Gathering news in a hail of bullets

opinion January 31, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

Journalists covering the increasingly violent political crisis need more protection

They might look “cool” dressed like weekend warriors on a paint-balling assault course. 
But journalists who don combat fatigues to enter conflict zones like the deep South or the increasingly violent rallies in Bangkok often unnecessarily put themselves in harm’s way.
The Thai Journalist Association and the industry as a whole should do more to educate journalists about the do’s and don’ts. 
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance could also lend a hand in this respect. Southeast Asia is full of hot spots – Mindanao in the Philippines, northern Myanmar, southernmost Thailand and, intermittently, Indonesia’s Aceh and Maluku. Conflict in these regions offers lessons that could prove useful elsewhere.
 The international Committee to Protect Journalists is another vital shield for media people in dangerous places. It provides regular updates on the situations and problems facing reporters around the world and campaigns against their unjust treatment at the hands of state and non-state actors. 
The committee reports that violence claimed the lives of 70 journalists in 2013. Since 1992, 1,040 have been killed fulfilling their duties. Imprisonment is another threat facing reporters. Turkey, ostensibly a democracy, put 40 journalists behind bars last year, closely followed by China, which jailed 32. 
Now, with political conflict in Thailand once more descending into the violence of bombings, grenade attacks and target killings, reporters will inevitably get caught up in the deadly chaos. 
It is an essential part of the job, especially for cameramen and photographers, to get as close as possible to the action. Obviously this puts them in the line of fire. 
Many on the beat in Bangkok are entering dangerous situations without proper protective gear and headwear. Their employers could do more to ensure that this equipment is made available, and not just to reporters but also to any technical and support staff risking their lives on the frontline.
Some reporters have taken it upon themselves to dress in military-style fatigues. This should be discouraged. A green “media” armband is better protection and less confusing. But reporters cannot be complacent. The shrapnel from an exploding grenade knows no boundaries. 
Thai reporters’ indifference to such peril might stem from the fact that few have experience in combat areas. Thailand is no stranger to conflict, but much of the violence (apart from the insurgency in the South) is confined to areas along the nation’s borders. 
The Khmer Rouge was eventually crushed just beyond the border in the east, while armed ethnic armies are fighting Myanmar government forces within sight of Thailand’s western boundary.
Few Thai reporters have had access to these conflicts, with most reports coming instead from security officials. But now it looks as if an increasingly violent situation is taking root right in the heart of the capital. 
With the growing conflict comes an urgent duty for the media industry to educate and protect the reporters and support staff who gather news in the danger zones. The same courtesy must also be extended to freelance journalists.