Media groups set safety standards to protect freelance journalists after recent murders

A file photo taken on Aug 24, 2014 shows a parishioner walking past a display of photos of murdered US journalist James Foley before a Catholic mass at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish in Rochester, New Hampshire. -- PHOTO: AFP
A file photo taken on Aug 24, 2014 shows a parishioner walking past a display of photos of murdered US journalist James Foley before a Catholic mass at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish in Rochester, New Hampshire. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - Press freedom groups and international news organisations, including Agence France-Presse, unveiled on Thursday new safety guidelines to protect freelance journalists following a series of high-profile kidnappings and murders in conflict zones.

The document, titled A Call For Global Safety Principles And Practices, lays out seven basic standards for journalists on dangerous assignments. The guidelines call for training in first aid and hostile environments, securing medical insurance for conflict zones or areas of infectious disease, and obtaining protective gear such as bulletproof vests and helmets. News organisations should ensure that freelancers have adequate training and equipment.

The document assigns a "moral responsibility" for media outlets to "support journalists to whom they give assignments in dangerous areas, as long as the freelancer complies with the rules and instructions of the news organization".

The signatories of the document include the international wire services AFP, the Associated Press, Bloomberg and Reuters, British broadcaster BBC, the news website GlobalPost, and press freedom groups Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Pulitzer Centre. "This is just a first step in a movement that we hope will make concrete strides towards improving the safety of not only international freelancers, but also local reporters who play a vital role in covering dangerous zones and who bear the brunt of violence against journalists around the world," said Mr David Millikin, AFP's regional director for North America.

The agreement was presented at Columbia University's journalism school in New York, following discussions that began last year between editors of major media outlets and expanded to include organizations representing freelancers and press freedom groups.

In a 2014 report, Reporters Without Borders said that "rarely have reporters been murdered with such a barbaric sense of propaganda, shocking the entire world". The number of kidnappings grew by 37 per cent to 119 last year, while 66 journalists were killed worldwide, the press rights group said.

The journalism community was rocked last year by the murders of AFP and GlobalPost contributor James Foley and another American freelancer Steven Sotloff by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The recent attacks on media workers "represent a fundamental threat not just to individual news professionals, but to the practice of independent journalism", the signatories of the guidelines said.

The Associated Press' executive editor Kathleen Carroll underlined the urgency of the document.

"As journalists face ever-increasing risks to gather the news that the world needs, it is vitally necessary to put in place best practices to keep them as safe as possible to do their jobs," she said.

Mr Vaughan Smith, chair of the Frontline Freelance Register, which represents 500 independent journalists worldwide, said: "This is just the beginning, but we think it is a good start to a process of making sure freelancers are provided the respect, the dignity, the protections and ultimately the fair pay they deserve."