Beheadings Signal A Shift For Journalists Working In Combat Zones

By on October 10th, 2014

The beheading of two journalists made one thing very clear to their colleagues, their status as members of the press would no longer protect them.  Some industry leaders think the status of journalists working in combat zones has taken a turn for the worse.

For Mark Little, the Founder and CEO of Storyful, a pioneering journalism start-up, the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff are part of a significant shift in the treatment of journalists abroad.

Little recently visited the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communication as part of the Innovators Series. During an interview he talked about the new challenges facing journalists aboard.

“In the minds of some people out there, journalists have become combatants,” he said. “That’s very different to when I was in the field.”


Little remembered driving through a war zone where he and others placed “TV” signs on their cars to identify themselves as journalists. 

“The first word you learned if you were going to an Arabic country was sahafi –journalist,” he said. “That was the only thing you shouted at people pointing guns at you, and it protected you.”

Not anymore.

One month ago, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, released a video showing the beheading of freelance journalist Steven Sotloff in Syria. Two weeks prior, the group released a similar video of photojournalist James Foley’s death, who was also on assignment in Syria.

The beheadings sent shock waves across the world.

The killings drew criticism and condemnation from countless world leaders and, for better or worse, put ISIS squarely in the spotlight.

In the following month, the group beheaded another captive, British aid-worker David Haines. The United States responded by forming an international coalition , which is now carrying out a bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The FBI has identified the man it believes carried out the beheadings, but have declined to release his identity or nationality, according to the Associated Press. 

In the wake of these killings, some journalists are looking for the big picture.

For Little, the beheadings are a gruesome example of how journalists are now targeted in combat zones.

A former foreign correspondent for RTE, Ireland’s national public media outlet, he has personal experience on issues journalists face abroad.

The shift in treatment of journalists started in the days before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, said Little. He witnessed an Islamist group kill an Australian cameraman who had “TV”marked clearly on his car. After that incident, all correspondents in the area took the markings off their cars and gear.

One of the reasons for the shift, in Little’s opinion, is some governments have started paying ransom for captured journalists.

“Bandits will take journalists and trade them to Islamist groups, and that’s a new reality,” Little said.

According to a report from the Associated Press, a $1.6 million-ransom was paid for German-American journalist Michael Scott Moore, who had been held captive in Somalia for about two years. Somali pirates kidnapped him while he was working on research for a book. The German government has not taken credit for the ransom payment. However, the AP interviewed one of the pirate leaders who said the money was brought to them by intermediaries working for the German government.

U.S. policy prohibits paying a ransom for a hostage held by terrorists. The policy is based on what’s called the “material support” law (18 U.S. Code § 2339A), which prohibits U.S. citizens from providing any resources, including money or services, to a terrorist organization.

Little is not the only one who thinks journalists are now targeted in the field. Clay Calvert, professor of law at the University of Florida and the director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project, agrees members of the press, particularly from American outlets, have become targets for radical groups looking to get media attention.

Clay Calvert, a UF law professor, said journalists have been targeted for a reason.

Julian Hernandez / WUFT News

Clay Calvert, a UF law professor, said journalists have been targeted for a reason.

Calvert said journalists have been targeted for a reason. “I think one of the most interesting things here is why these journalists were chosen for this.  And, I think it’s because they symbolize one of the great things about the United States, and that is a free press.”

The free press exposes abuses, so targeting journalists is a very symbolic action on the part of ISIS, Calvert said.

Little said the beheadings also set up the possibility for a very dangerous trend. The extensive coverage the beheadings received served as a sort of propaganda for ISIS by bringing the group attention. This attention could prompt other violent groups to follow suit.

“Part of the problem is we’re getting almost a copycat mentality going here,” Little said. “So, the propaganda value that was extracted from the murder of these two journalists, almost ups the ante again, almost invites others to replicate, at the very least, or even exceed, in terms of the savagery.”

A group in Algeria claiming allegiance to ISIS  recently beheaded a French tourist, Herve Gourdel.

Not only do gruesome acts like this invite other violent groups to use similar tactics to advance their goals, they can also diminish people’s sensitivity.

Little recalled, “The first time I ever heard of a journalist being beheaded, or a captor, or a hostage, we couldn’t believe that a human being would do that to another human being on camera. Now, it almost feels routine. Sometimes it loses its power to shock us.”

This rings particularly true as the first reports emerge of what would be the fourth beheading by ISIS. Last week a video surfaced on the Internet claiming to show ISIS beheading Alan Henning, the man who was threatened as the next victim in the video of David Haines’ beheading. This death received noticeably less coverage than earlier killings.

The beheading of the French tourist in Algeria brings the total number of beheadings covered in the mainstream media to five — four officially by ISIS — and that’s just in the past month and a half.

With each new case, it’s not hard to imagine how each one would reduce people’s shock and horror toward these types of killings.

“And I fear that greatly,” Little said. “It’s like a class-A narcotic — the dosage of gruesomeness has to be higher and higher to shock you.”

With today’s information technology, spreading a message, or gruesome images like the beheadings, has never been easier for groups like ISIS. ISIS has a Twitter account, which is part of a larger public relations machine the group runs, allowing the group to reach audiences they couldn’t before.

“It’s never been easier to have a terrorism start up,” Little said. “It used to be that if you were an armed resistance group, you had to battle to get your weaponry, to get your message out — very localized. Now, I can talk to a PR person for an organization that cuts the heads off journalists. How crazy is that!”

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