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Dying in the pursuit of news

PanelJournalists as targets in conflict zones is a relatively new thing as militias and some governments around the world seek to control the message by killing the messenger. The FCC’s Journalism Conference heard from those who have been there.

The FCC’s Roll of Honour lists those killed in Indochina and Korea while on the job: a case of wrong place, wrong time. However, a new name was added in 2014, Sky News cameraman and former member Mick Deane. In late 2013 he was filming in the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp in Egypt when he was shot and killed by a sniper.

“In the old days, a press card was like a protection, but now more and more journalists have been targeted and killed,” said Eric Wishart, a member of AFP’s global news management, who led a panel discussion on the increasingly dangerous world for journalists.

“The game and the stakes have changed tremendously,” according to Marc Lavine, AFP’s editor-in-chief for Asia. ”In the mid-90s when I went to Afghanistan as a war correspondent, I had very little training and was equipped with just a pen and notebook.

“There was always the danger of being hurt or killed if you happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but you were not targeted so you weren’t always looking over your shoulder expecting to have someone come out at you.”

In the past 15 years we have seen a complete move away from that, with militants targeting journalists in a propaganda game. “Film of executions in Syria illustrate that incredibly well as killing a journalist stops the message and sends its own brutal message across the world,” he said.

“In Pakistan we saw protesting journalists attacked by police with live rounds and baton charges. While, closer to home journalists were targeted in the Mongkok riots earlier this year.”

The figures speak for themselves: the Committee to Protect Journalists said that 970 journalists have been killed in the past 20 years – two-thirds in the past 10 years alone. Of the 72 killed last year, two-thirds of them were targeted.

“One of my big fears is the kidnapping of journalists,” said Roger Clark, CNN’s vice-president for Asia and Hong Kong bureau chief. “If ISIS kidnapped a Western journalist from a big news organisation it would use that to maximum effect across social media – that scares the hell out of me.”

No press here

Always in the past journalists would identify themselves as journalists – not such a good idea
these days.

For AFP, Lavine said, “we have taken identification from our cars and some of our offices, although we mostly still have PRESS tags on our flak jackets. However, in some sensitive areas it’s more a liability than a protection.”

For Roger Clark there are some situations “where you do want to be identified as PRESS on your car, or on your flak jacket, but for other situations like when we recently sent one of our correspondents to Syria where she kept the lowest of the low profile and tried to blend in.

“When you talk to our security specialists the phrase they use all the time is ‘blend in’, which, thankfully, is easier these days with the cameras being very small. Unlike when we were in Iraq where we had to keep a low profile by using old cars to get around – we were constantly re-spraying them.”

CNN’s senior international correspondent Ivan Watson says the precautions journalists should take depend on the conflict. “If you are dealing with conventional armies then you do identify yourself as the military usually represents the government, and has a chain of command and responsibility.

“But when you are dealing with militias it’s all about blending in,” he said. “During the US occupation of Iraq we used to hide in the back of crappy old taxis – basically our best defence at that point.

“It is a very strange development that we think that the violence against journalists – most of it directed against local journalists – has grown even though the number of cellphones and distribution systems for pictures and information now in use has magnified.

“It kills me that some governments will go after me and my professional TV crew, yet all those people running around with cellphones taking pictures – and uploading them to Facebook – don’t appear to be targeted.”

Clark spoke about recent threats to major news organisations by the Taliban in Afghanistan for not properly presenting the Taliban’s views. “However, the people who take the brunt of these threats are not the guys who parachute in for a story, it’s the guys who have to stay behind in those worlds – and very often the least protected.”

Covering disasters and surviving

Photo: AFP

The CNN team led by Andrew Stevens was on Tacloban in the Philippines and faced the full force of Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 as it devastated the island. Dramatic – and award-winning – footage was shown of the typhoon which killed more than 10,000 people.

“They were there before the storm hit,” Clark said. “With our good contacts in the country we got our reporters there very quickly.”

At the time Clark was director of international coverage in Atlanta and, like they always do with big stories, sat down and did a review.

“We knew we had let the front-line team down badly because we could not supply them with the support they needed,” he said. “Normally we pride ourselves in making sure our correspondents and producers can eat, sleep in reasonable conditions and drink clean water. Now, we had supplies but they were stuck on another island.”

Out of this experience CNN now has a different deployment procedure. “When we deploy – whether on disaster or high-security stories – someone has to hit the pause button and take stock.”

CNN has now put together what they call “grab bags” that are in every bureau designed to support a team of three for three to four days – everything from toothpaste to tampons, including first aid kits, tents, sleeping bags, floor liners, mosquito nets, water-purification tablets, matches, sun cream, walkie-talkies, satellite phones, batteries and even instant noodles.

“It’s a great asset and you don’t have to think about logistics as you race off to do a story,” Clark said. “You also need to ensure that your team is not bigger than the resources you have.”

Sometimes what they need to bring doesn’t fit into the grab bag. “Sometimes we need to bring a generator – and find fuel – to a disaster zone as part of the philosophy that we have to create all our own infrastructure to operate,” Watson said. “It means you don’t have a cameraman falling down from dehydration because he is carrying heavy equipment around.”

Having sufficient cash is another issue. “Keep in mind that ATMs often don’t work in disasters,” he said. “We have had to bail out other journalists many times.

“It’s all in the preparation: you may need body armour, gas masks or long underwear, but it’s the grab-bag idea that ensures survival.”

Watson, reflecting on his experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, said it’s absolutely essential to do specific hostile environment training. “And it’s not for just surviving war, conflict or disaster, you need to able to know how to begin surviving when the whole structure of the society has been ripped apart.”

Local riots

Marc Lavine’s advice to Hong Kong-based journalists thinking of diving into the next riot: don’t rush in when you don’t know the score.“All it takes is a big rock hitting your head, or finding yourself between the police and the rioters.”

“We are always trying to get to the scene to see what’s happening,” says Ivan Watson, “but at some point you have to assess what’s going on around you – the worst place you can be is between two groups shaping up for a fight.”

He suggests that you need to try and figure out which side you are safe on… “or the side with the better guns”.

“It’s also important to remember that the riot or conflict always evolves or degenerates during the course of the conflict. When I first started going into Syria from Turkey the government didn’t welcome us and we would need to hide among the rebels. However, in the course of a year, the rebels started kidnapping journalists so they became a bigger threat. We finished up going in with the same military which had horrified us before.”

Roger Clark says it is down to training. “We need to be trained well enough to know just what our limits are before it is too late to turn back.”

Lavine agrees and adds that “we need to look at the kind of training we are delivering to journalists these days.

“Some 10 to 15 years ago in the time of Afghanistan and Iraq, war-type training was needed,” he said. “Often these days it’s training around public order – riots and the like. The chances of you getting killed in a riot in Hong Kong or wherever is fairly small, but with the huge amount of stones and bottles flying around, serious injuries are likely.”

While body armour is useful, it appears reinforced glasses and hard hats are more the thing for riots.

“When you are in a country that is going through destructive changes or conflict, you need exceptional planning for your teams – with the expectation that nothing works according to plan,” Watson said.

A dramatic video was shown of an incident in Iraq in 2014 when Watson joined an Iraq air force relief helicopter to take aid to a religious group besieged on the top of a mountain by ISIS forces. In the end the helicopter crew had to fire machine guns to protect the craft coming and going. Besides dropping relief goods, they also picked as many terrified people people as they could. Inevitably families were split up with the ensuing emotional chaos.

Watson said “there was little advance warning of what we were getting into”.

“This sort of stuff isn’t a game and it messes you up for a while. After some of these types of incidents I have gone into counselling – it’s essential to do this and playing at being a tough guy is not on.”

Trauma and PTSD can also occur well away from the field. Clark said that on the CNN international desk they have Arabic speakers vetting all this horrific footage pouring in relentlessly from the Middle East – sometimes the footage is worse than what you see in the field.

“So as managers we have to keep a close eye on these people,” he said. “At CNN we are pretty good in making sure that people know what to do if they are struggling to cope. It is only in recent times that it has been recognised that PTSD affects journalists in the field and back in the newsroom.”

AFP_JHET#1C_web Photos: AFP

 RISC XII>Day 4_Final simulations_web From L to R: AFP's Cris Bouroncle, Peruvian based in Santiago, Chile, Eric Feferberg and Jack Guez both French based in Paris, US news reporter Charles Hoskinson from the English Desk in Washington DC and Romeo Gacad from the Phillipines based in Manila, part of the AFP staff in Kuwait to cover the US-led attack in Iraq. AFP PHOTO / AFP PHOTO

Sept/Oct 2016

It all began with blue whales

DSC_0094_webDSC_0223_webThe film ‘A Plastic Ocean’, which will premiere in Hong Kong in October and globally from November, began with the hunt for the elusive blue whale, writes the film’s director and journalist Craig Leeson.

In March, 2011, 30 miles off the southern tip of Sri Lanka, a tiny breeze tickles the surface of the Indian Ocean; the heat radiates relentlessly. Three weeks on a 90 metre research vessel has taken its toll: most of the film crew have deep tans from working in the sun as well as a deep frustration for having been eluded by our quarry.

We have travelled hundreds of miles along the southern coast of Sri Lanka gazing out to sea in the hope of spotting the world’s largest animal. So far, all we have for our efforts, for the hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment, is just one ghostly shot, filmed from just below the surface, of a spaceship-like object swimming 15 metres below. It isn’t enough. Our aim is to be the first documentary team to film the mighty blue whale.

We also planned to conduct scientific research to see if blue whales have been exposed to plastic through their diet and location. But finding these animals is like looking for a giant toothpick in a universe-sized haystack. At a distance, we had seen them blow almost every day. But these animals can spend 30 minutes under water and reach speeds of 20 knots. We simply couldn’t keep up. And a tsunami nearby hadn’t helped. The whales had headed for deeper water. After a massive effort, we were forced to finally turn around and make our way back to Galle. We had to be in port in four hours to make our customs check.

It felt like a terrible defeat. We had moved a film crew of 12 and a ton of equipment half way around the world to a difficult location at great expense. And we had battled bureaucratic and corrupt government officials who almost scuppered the trip before it began. But on this last day something at the back of my mind refused to give up. We were still on the water, we still had a few hours of motoring and that meant we still had a chance of an encounter, no matter how slim that now appeared.

Within half an hour of turning around, I hear magical words: “BLOW”. I rush to port side and see in the distance not one blow, but two. What was different about this encounter was the lack of the tell-tail sign of fluking, which is when the whales point their snouts vertically and begin a deep dive to feed or to just disappear.

I marshal the on-board camera team to set up and our dive crew and cinematographers are already putting the Red cinematic 4k cameras in the heavy Gates underwater housings. We jump in the pursuit boat and we cautiously head towards the lingering behemoths. About 50 metres from our target all three camera teams lift in to the water and begin cautiously finning towards the whales. There are not two, but an entire group, and what appears to be a juvenile. These whales are pygmy blue whales, a slightly smaller cousin of true blues, but blues none the less.

Normally, I direct filming from the boat, but this moment was one I had waited all of my life for. I don my fins and mask and head for the action. Beneath the waves, the family of pygmy blue whales reveals itself. The individuals appear to be resting. This is our moment of truth. Will they hang around and let us film or show their normally shy sides and slip away?

DSC_1209_webDSC04777_webFortunately, the juvenile is as curious about us as we are of his family. Almost 15 metres in length (just over half the size of his parents), the juvenile turns towards John, one of our cinematographers, dives beneath him and gently moves towards him to take a better look at what he is doing. I can’t believe our luck. After all this time and effort, with just hours to spare, we have a whale performing for us. It is a significant moment.

We are the first to film pygmy blue whales underwater, and the first to film a juvenile. As these thoughts race through my head I can see through the indigo-blue water a large, blue/grey object ascending through the god rays beneath me. It was the juvenile. Clearly, he wants to engage. I take a deep breath and began to fin towards the whale. The calf rolls to its back and shows me its stomach. Without warning, a massive cloud of bright, chunky orange poo flushes out of its bowels. As I fight to see my way through the cloud and reach the surface I run in to our stills photographer who is laughing uncontrollably. “Mate, you’ve just been pooed on by the rarest animal on the planet.” He’d also been caught in the poonami.

I grab a bucket from the tender and begin scooping up the large, extremely smelly chunks of digested krill waste. Back on the mothership, I take it to our cetacean expert, Lindsay Porter, who is ecstatic. It’s the first time she, or any scientist, has had the chance to examine blue whale poo and she declares that as far as she knows I am the first person to be pooed on by a blue whale. She is extremely excited. The specimen I collected for her was to become very important in the scientific research we conducted on the whales, providing information on DNA, toxicology, diet and other information not normally available to the scientists.

That shoot was the first of multiple shoots we did over the next five years in 20 locations around the world for the documentary feature film, “A Plastic Ocean”. The feature film investigates the global problem of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, the damage it’s causing to marine life and how it’s coming back up the food chain to poison the species that put it there in the first place – humans. The audience follows an investigative trail, led by myself and world record-holding free diver Tanya Streeter, as we travel the world’s oceans to see if the plastic pollution problem in the north Pacific gyre exists elsewhere on the planet. The results of our investigation are mind blowing, unexpected, depressing, and revealing. But ultimately, as we look at solutions, it is also hopeful.

Our encounter with the whales leads the first eight minutes of the film, but my personal encounter with the juvenile was relegated to the cutting room floor. However, it remains one of the most vivid memories I have of that very first, inspiring shoot and the realisation of my lifelong ambition to meet a blue whale.

And as I sit in the audio engineer’s studio in Los Angeles, putting the final sound mix to the film, I cannot help but reflect on how “A Plastic Ocean” has been an incredible journey for everyone involved. One of our wonderful supporters, Sir David Attenborough, who was kind enough to take part in filming, has described “A Plastic Ocean” as “one of the most important films of our time”. Given the scale of this unfolding environmental catastrophe, his assessment is powerful.

We have learned much on this journey and we want as many people as possible to understand this issue and to be motivated to force society to change its attitude to single use plastic. As Dr Sylvia Earle says: “With knowing comes caring. But if you don’t know, you can’t care.”

See the trailer to the film at

Oceans-wide plastic waste destroys marine life

IMG_0900_webDSC_0336_webSituated 600 kilometres directly east off Australia’s Port Macquarie lays an irregularly crescent-shaped volcanic remnant in the Tasman Sea. Lord Howe Island is a stunning world heritage site and about as far south as coral will grow.

Its sandy beaches and sheltered lagoon appear pristine. Wildlife abounds. Hundreds of petrels catch thermals which race up Mount Gower. And the most heroic of all seabirds, the shearwater, call this island home, returning from epic around-the-world adventures to the nesting sites where they were born.

But this island isn’t all it seems. It holds a deadly secret. In the forests of the endemic Kentia Palms small piles of plastic have begun to appear. Man-made, these plastic items – golf tees, pre-production plastic resin pellets, disposable lighters, balloon ties – haven’t come from the island, but thousands of miles away. So how did they end up in the forests, far from the sea?

As we walk along the beaches in the early morning, another mystery reveals itself. Dozens of young fledgling shearwater lay dead, with no apparent signs of physical distress. We pick them up and take them back to a small laboratory in the island’s only town. It’s not until scientist, Jennifer Lavers, performs a necropsy that both mysteries are solved.

Inside the stomachs of every bird we cut open is a gut full of plastic. These babies have been unwittingly fed plastic by their parents foraging for food thousands of kilometres away. Those birds lucky enough to regurgitate the toxic meals do so outside their burrows in the Kentia palm forests, allowing them room for real food. But not all are able to get rid of the human rubbish. And they die in great numbers on the beaches and in the waters off the island.

What’s tragic about this scene is that it is repeated on islands around the world among many different species of sea birds. In fact, Lavers has found that between 96% and 100% of all flesh-footed shearwaters contain plastic and globally it’s around 65% for all seabird species.

This year, more than 300 million tonnes of plastic will be produced. Half of that we consumers will use just once and then throw “away”. But have you ever stopped to wonder where “away” is? What happens to that plastic when we remove it from our personal space?

It was something I hadn’t thought about until a friend, marine biologist and television researcher and producer, Jo Ruxton (producer for the BBC’s “Blue Planet”), called me and asked: “Have you noticed much plastic in the water when you surf and dive?” Over the course of the past few years, no matter where I went I seemed to be finding more and more plastic in the water and on the beaches. Jo told me about the north Pacific gyre and a floating island of plastic as big as Texas. She and executive producer, Sonjia Norman, wanted to investigate the problem and, if it was as bad as it seemed, make a film about it to raise awareness.

The first expedition found that there was no floating island. What they found was far more insidious: 46,000 pieces of micro plastics for every one square mile of ocean.

That trip begged the question: if there’s that much plastic in the north Pacific gyre, what exists in the other four gyres which power the world’s oceans, bringing us weather systems, oxygen, food and water?

After five years of filming and post-production in 20 locations, “A Plastic Ocean”, is now complete and ready for distribution. The 96-minute feature film investigates how plastic is filling up our oceans, choking marine life and coming back through the food chain to make us humans sick.

The results of the expeditions will astound and horrify you. Those dead and dying seabirds we found on Lord Howe Island were just the canaries in the coalmine. We found plastic everywhere, in every ocean; on every beach and in almost every animal we tested. We followed those plastics and the toxins they carry up the food chain… and guess where it ends? Scientists are now proving that plastic and the toxins they carry are causing endocrine disruption to humans around the world. One study by the US Centre for Disease Control found plastic chemicals in 92.6% of every American tested.

Some scientists now say this issue is as urgent as climate change.

The film reveals solutions to the problem, including new technology such as pyrogenesis and pyrolysis. But the very first action we all need to take is to stop putting plastic in the environment in the first place. It wasn’t made by nature and nature cannot deal with it. Our grandparents didn’t see this coming, my generation perpetuated it. It’s now up to our children to recognise this disaster and clean it up so that their children will have a future.

Award-winning journalist Ying Chan moves on but not out

By Annemarie Evans

IMG_4100_webIn between seeing journalism students, Professor Yuen-Ying Chan is clearing out her office. So it’s not a bad time to visit her, as she’s coming across items in piles of papers as she packs. There’s a newspaper report with her looking rather glum in her late 30s. She’d just been sacked as a reporter after annoying one Chinatown gangster too many. It happens. Another with a grin. Won a libel case. And a 16-page supplement she wrote with a colleague looking at migrants, the snakeheads, and the families left back home in the risky business of people smuggling.

A multi-award winning journalist, Chan set up the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong in September 1999 after her return to the city after nearly three decades in the US. Washington Post veteran journalist Keith Richburg is taking over as the centre’s director. That’s not to say Chan is about to take it easy. The question will be how to use her time fruitfully, without overstretching herself.

There are a couple of books on the go, she’s an adviser to various organisations and she’ll continue living on campus. She’s master of a dorm where she thrives on the multinational and subject mix of the students. “My job is to foster a community that’s inclusive and smart. A community of budding scholars.”

Born in 1947, Chan “is, I think, the same age as Hillary Clinton, I think I might be a few months older”. She’s remains an investigative reporter at heart. I complain that so many stories come up in Hong Kong that seem to have no follow up, as everyone moves on to the next thing. What’s happened to the allegedly illegal structures on Chief Executive C Y Leung’s flat, for example? But then, there’s no money for those big investigative teams. Chan agrees on the lack of money, but she disputes that journalists aren’t investigating in the same way.

“Yes, when I look back, we had three months!” she says, of the time she had to investigate an international network of people smuggling for The Daily News in the early 1990s.

With collaboration and teamwork, says Chan, investigative stories are still being written and technology is a central driver in that. While permanent elements such as discovering stories, good reporting and writing, critical thinking, integrity, challenging power and holding it to account still are the core tenets of journalism, technology is providing new platforms to tell Hong Kong stories.

“We also encourage our students to be entrepreneurial, how to manage their own portfolio. With young people learning technology is second nature but they still need to learn how to tell the story.”

When the centre began, it was behind the curve, she says. There were journalism courses already at other universities in Hong Kong. These days, she’s excited about the various disciplines brought together – training regional lawyers, publishing books by mainland dissidents, the Documentary Film Project with Oscar winner Ruby Yang, to name a few.

Chan, the second of four children, writes how she returned home from school one day in a panic, having been asked to come up with an English name for herself. She finally chose Winnie, the name of a friend’s sister, but the colonial tradition never sat well with her and when she headed to the US to start a PhD in the early 1970s, she was happy to revert to her Chinese name.

Chan studied for a double major in economics and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She would start a doctorate in sociology at the University of Michigan, but her heart wasn’t in it. She abandoned it after two years and began working for Chinese-language papers about gangs and slum landlords. She recalls “hanging out with burly detectives in bars” which she enjoyed. But she also would have security guarding her house.

IMG_4094_WEBIn 1990, “I was hired by The Daily News to go to China to do an investigation,” she says. Her journalist friend Jim Dao, now an opinion page editor for The New York Times, was looking into people smuggling and together they headed off to Asia to report. In Hong Kong, says Chan, “they were actually displaying advertising for visas. It was so open – a cover for people smuggling. I went to one of these services undercover. Thinking back, I was pretty bold.”

On June 6, 1993, a cargo ship, the Golden Venture, ran aground at Fort Tilden in Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York. On board were 286 undocumented migrants. “They were rescued from the water. It was shocking,” says Chan. She covered the story and the following day headed to the port of Fuzhou in Fujian province. “I was the first reporter to reach the families and reported from the hometown of the people on the freighter.”

For her 1993 body of work on the Golden Venture and its aftermath, Chan won the Polk Award, among others. Chan would continue covering the immigration beat for the next six years at The Daily News. The whole of New York, she says, is very much an immigration story.

She took a year’s leave and was given a Nieman fellowship at Harvard. “You could do anything you like, go to any classes without paying tuition and you didn’t have to do the exams.”

A friend was the editor of the Chinese-language Asia Weekly in Hong Kong and he told me: “I have a great story for you’. It was about campaign donations to the Democratic nominee Bill Clinton in October 1996 during the US presidential election.

The story “mentioned that a certain senior official in the Kuomintang had offered US$10 million to the Clinton campaign”, explains Chan. “The KMT at that time was very powerful in Taiwan. They held a Central Committee emergency meeting and then sued me for criminal libel. I won the case.”

As she hands the baton to Richburg, she says JMSC has an extensive internship programme, and she shows pride in the employment rate of her former students in journalism outlets and non-governmental organisations.

While the course is about the students, “we are also providing a service to the community”. During the Occupy movement two years ago, she says, there was so much news coming out and interest globally that it was difficult for people to work out the facts. So a group of undergraduates created a verification service, in a Facebook page called “Under the Umbrella”. “It had 100,000 followers,” says Chan. “They were using the skills and tools of journalism. That is how we advocate.”

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