The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based organization that defends the rights of journalists, reports that nearly 400 reporters died in the last decade while carrying out their work. Only a relatively small number - less than one third - of journalists died in battle zones or in accidents.
According to the Committee, more than three quarters of those killed were victims of retribution for their work. Last year’s murder of The Wall Street Journal newspaper reporter Daniel Pearl was one of the most notable examples. Terrorists lured Mr. Pearl to a secluded spot in Pakistan where they slit his throat and produced a video showing how they tortured him.
Reuter’s photographer Yannis Behrakis survived an attack by rebels in Sierra Leone when he fled into the bush and camouflaged himself using mud and leaves. Rebels looking for survivors of their attack passed within 15 feet of him, but never saw him. The photojournalist credited the training he received from the British firm Centurion Risk Assessment with helping to save his life.
VOA television reporter Margaret Kennedy recently attended a Centurion course organized in rural Virginia. “About one third of the course had to do with dealing with medical emergencies that can come up in these kinds of situations,” she says.
Many people become paralyzed with fear or confused when they find themselves in life-threatening situations. But the training generally helps them deal with the emergency. VOA’s Margaret Kennedy says the trainers simulated in great detail real-life situations, such as car accidents, explosions and fires.
“They actually had these bladders of blood that would be on the bodies of individuals who might be in the car. They are all play-acting. So as you dragged the body out, you might have had blood spurted all over you face and your clothing and it was kind of shocking,” she says.
Ms. Kennedy says these exercises are helpful because they are so realistic. Such training often includes long marches with little food and water. Ms. Kennedy says her training for terrorism and hostage situations was particularly useful.
“That one seemed to go on for quite some time, where you couldn’t breathe, you couldn’t see, you had no concept of time. Jewelry was removed from your body. You were just totally helpless. You didn’t know where you were,” she says. “And so it gave you a pretty good idea of what that feeling of capture and shock was like. Again, with the idea that should this happen to you, you try to get your wits about yourself and say, ‘OK, how do I act, what do I do now, what are some strategies here?’”
While there is no substitute for real-life experience, most journalists say training is helpful. Hundreds have taken similar courses in the last few years and are increasingly joined by aid workers, business people and others who travel to regions where personal safety could be at risk.
Some organizations make hostile environment training mandatory for employees going on assignments in conflict zones. The London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting is an example. Pamela Taylor, a media advisor for the Institute, had to undergo hostile area training prior to visiting Afghanistan. Ms. Taylor says she will be based in the capital city of Kabul and will only travel to other areas if she is advised that it is safe to do so. “In theory, they want me to travel,” she says. “They would like me to go to Mazar e Sharif, Kandahar and Heart. But that depends on how secure the situation will be. And unlike a reporter who goes deliberately to find out what is happening in a conflict zone, as a trainer, I will only go if the security forces there say it is OK.”
But post-war Afghanistan remains unstable and most reporters traveling to the region agree it is better to be prepared for possible dangers even in places that are considered relatively safe. Ms. Taylor attended a one-week course provided by the British company, AKE Limited.
“We had two guys from CNN (television). One was an Internet specialist going to Kuwait. The other was a producer on tap to go to Iraq. There was a CBC Canadian cameraman who was going to Israel and the Gaza strip. We decided he was the one who really needed the training. And we had a free-lance Irish cameraman who actually had to have a lot of experience in Northern Ireland,” she says.
The trainers are former military officers or special forces members with experience in dealing with terrorists. Mike Blinkhorn, Director of Training and Security at AKE, was in the British Special Forces for 24 years. He says that in addition to hostile environment training, AKE provides comprehensive security services on location.
“If a company takes us on, we provide the complete medical back-up. We provide backup here in the U-K. We provide the full communication system for our operatives in the field. We provide vehicles. And we provide access to our web site, which gives the detailed up-to-the-date information,” he says.
A five-day training session at AKE, which stands for “awareness, knowledge and excellence,” costs between $2500 and $3000. Mike Blinkhorn says his business has grown tenfold in the past five years and the company now has offices in the United States and Australia.
“And I think within, say, the last five years, since Kosovo and Afghanistan, when there were quite a few journalists killed, then media organizations were stunned to think that they had to do something more than they were to protect their people.”
As wars and the risks to journalists have multiplied, so too has the demand for specialized, hostile-environment training courses run by companies such as AKE and Centurion. During the past few years the number of risk-training courses offered in Britain and the United States has mushroomed. Most courses are designed to teach reporters, humanitarian aid workers and others how to cope with dangerous situations such as combat and kidnapping.
But a growing number of companies also specialize in chemical, biological, nuclear and other hazards. The sales of protective gears, gas masks, cell phones and safety gadgets are also growing. And Mike Blinkhorn says the industry will surely continue to grow because of the September-eleventh terrorist attacks on the United States.
“After September 11th, the world has definitely changed,” he says. “Westerners are viewed more as targets than they ever were before. The media, depending on what country they come from, are viewed as ambassadors of their countries, as representatives of their countries. Whereas in the past, people didn’t deliberately target the media, they now do.”
Mr. Blinkhorn says travelers from the United States, Western Europe and Australia - including tourists - may be targeted by terrorists almost anywhere in the world and they would do well to be prepared.
“AKE offers a business-travelers course aimed specifically at the business community. It’s three days long. But what it does is, like our journalists’ course, it works on the principles of making people aware. And by being aware, you can then anticipate problems. And if you can anticipate problems, then you can avoid them,” he says.
Mike Blinkhorn notes that the threat of terrorism is spreading to cities all over the world. In his opinion, the triple-A principle: awareness, anticipation and avoidance, can help save anyone’s life.