Frank Smyth: “Personal security is a core function of being a journalist.”
Frank Smyth is both a prolific foreign affairs freelance journalist as well as the executive director of Global Journalist Security, a private security firm for journalists, human rights advocates, and non-profit groups. He is also the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) senior advisor for journalist security. On April 26, with Smyth’s significant contribution, the Committee to Protect Journalists released a journalist security guide, the third in the group’s history and its most comprehensive to date.
In this telephone interview, Smyth explains why a new guide was necessary, the specific challenges that make journalist security unique, and how rampant impunity for violence against journalists can devastate free press.
How would you summarize the primary goal of the guide?
- Additional Security Resources for Journalists
- • Handbook for Journalists, a security guide from Reporters Without Borders
- • Safer Mobile, online resources for mobile phone safety from Mobile Active
- • Guide to Safely Using Satphones from Small World News
- • Press Freedom and Safety from the International Federation of Journalists and the International News Safety Institute
- • Security-in-a-Box, digital security information and tips in several languages
There were three things that we had in mind. First, an increasing number of journalists are working with less institutional support than ever before—whether they’re freelancers covering a foreign conflict in Libya, domestic journalists on the ground in Ohio or Oklahoma, which could involve hurricane or tornado coverage, or citizen journalists in places like Syria. So we realized we needed a guide that addressed those concerns and was oriented toward journalists who couldn’t expect to have institutional support behind them.
Second, we needed a guide that addressed either new, or newly recognized contingencies, that weren’t on the radar before. That includes digital security concerns, which are relatively new, as well as sexual assault, which isn’t necessarily new, but is something that people are now talking about.
The third point is the notion that today’s journalists have to take responsibility for their own security. It’s not something we can outsource to others or look at in a casual or even ancillary basis. Personal security is something we’ve got to see as a core function of being a journalist. That’s a shift, and we didn’t necessarily try to convey that message before, but we’re certainly doing that now.
There’s a section in the CPJ Security Guide about post-traumatic experiences. They don’t seem to have been discussed all that much in regard to journalists prior to this.
There’s an organization called the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and it deserves a lot of credit for having raised awareness about how post traumatic stress can affect journalists. Our guide is built on the Dart Center’s work. Journalists are experiencing post traumatic stress, but they are also experiencing it without the benefit of institutional support. So it’s even more important that journalists are aware of the risks, and are able to recognize the signs and understand what they can do to ameliorate it.
There’s also a phenomenon of post-traumatic growth. Post–traumatic stress doesn’t have to be a life sentence. But it does require some effort on the part of those affected to work through what they’re dealing with. So I think that’s why it’s included, and I think it’s helpful to them.
You were imprisoned in Iraq in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. Did you receive any security training before you went there?
There was no security training during the 1980s. It didn’t come about until after the Gulf War in the early 1990s. I got certified in New Jersey as an Emergency Medical Technician Ambulance person, an EMT-A. I had to do close to 80 hours of classroom work and then 20 hours in an emergency room to get certified, which was a tremendous effort. I took an all-day class every Saturday for two or three months. It took quite a long time, but I thought that was a skill that would come in handy if I was going overseas to somewhere like El Salvador. The problem is that most of what you learn is how to immobilize a car accident victim using backboards and other equipment that is unavailable to ambulances in most undeveloped nations, then and even today. So, I did do that, but because it was the only thing that was available.
Then in the early 2000s I took a hostile environment and emergency first aid course for CPJ. It was quite helpful, but I’ve learned from a number of experiences that people tend not to teach what you need; they teach you what they already know. I think that’s true in a number of contexts, but over the last few decades it’s dawned on me that journalists need to take responsibility for their own security.
So I set up a security firm, a training firm, because we need to develop our own curriculum for training. Predominately, journalists have been relying on the training that military personal use in a military environment where there’re different kinds of combat or related threats. Yes, it’s training for the unpredictable, but the nature of the threats covers a certain range of possibilities. For instance when military personnel face being held prisoner the training is about survival.
But journalists operate largely in a grey area between captivity and being free. You’re being detained by a militia group, or you’re being questioned at a checkpoint, or you’re under the scrutiny of police officers or other armed authorities of one kind or another all the time. And it’s that grey area that I think we need training in how to handle such situations. To do that well you need to go beyond a set of military protocols, or even a legal guide. Saying, “Well these are your rights” doesn’t necessarily teach you how to handle a couple of menacing, inebriated young militia members at a checkpoint. What we need is integrated training that draws from the best available civilian and military practices.
Would you say that your experiences in Iraq would’ve been different if you had had some of the resources that are available today, including this guide?
Well I’m not sure. The guide is to get you thinking about things. The guide is meant more strategically than tactically. Its function isn’t to tell you what to do in any specific situation; it is to start getting you to think about the kind of preparation you need to make. We’re trying to give strategic, overarching advice to prepare for certain kinds of contingencies, as opposed to explaining how to detect a land mine or how to deal with a sudden chest wound.
Every situation is different, so we avoid that level of specificity because we don’t think that’s appropriate. Yes, training for certain types of scenarios might have helped me, but whether or not that would’ve changed what happened to us is hard to tell, and perhaps unlikely. Security training and preparation decreases your margin of risk. But that’s all it does. So while it’s very important to decrease your margin of risk, it’s very important to think about things in advance.
We were very young when we went into Iraq, myself and a number of other journalists. Having this kind of information available might’ve compelled us to think about all of the possible consequences before we went in. That certainly would’ve helped, but beyond that I’m not sure. There is no substitute for experience. One contribution the guide makes in that area is to remind young journalists of that fact.
You speak about risk, and there’s been an increase in the number of journalists killed over the past decade. The average numbers from 2004 to now are higher than anything from 1995 to 2004.
Most of the increase in deaths in the mid 2000s had to do with casualties in Iraq. But looking at the whole decade, there are some things to keep in mind: Nearly three out of four of all journalists killed worldwide are murdered outright. Even in war-zones, even in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, more journalists have been murdered than have died in combat or any other circumstances.
Western correspondents comprise a small number of the total, and they tend to die more in combat or crossfire-type situations. So we saw an increase in the 2000s of the total killed because of the Iraq war, and then you saw an increase in 2009 when over 30 journalists were killed in a single incident in the Philippines. But the total deaths through the late 2000s and into this decade remain high, and this is quite disturbing.
What are the consequences of these murders?
Well the impunity rate for murdering journalists is 87% worldwide. Nearly nine out of ten journalist murders go completely unsolved. It’s a tremendous problem, and this leads to two things. First, it results in the murder of more journalists, because if you can get away with killing one you can get away with killing others. Second, it leads to tremendous self-censorship in many of these nations. People realize that there are certain things they cannot report without putting themselves, colleagues, or their families at risk, so they avoid a great many stories.
Last week a newspaper in Mexico put out an editorial saying “We’re no longer going to cover drug violence because we can no longer protect our staff, we no longer think it’s worth it.” Over a year ago another paper in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, put out an editorial addressing the drug traffickers and saying the same thing. So the consequences are: it kills journalists, it terrifies journalists, and it ultimately eliminates a voice of accountability in these societies.
Are there plans to release a subsequent edition of the guide in the future? Are there any additions that you would already consider making?
No, not necessarily. We’re pretty happy with it. One of the things that we didn’t discuss in the guide is what to do if somebody disappears, but we often talk about the need for contingency planning in the guide, which covers what to do if somebody disappears or is abducted. An incident like that just occurred in Mexico, and there are things you can do when somebody’s missing, but it’s very difficult, depending on what’s happening. The main thing is to plan in advance for what you can do in a particular situation.