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Last Updated: Friday, 11 March, 2005, 09:12 GMT
Keeping BBC journalists safe
By Paul Greeves
Head of High Risk, BBC

BBC journalist Kate Peyton was shot dead while on assignment in Somalia. One week after her funeral, Paul Greeves looks at whether more could have been done to protect her.

Kate Peyton
Kate, a BBC producer, was shot in the back and died in hospital

When Kate Peyton and reporter Peter Greste stepped off the plane in Mogadishu, they were fully prepared to deal with the dangers of working in that lawless and gun-strewn city.

Discussions about security had begun more than two weeks before.

They included the local experts in the Somali section and the World Service Trust in Nairobi, with the High Risk Team in London, with other correspondents who had recently been to Mogadishu, and with external sources including the UN.

Abdil Fetir "Ajoos", our well-known security fixer in the Shamu Hotel, had been contacted and had arranged for the obligatory escort of eight armed Somalis and their "technical" (pick-up truck, usually with a heavy machine gun bolted to the top).

Kate and Peter were accompanied by Daud Aweis and Olad Hassan from the Somali section, acting as fixers.

There are 'covert' flak jackets: lightweight versions able to be worn under clothes... such a jacket may well have saved Kate
Paul Greeves

Both long-term residents of Mogadishu, they were well attuned to the dangers of navigating between the rival factions who control the city.

Flak jackets, helmets, full trauma medical kit, and a variety of satellite and local communications were all taken.

In safety parlance, all the risks had been assessed and minimised as far as possible.

Sense of safety

When they arrived at the hotel, the first thing they did was sit down to discuss security with Ajoos and Karel Prinsloo, an AP photographer who had been in Mogadishu for two weeks.

Karel had been part of a larger group of journalists covering the visit of the Transitional Federal Government from its exile in Nairobi.

The return of the government had been expected to raise tensions in the city, but had passed off without serious incident and the journalists all felt quite safe going to the Sahafi Hotel, the politicians' base, and covering their rallies and visits around the city and beyond.

So when Peter and Kate suggested they call into the Sahafi that afternoon to check out the government's activities, no one felt that it was a particularly dangerous thing to do.

Somali gunmen
Somalia remains awash with guns

They were taken the short distance to the Sahafi by their security escort - the "technical" following a hotel car.

The courtyard of the Sahafi was full of militia and their technicals accompanying the government delegation.

In fact they were spilling out onto the street and there were technicals either side of the hotel entrance and plenty of armed men in the street.

But the atmosphere was relaxed, with the militia lounging in the back of their pick-ups or chatting under the shade of the trees which lined the road.

Shot in the back

So having to park immediately outside the hotel courtyard entrance and walk the few yards across the pavement hardly seemed an excessive risk, particularly with so much firepower around to deter attacks.

And it was only what the AP and other journalists had been doing every day for the previous couple of weeks without a problem.

But when they left the hotel a short while later, and in the few seconds that Kate and Peter stood next to the car doors waiting for the driver to unlock them, they presented a fleeting target of opportunity to a gunman loitering in a car across the street.

He was probably looking for any attractive target which would send the message of warning to the returning government.

No guns allowed sign
Signs such as these are not heeded

He may have been there a while and seen Kate and Peter go in.

Kate was hit in the back by the single shot he fired from a concealed pistol.

So stunned were the surrounding militia by the unexpected attack that the attackers were able to speed off before there was any reaction.

Kate was rushed to the nearby Medina hospital. They knew where it was and the route to take. They were there in minutes.

The hospital staff did everything they could to treat Kate's wounds and stem the internal bleeding caused by the bullet.

Inevitably though, in a city wracked by war for 12 years, the hospital lacked many of the facilities you would expect to find elsewhere.

Armed escort

It was an hour-and-a-half or so before suitable donors could be found and Kate received a transfusion.

There is no guarantee that Kate could have been saved even in the most sophisticated hospital, but her chances must have been reduced by the limited facilities.

So it seems a combination of bad luck and the local circumstances contrived to defeat careful preparation and a cautious approach.

But what else could have been done? Could they have taken a security adviser and would he have made a difference?

The bottom line is that risk cannot be removed completely
Paul Greeves

They haven't been used in the past because the local security organisers and fixers were felt to have more of a feel for the local situation and provide just as good advice.

The local armed escort provided the physical deterrent and protection needed to move about the city.

What would an external adviser have added? Would they have done anything differently if an adviser had been there? Probably not.

An adviser would have taken his cue from the locals and the atmosphere, and I suspect would have made the same judgements about going to the Sahafi and parking on the street.

Shrapnel and stabbing

Perhaps it should have been decided at the outset not to present any target at all on the streets.

To travel only in obscured vehicles between one secure compound and another - telephoning ahead to ensure the gates are open and ready when you get there.

This is the way some NGOs and others operate in Mogadishu and elsewhere, such as Baghdad, and it certainly reduces the risk of being targeted.

But it is not a complete defence and is it a practical way to conduct journalism?

Under those constraints this trip would not have been attempted.

AK47 Kalashnikov
The threat in Mogadishu is overwhelmingly from AK47... against which a lightweight jacket is no protection
Paul Greeves

Should they have been wearing their flak jackets? They had taken them in case inter-factional fighting broke out and there was a danger of being caught in the crossfire.

The local advice was that to wear them routinely in the streets would draw unnecessary attention and might even invite an attack.

Being directly targeted was not thought to be the risk. And in any case, if you think you might be directly targeted, a flak jacket is not the solution. Not going is the answer.

There are "covert" flak jackets: lightweight versions able to be worn under clothes.

They give protection against low-velocity weapons, shrapnel and stabbing.

Such a jacket may well have saved Kate.

But the threat in Mogadishu is overwhelmingly from AK47 and other high velocity weapons, against which a lightweight jacket is no protection.

So they would not be the first choice for this situation. And they are debilitating to wear in a hot climate.

Another question is what more could have been done to make up for poor medical facilities?

The trauma packs contain plasma and clean needles which can be used by doctors, but it's not a substitute for blood.

Blood needs to be kept refrigerated so it's not a practical option for a team of two.

No easy answers

Similarly, oxygen in any useful quantity would be too heavy to transport and could not be taken by air.

The alternative approach is to bring the medical care to the patient or ensure speedy evacuation to a fully equipped hospital.

But even if it could have been arranged, a fully equipped plane on standby in, say, Nairobi, would have been unlikely to get to Kate in time to save her.

These are questions which all those involved in programme-making in hostile environments have to wrestle with.

There are no easy answers. The right balance between caution and protection, practicality and ability to get the job done, is a fine judgement.

We should do everything we can to minimise the risks, from fully understanding the situation to providing the right level of protection and making provision for things going wrong.

But the bottom line is that risk cannot be removed completely.

Kate Peyton and Peter Greste approached this assignment with the utmost care and professionalism, and it is all the more heart-wrenching that a fine journalist and loved colleague should lose her life in this way.

Shot BBC producer's funeral held
05 Mar 05 |  Suffolk
Obituary: Kate Peyton
10 Feb 05 |  Africa
Somalia - where the gun rules
09 Feb 05 |  Africa


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