safety.”
In January 2012, DCMF organised a meeting of experts on “supporting Arab media in transitional and post-conflict contexts” in Doha. During the meeting, fifteen representatives of media development organisations, news organisations and academic institutions based in the Middle East and Europe exchanged their opinions and experiences on the subject.
The closed door discussions revolved around the question of how media development organisations should respond to the opportunities and challenges posed by the popular uprisings that have engulfed the Arab world since early 2011.
The meeting came out with a series of recommendations, which covered the safety and rights of journalists, among other things.
The experts stressed the need for prioritising safety training for journalists covering armed conflicts and mass protests, particularly for filmmakers and photographers, who are specifically targeted by government security forces.
They felt that international pressure must be put on Arab governments to end a culture of impunity surrounding the death of journalists.
The participants called for new formats and practical ways to disseminate safety information as widely as possible, including to citizen journalists.
The DCMF meeting followed an international conference organised by the National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) earlier in January to discuss protection of journalists in dangerous situations , which brought together delegates from international organisations, including the UN, several press freedom groups and government officials.
“Although the United Nations and its agencies have a wide range of tools and instruments which can address the issue of safety, scores of journalists and media workers continue to be killed every year while carrying out their professional responsibilities. Many such abuses are not investigated and remain unpunished,” said a statement issued after the conference.
The meeting called on the UN to develop new tools to bind all states to acknowledging and accepting a standing obligation to provide safeguards and protection to journalists beyond the provisions of the UN Security Council resolution reminding states of their obligations to give journalists protection as civilians in situations of conflict.
It called on governments to respect the letter and spirit of all international instruments they have signed up to, and of the binding and non-binding resolutions, covenants and declarations of the United Nations.
International development institutions, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, should scrutinise a country’s record on violence against journalists when assessing their eligibility for grant of aid and other assistance, it said.
States should agree that families of killed journalists have a right to compensation, given directly or through media institutions, and establish a solidarity fund for the victims.
News organisations should acknowledge their duty of care for all their journalists, in particular news gatherers, whether staff or freelancers, and their responsibility to provide them safety training and equipment, the participants said.
They should arrange for trauma counselling through specialised organisations such as the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, and increase awareness and knowledge of international agreements and conventions in this regard, they said.
News organisations should provide special training to women to protect them from sexual harassment and violent attacks directly targeting them.
The meeting urged journalists to be responsible for their own safety and undergo training before travelling to conflict zones.
They should be ready at all times to help record any attack on journalists, which can be used as evidence in courts, and should develop an understanding of how military forces work and be ready to deal with them.
The meeting called on the NHRC to create a working group involving all stakeholders to follow up the recommendations.
The participants agreed to send these recommendations to the president of the UN General Assembly for adoption by that body.