Can risks be eliminated for journalists in war zones?

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

The deadly attack on two veteran journalists, one of them Canadian, in Afghanistan on Friday serves as an example that no amount of experience or training is complete protection against random violence in a conflict zone.

Associated Press reporter Kathy Gannon and AP photographer Anja Niedringhous were sitting in a car that was part of a convoy delivering election materials near the city of Khost ahead of this weekend's presidential vote when an Afghan police officer riddled the vehicle with bullets.

Niedringhous, a 48-year-old German who won a Pulitzer Price in 2005 for her part in AP's photo coverage of the Iraq War, was killed instantly. Canadian Gannon, 60, who's covered Afghanistan for more than 20 years, was wounded.

Both women were very experienced in reporting from war and conflict zones.

Niedringhous was chief photographer for the European Pressphoto Agency during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, working from Sarajevo, where she was wounded by city's infamous sniper fire. She was also hit by shrapnel in a grenade attack while out on patrol with Canadian troops in Kandahar.

Gannon, likewise, has been immersed in the seemingly endless Afghan War since the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. She was considered the dean of foreign correspondents in the country, with contacts from all sides, and a mentor to many of the newcomers who arrived to cover the NATO-led mission against the Taliban and al-Qaeda after 9/11.

"Kathy Gannon's writing on Afghanistan helped shape my mental map of the country, and Anja Niedringhaus' pictures helped illustrate it," Stephanie Levitz, one of several Canadian Press reporters who covered the war, wrote on her Facebook page.

There's always been a cadre of journalists willing to put their lives at risk to cover the world's wars. The Vietnam War, for instance, was a rich period, with journalists working on the front lines exposing the lie that America was winning the war.

Canada has a proud history of war reporting by journalists such as CBC's Matthew Halton and Peter Stursberg. They gave Canadian listeners in the Second World War a taste of what their soldiers were experiencing. Kit Coleman became Canada's first female war correspondent when she covered the Spanish-American War for the Toronto Mail in 1898.

[ Related: Canadian AP journalist wounded, German photographer killed in Afghanistan ]

A new generation of war correspondents has covered the world's hot spots since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

One of the defining characteristics of this era has been a blurring of the front lines. In today's sectarian, quasi-civil conflicts journalists are never really safe. If anything, they are in more danger than in traditional wars.

Information is an important weapon. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Congo. Reporters are seen as tools and often targets. A press card is no protection.

CBC News reporter Melissa Fung was kidnapped and held for 28 days by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Inexperienced freelancer Amanda Lindhout was held and brutalized for 15 months in Somalia before being ransomed.

Reporters Without Borders says 71 journalists died last year while doing their jobs, 39 of them in war zones. At least 10 professional journalists and 35 citizen-journalists were killed in Syria last year alone, the organization says. In Somalia, seven died, but that's down from 18 the previous year.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 26 journalists have died in Afghanistan since 1992, including Niedringhaus. The toll this year includes Niedringhous, Swedish radio journalist Nils Horner, assassinated in a Taliban hit last month, and Sardar Ahmed, who died when teenage gunmen shot up the Serena Hotel, killing the Afghan journalist and eight others on March 20.

"Friday’s incident illustrates the immense difficulty of staying safe while covering Afghanistan, given the unpredictable nature of the various threats that range from roadside bombs and kidnappings to suicide bombers and assassinations," Colin Perkel, who did several stints as CP's Kandahar correspondent and survived a Chinook helicopter crash, told Yahoo Canada News via email.

All journalists working for major news outlets undergo pre-deployment training, Perkel noted. It's valuable up to a point, but "the sad truth is that even the most sensible precautions can only go so far."

At the height of NATO's operations, foreign correspondents could at least count on relative safety inside military base camps but they faced the same risks as soldiers when they joined them on patrol.

"You always try to weigh the risks against the value an assignment will yield, but while some might be obviously risky, others might appear relatively safe ­– a potentially deadly illusion," Perkel said.

He pointed out Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang was killed, along with four Canadian soldiers, when their armoured vehicle hit a roadside bomb while on a routine patrol in Kandahar in 2009.

"I don’t think any kind of training can prepare you for reality but it did give me an idea of what best to do in a number of scenarios," Dene Moore, another CP war correspondent who did three tours in Kandahar, told Yahoo.

"I felt more comfortable going because in my mind I had some idea of what to do, but I certainly wouldn’t say I felt safe or protected because I took a one-week training course on working in a conflict zone."

[ Related: Swedish journalist murdered in broad daylight in Kabul by unknown gunman ]

Moore survived an improvised explosive device that blew up the armoured vehicle she was in, as well as an ambush with rocket-propelled grenades and rocket attacks on the main NATO base.

"Surviving them is what made me feel more comfortable, oddly enough," she said.

Moore encountered all kinds of reporters, some seemed unprepared and others perhaps too fearless, though in the end their attitude didn't seem to matter.

She met Niedringhaus in 2010 when both were covering the the Canadian mission in Kandahar.

"She was a kind, interesting, talented and humble human who loved what she did," said Moore.

She recalled the incident when Niedringhaus was wounded in the backside by grenade fragments and medevaced back to base.

"A few hours later, she was laughing about a pseudo news release the Taliban were distributing about the incident, claiming to have killed many Infidel occupiers," said Moore.

"I tell you that because it shows she was a consummate professional with two decades of experience in war zones from sniper alley in Sarajevo to the Panjwai district of Kandahar, birth place of the Taliban.

"She was as knowledgeable and prepared as any person could be for the reality on any ground you could throw at her."

All journalists covering important stories carry on an internal dialogue about what they need to do to get a story. It's just that the conversation in war zones takes place at the extreme end of the risk-reward continuum.

"War and conflict coverage by definition is risky," said Perkel. "If you’re not prepared to assume that risk in the belief that what you are doing as a journalist is important, stay home."