After the recent killing of two Japanese citizens in Syria, the Japanese governments have taken drastic action to prevent the tragedy repeating itself by confiscating the passport of photojournalist Yuichi Sugimoto who was planning on travelling to Syria.
While the rise of ISIL has definitely changed the game for journalists in the Middle East, does the government have a right to say who can and can’t travel and where? Can a place be too dangerous to report from and if so, what considerations need to be taken? I decided that the best way I was going to understand this was to ask journalists who have reported from war zones and disaster areas to see how they view the current situation.
Ask the experts
The answers I got were pretty consistent, with the BBC’s John Sweeney and Quentin Sommerville and the Guardian’s Patrick Kingsley all saying that governments should not be able to tell journalists where they can and cannot go to work. No government wants their citizens to be hurt or killed, but journalists weigh up the risks and should be able to make their own decisions.
Even though Syria is undoubtedly incredibly dangerous for anyone to travel too, isn’t it the duty of journalists to go to record and report what it actually happening out there?
‘The more dangerous a place for ordinary people, the more important that a journalist should go there. That’s why I’ve reported from Sarajevo, Chechnya and North Korea. But in ISIS-land journalists are being weaponised into weapons of terror against their home governments and in a wider sense against democracy and free speech. So I wouldn’t go to ISIS-land now. I’d go to report the battle by the Kurds, with a lot of care.’
Is there ever a safe way to report war?
‘There are times when it’s too dangerous. Look at Syria. The uncertainty on the ground and the risk of kidnap and death is so great that few are willing to take it – wisely in my opinion. So we’ve seen a lot less reporting from there, which is a tragedy, but as journalist, we live in the real world, have families ,etc, and we are now targets, high value ones in some areas.’
Is it worth the risk?
So clearly there is a reluctance to go even though some may see it as their duty to go and report in dangerous areas. The risk in any conflict zone is high, but when journalists are being used as bargaining tools with demands that most governments would not agree too then it is not surprising that most will not.
But if you are willing to take the risk, what considerations would you have to take? For Quentin Sommerville, they are mostly about safety: ‘Are you confident about the level or risk compared to the reward in terms of the story? We spend a great deal of time making sure everyone is happy with the trip before we commit. You can’t account for all risks, but being aware of the threat is the duty of everyone.’
No one claims that war reporting is a safe business, but if a journalist’s job is to report what is happening then they should be allowed to go into a conflict zone to tell the world what is happening on the ground. They have a very important role and should not be hindered by outside influences, beyond those concerning safety.
Read more about the dangers of ISIS in Selling Terrorism, from the World News journalists at Kettle.