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Armed Conflict

War reporters defy danger to get story

Snipers, attacks, kidnappings - war zone reporters often get caught in the crossfire. Inexperienced journalists are particularly at risk, but there’s no absolute protection for reporters with experience, either.

Syrian fighters running down devastated street

Al Shekh Said front line south of Aleppo

"Hey guys, can anyone recommend good life insurance?" The question stands at the beginning of a long discussion in the Facebook group for war- and crisis-zone reporters from around the world. Some users there are looking for reliable contacts who can help them cross the border into Syria, others for second-hand protective vests or a cheap hotel in Mogadishu. "Journalists are a particularly threatened group in war and crisis areas," said Ulrike Gruska of Reporters Without Borders.

Journalists work in extremely dangerous conditions, Gruska explained. They often approach scenes as closely as possible to be able to report first-hand. They travel to the front lines, for example in Aleppo, Syria, where snipers hide behind windows and on rooftops. When trying to get interviews, they will often enter areas that may have been mined.

"Journalists are often a thorn in the side of many leaders and fighting parties because they don't spread propaganda, and instead deliver critical reports," Gruska added. This is one reason why foreign journalists are deliberately killed or attacked. For example, when German television reporter Jörg Armbruster was shot at in Syria on Good Friday this year, German public broadcaster Südwestrundfunk - Armbruster's employer - spoke of a "deliberate" attack on Armbruster's car by a sniper.

'Cemetery for news providers'

Jörg Armbruster

Jörg Armbruster was injured in Syria

Armbruster, an experienced crisis reporter, survived thanks to an emergency operation. Others don't. Worldwide, 13 journalists have been killed this year already, according to estimates by the Committee to Protect Journalists. If you include bloggers, the figure is even higher. In Syria alone, 24 bloggers and journalists have been killed this year, said Ulrike Gruska. Reporters Without Borders has called Syria a "cemetery for news providers."

Other wars have also claimed the lives of many photographers and correspondents - like Gabriel Grüner, who was killed in Kosovo in 1999. Grüner, a German, worked for the news magazine "Stern." Karen Fischer and Christian Struwe were killed in Afghanistan in 2006 - they worked for Deutsche Welle.

Ulrike Gruska gets a lot of phone calls from young, inexperienced journalists. They often hope that reporting from war zones will help them embark on an exciting career. "They tell me that they want to do a photo report from Afghanistan and then ask me whether there's anything worth bearing in mind."

German photographer and journalist Carsten Stormer summed it up as such: They're usually beginners in the job who "are the last people who should be involved in a war." Stormer met many inexperienced colleagues in Syria while he was there.

"I met people who had no contacts and who spoke neither English nor Arabic." They often took unnecessary risks, Stormer added. "That doesn't just get them in danger. It also threatens everyone around them," Stormer said.

'No suicide mission'

Indispensible for anybody traveling to a war zone are good knowledge of the area, good contacts and language skills, Stormer said. He has reported from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, among other places, and said that while in the field, he relies on local helpers and common sense. He does take risks occasionally, he admitted. But: "I don't embark on a suicide mission to get a good picture." He said the best journalist is somebody who returns home alive.

Syrian opposition fighters crossing rubble while coming under fire by Syrian army snipers in Aleppo

Reporters often pay a high price to deliver first-hand accounts of events in crisis zones

To optimize his chances of survival, Stormer always travels with a helmet and a bulletproof vest. For his next journey he has purchased a tracker: in case he gets wounded or kidnapped, his contact people can track his last-known position. He keeps his mobile phone switched off when on the ground because phones can be tracked by potential kidnappers.

A Swiss photographer said that he always discusses emergency plans with his friends and relatives before his departure. He last went to Syria in October. He hasn't been shot at yet, "but on our way out of Aleppo a fighter jet came dangerously close," he said.

No guaranteed protection

Small things can make the difference between life and death. The United Nations gave journalists this piece of advice in a handbook: "If you're hit by a sniper, pretend you're dead."

Many German media outlets give their journalists and camerapeople special training offered by the German army. In German army camps, they learn how to trace the origin of shots and how to recognize hidden mines. And they learn that a car can't protect you from bullets.

A spokeswoman of German public broadcaster ARD told DW that "Any correspondent we send into a crisis area receives special training beforehand." After an ARD team was attacked in Northern China in early March, the company has decided to send its entire China team to special training camps.

But even the best training, good contacts and equipment "can't offer 100 percent protection," said Ulrike Gruska, adding that Jörg Armbruster was an experienced war reporter, as was American war correspondent Marie Colvin - who died in Homs in Syria last year.

Gruska stressed that over the past several months, a number of Syrian journalists were also killed. Local journalists are often exposed to a much bigger danger: they set up contacts, they organize interviews and stay on the ground after the foreign reporters have left. And yet, they hardly ever appear in Western coverage.

In 2012, 141 journalists and bloggers were killed worldwide, according to Reporters Without Borders - more than in any other year over the last two decades, with Syria as the deadliest country for journalists. Gruska said that unfortunately, it's likely journalists who report from war and crisis zones will continue to die doing their job.

DW.DE