Outlets weigh risks to war zone journalists against story
By ALLISON JONES
TORONTO (CP) - The Canadian journalist seriously injured when a roadside bomb exploded in Afghanistan was a sobering reminder of the dangers reporters face when they venture into war zones.
But it was also a keen reminder of why Canada's media outlets push to cover one of the world's hottest spots - to tell the country what its soldiers are doing in Afghanistan.
Radio-Canada cameraman Charles Dubois had one of his legs amputated below the knee and his colleague, reporter Patrice Roy, was treated for shock Wednesday after the pair survived the explosion that killed two Canadian soldiers and an Afghan interpreter.
The experienced journalists were just a few weeks into their assignment with the military in Afghanistan and travelling in an armoured vehicle when the roadside bomb went off.
The attack happened in the Zhari district about 50 kilometres west of Kandahar city on the first major combat operation for the Quebec-based Van Doos regiment in Afghanistan.
The last time a Canadian journalist was seriously injured in a war zone was in March 2002, when a grenade hit a car in which former Toronto Star journalist Kathleen Kenna and her husband and photographer Bernard Weil were travelling.
While the immediate reaction may be to yank journalists out of harm's way, Globe and Mail reporter Graeme Smith sees the job of a journalist in Afghanistan as delicate balancing act between risking bodily harm and bringing the public the story.
"It's terribly, terribly important for Canadians to understand what's happening in Afghanistan, because Canadians are dying there and also because Canadians are killing there," said Smith, who will soon head to Afghanistan for a ninth time.
"We need to understand why we're dying and who we're killing. It's something worth risking your life for, frankly."
The gung-ho attitude of reporters and news outlets, however, is tempered whenever journalists are injured or killed while chasing stories in danger zones.
Radio-Canada executives said Wednesday the decision to attach journalists with the military and travel with them, called embedding, is made on a case-by-case basis and it's possible the network will change its approach to reporting in Afghanistan.
"We took a decision at one point to no longer send teams to Iraq when we had people there at the beginning of the war," said Sylvain Lafrance, executive vice-president of French services.
"In each case, we take that decision with an understanding of the situation and we'll re-evaluate when necessary."
The Department of National Defence is also reviewing its procedures.
"We'll look at the incident from (Wednesday) and speak with (Radio-Canada) and the other media who were in the area, as well as the other embedded media, and see if there's anything that we need to do to change the program or to improve it," said Cmdr. Ken MacKillop.
According to the military, more than 250 journalists have embedded with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan since January 2006.
"This is an extremely dangerous assignment," said Robert Hurst, president of CTV News.
"We, as a news organization, take every precaution possible. If you don't think this is a dangerous assignment, you shouldn't be volunteering to go . . . We are going to continue to be there as a news organization because the Canadian military is there and we think it's an important story to tell."
Media covering the mission in Afghanistan send reporters highly prepared, putting them through intensive training courses and equipping them with flak jackets, helmets and the knowledge they can decline opportunities they're unsure about.
Yet, no matter how prepared a reporter is, editors are never completely comfortable sending their staff into war zones.
"We send our journalists away for the best training that's available for journalists in a combat or conflict situation, but that doesn't mean you don't worry. I worry every day," said Scott White, editor-in-chief of The Canadian Press.
"I think they feel much safer than I feel," Paul Slavin, senior vice-president of ABC News, said of his reporters and camera crews embedded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A time for serious reflection and re-evaluation came for ABC in January 2006, when ABC News co-anchor Bob Woodruff and Canadian cameraman Doug Vogt suffered serious head injuries in a roadside bombing in Iraq.
"I think we discussed stopping the practice and we (re-evaluate) every month to six weeks," said Slavin.
However, "(Iraq and Afghanistan), as far as I'm concerned, these are two of the most important stories of our time and we have to be able to report on them, even if it's in the limited capacity in which we currently report."
Aside from obvious safety concerns, that limited capacity is another issue weighing on minds at the Canadian Association of Journalists. It has not developed a formal policy on the practice of embedding, but chairman Saleem Khan says the CAJ cautions journalists to ensure their reporting is balanced.
Despite the protection offered by the Canadian military for embedded journalists, many decide to venture off the base. Those reporters often uncover compelling stories, but Smith acknowledges it's a risky pursuit.
"The incident that happened (Wednesday) was a bit surprising because that kind of travel is considered the safer option for journalists," he said.
"Working on your own in a vehicle that is not armoured with no weapons, that's considered the more dangerous scenario."
When travelling with troops, journalists ride in the safest part of a heavily armoured vehicle, wearing a helmet, Kevlar strapped to their chest, and a plate on their front and back that can stop an AK-47 bullet, Smith said.
He said Wednesday's incident gave him pause.
"It made me stop and think again about why I do this. I reached the same conclusion that I always reach, which is that this is important work and we have to do it and it's still worth the risk."