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World: Journalists Tempted To Fight Fire With Fire

  • Antoine Blua

Murder is the leading cause of job-related deaths among journalists worldwide, and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has identified the Philippines as the most “murderous country,” followed by Iraq. Despairing of getting protection from security forces, some Filipino reporters have decided to arm themselves. In Iraq, news organizations are hiring armed guards to protect their staff. Such measures imply some risks.

Prague, 1 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Blasting away at targets with 0.45-caliber pistols, a group of Filipino journalists held their first shooting test in a military camp on 26 May.

Joel Egco, the president of a newly formed group promoting responsible gun ownership among local journalists, the Association of Responsible Media, told Reuters that the event was the first in a series of activities aimed at helping the media protect themselves from attackers who have already gunned down five Filipino journalists in 2004.

"The violence is getting worse and yes, the government is not doing enough and the justice system is very slow," Egco said. "Now they know that we are preparing ourselves. 'Mediamen' in the Philippines are shooting it out with our attackers."

But Inday Espina-Varona, president of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, said she disagrees with journalists carrying weapons. She said that the only answer to stop the violence is to bring to justice the people responsible for all attacks on journalists.

"I am not going to stop any journalists who thinks he ought to carry arms as long as he goes through the legal process," Espina-Varona said. "What the NUJP can do is to consistently reach out to them and tell them that this is not the answer."

Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, agreed.

"Journalists are covering the news as observers on the sidelines," Cooper said. "Any time that they carry a gun, they run the risk of being misunderstood -- who are they? They should be neutral observers but they've got to have the working conditions to be able their jobs."
"Journalists are covering the news as observers on the sidelines. Any time that they carry a gun, they run the risk of being misunderstood -- who are they? They should be neutral observers but they've got to have the working conditions to be able their jobs."

Jean-Francois Julliard, from the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, said few journalists are carrying weapons around the world.

In Iraq, however, foreign journalists are protected by armed security in hotels or residential compounds in which they are staying. Many media companies that can afford it also hire armed guards to secure their staff while traveling.

"The situation at the moment in Iraq is particular, with extreme violence targeting journalists too," Julliard said. "So there is no other solution than hiring security companies at least to ensure their protection in buildings and transports."

In 2003, CNN announced it had taken the unprecedented step of hiring armed security for its war correspondents after "specific factions in Iraq" reportedly targeted its reporters.

News of the network's policy leaked out after a CNN team came under fire at an Iraqi checkpoint. A security guard accompanying the crew reportedly returned fire with a machine gun.

Julliard said the incident created a dangerous precedent.

"We feared that people in Iraq think, 'When I see a vehicle with 'press' written on it, it can be an armed vehicle.' It would exposes all journalists to violence," Julliard said.

Cooper, from the Committee to Protect Journalist, notes that some journalists decide not to travel with armed guards to maintain their neutrality and their perception that they are just observers.

"If [journalists] have gone there to report on the news, they're neutral observers," Cooper said. "That said, Iraq is a very dangerous place. So it's a very difficult question that journalists have to analyze and make their own decision about."

Pablo Hernandez, a Filipino tabloid columnist known for his hard-hitting commentaries on smugglers and crooked cops, said he has decided to carry a weapon after facing a similar dilemma.

"I did not want to ask for a permit to carry [guns] because I believed that the pen is mightier than the gun," Hernandez said. "But with what's happening now, journalists are being killed like helpless chickens.”

Last month, Hernandez traded shots with two men on a motorcycle after he and a friend noticed their car was being followed in the capital Manila.