Page last updated at 23:09 GMT, Saturday, 11 April 2009 00:09 UK

Death of journalism's Queensberry Rules

British journalist Colin Freeman has been kidnapped in Somalia and shot at in Iraq. He describes to the BBC his experience of reporting from the world's danger zones where the rules protecting journalists no longer apply.

Colin Freeman in Iraq
Colin Freeman has made the news as well as reported on it

A guy who once did work experience at my old local newspaper rang me recently for a bit of career advice.

He had spent most of the last decade working as a sports reporter on various publications, and felt he had got in a bit of a rut.

His plan to kick-start his career did not, however, involve returning to the Grimsby Evening Telegraph and writing about parish council meetings, school plays and the East Coast Pigeon Show.

Instead, he fancied something rather more challenging - freelancing in Afghanistan.

The reason he came to me was because six years ago, I did much the same thing.

Bored of writing about Ken Livingstone and roadworks for the London Evening Standard, I gave up my job and headed out to post-Saddam Iraq, basing myself in Baghdad for the next couple of years.

I had no previous experience of war zones, no travel insurance, and no work lined up in advance.

But by living in a grotty $5-a-night hotel, hiring an ex-Iraqi army tank commander as a translator, and freelancing for everyone from the San Francisco Chronicle through to Laundry Cleaning Today, I gradually earned my spurs as a foreign correspondent, eventually landing my current job on the Sunday Telegraph.

Changing messenger

Before this begins to sound insufferably smug, however, I should point out that this glittering new career has had a couple of blemishes.

Back in November last year, I was kidnapped in Somalia while researching a story about piracy, and spent six weeks being held hostage in a cave.

Colin Freeman in Iraq
Colin saw for himself the new reality for journalists in post-invasion Iraq

And back in Iraq in 2004, I ended up with a bullet in my backside after being shot by a Shia militiaman. 

There are two possible conclusions to this.

One is that I am the last person anybody should seek advice from.

The other, though, is that foreign correspondence - especially being a freelance - is a more dangerous profession than it used to be.

When I first pitched up in Baghdad, there was something still in my favour - namely that journalists in war zones had a status similar to Red Cross workers or vicars.

Being unarmed and neutral allowed you to pass unhindered, the nobility of your professional calling - yes, even for grubby British newspaper hacks - affording you respect in even the most dangerous  places. 

That was the theory, anyway.

Instead, I was to witness what appears to have been the death of the Queensberry Rules of foreign correspondence.

Firstly, groups like al-Qaeda turned out to have few qualms about killing non-combatants, be they foreign reporters, Red Cross workers or Iraqi civilians. 

Second, thanks to the internet and the ever-expanding array of Arab satellite TV channels, Iraq's insurgent groups were no longer dependent on us for getting their message out. They could do it themselves, be it via interviews on the likes of al-Jazeera or by posting their own home videos on websites. 

That has robbed Western reporters to some extent of their use as witnesses, which once provided a get-out-of-trouble free card for press crews as they wandered the world's danger zones.

Spanish photographer Jose Cendon after being freed in Somalia
Colin and photographer Jose Cendon (centre) spent 40 days as hostages

The first time I experienced this new reality was while covering a demonstration by the Shia Mehdi Army in Basra, when one of their fighters got it into his head that I was in fact an undercover British military spy.

He fired a bullet into the ground right behind me, which then ricocheted into my backside.

His accomplices, ignoring my protests that I was a journalist, then spread-eagled me against a wall, searched me and dragged me towards a baying mob, followed by an Arab TV crew who appeared more interested in filming me getting lynched than saving a brother reporter.

Only my quick-thinking translator, who got a high-ranking Mehdi Army sheikh to plunge into the crowd and pull me out, stopped them getting their scoop.

By Iraq standards, though, this was relatively small beer.

Among the fellow freelance journalists who stayed with me in Baghdad's al-Dulaimi hotel, no fewer than six ended up being kidnapped, prompting rumours that the place was cursed.

By early 2005, I'd had enough of Iraq, as had most other freelancers.

The only way to keep safe was by using armoured cars and armed guards, something which few reporters like doing, and which only staff reporters on big company budgets can normally afford anyway. 

Being the news

Yet armed security is far from foolproof, as I discovered in Somalia last year.

The pen, it seems, is no longer mightier than the sword, and it is certainly no match for a Kalashnikov

The men who kidnapped my photographer and me were none other than the escort of eight armed bodyguards that our local fixer had hired to keep us safe in the first place. 

They turned their guns on us as we left for the airport and then spirited us away to nearby mountains, where we lived off goat meat and endured bullets ricocheting around the cave one day as they fought a gun battle with a rival gang.

Once again, we tried the old tack that, as journalists, we were there to write about their country's problems, and that they should not have kidnapped us.

And once again, they did not buy it.

The pen, it seems, is no longer mightier than the sword, and it is certainly no match for a Kalashnikov.

Despite all this, my sports reporter pal is still thinking of going to Afghanistan. Kabul, while getting worse, is still not as dangerous as Baghdad yet, and he may just find it manageable.

All I hope is that unlike me, he can stick to writing the news, rather than being in it.

Colin Freeman is Chief Foreign Correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph.

On the Ropes will be broadcast on Tuesday 14th April on BBC Radio 4 at 0900BST.

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