Editor's Blog - How we work, how we make decisions, how we serve Canadians.

Jennifer McGuire

General Manager and Editor in Chief

Keeping our Journalists Safe

Categories: Canada, Journalism, World

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Protesters try to resist the advance of riot police in Gezi park in Istanbul, Turkey. (Vadim Ghirda, File/AP)

A few weeks ago, CBC journalists Derek Stoffel and Sasa Petricic were taken into custody by Turkish police. Ironically, it was a relatively quiet day during the ongoing anti-government protests in Istanbul, and the two of them were arrested while taking photographs of the removal of barricades that had been used to contain the protesters.

We learned that something was amiss when Sasa tweeted "Arrested". What followed were several nerve-wracking hours for all of us. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird quickly intervened on their behalf, and they were released, unharmed, later that evening.

What happened to Sasa and Derek isn't an everyday occurrence (and it might not have happened at all if the first people to approach them and ask them to stop taking photos had identified themselves as Turkish police officers), but they weren't unprepared for it.

It was the month-long kidnapping of one of our other foreign correspondents, Mellissa Fung, in Afghanistan in 2008 which underscored the importance of safety and security training for our journalists - and not just those working in hot spots half a world away.

Incorporating practices developed by other broadcasters like the BBC and CNN, we have formalized our procedures and policies for protecting the health and safety of our journalists in the field. We also hired a security expert - a former military officer - and embedded him in our national newsroom.

Working with him, we've established a Hostile Environment Assignment Process. What that means is that during the assignment process, at the same time we determine the news value and treatment of a potential story, we also examine the risks associated with covering it, largely based on where it's happening. We try to come up with a strategy to reduce those risks - bearing in mind we can't eliminate them, but certainly bring them down to a manageable level, if at all possible.

Our security expert's other main task is to oversee the training - and re-training - of our journalists who are working in dangerous situations. Given the unpredictability of news, that could just as likely be covering a flood in Western Canada or a riot in downtown Toronto, as it is an anti-government protest in Istanbul or Cairo or a war in the Middle East.

Our training approach is also based on risk assessment. All of our employees are encouraged to take/have taken a one-hour online Travel Awareness course. This prepares them for going into a situation that poses a low or medium risk, or perhaps if they're travelling in or near a dangerous zone, but not actively reporting.

We also have a Domestic Operations Course, a full-day session that prepares our journalists who may be asked to cover something like the G20 protests in downtown Toronto, or a natural disaster such as a tornado, earthquake, flood or forest fire. While the risk of injury is somewhat lower for our domestic reporters, it's not insignificant.

Our most intensive course, one that Sasa and Derek and our other foreign correspondents have taken, is called Surviving Hostile Regions. It runs over four or five days, and participants get a three-day refresher every three years. They go through numerous scenarios - everything from being arrested by authorities or taken hostage in a civil war, to learning how to self-treat injuries or survive a lack of food and water. We make sure they have their travel documents and inoculations up to date, and we have their emergency contact information in case we need to get in touch with family members on their behalf.

Some of this may sound over the top, but journalism is far from a safe occupation these days. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, nearly one thousand journalists and media workers have been killed worldwide over the past 20 years. As you might expect, Iraq is at the top of the list, with 151 deaths over that time, but countries you might not expect, like the Philippines and Algeria, have proven to be more dangerous than places like Afghanistan and Syria.

The CPJ and the International News Safety Institute also note that a growing number of freelance reporters, journalists who don't have the training and support of news organizations like the CBC, have been killed and taken hostage in recent years. And the majority of those killed, injured or imprisoned are covering stories in their own countries. In fact, Derek Stoffel mentioned that himself in an interview with CBC Toronto's morning show the morning after his release. He said he felt lucky to have been released so quickly, because there were numerous other journalists being held, and they had no idea how long they'd remain behind bars.

We're relieved Derek and Sasa are safe, and we share their concern for our colleagues in the news business who put their lives at risk to bring important stories to you.

Tags: How We Work

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