Deadly Competition: How the Risks Proved Fatal for Kurt Schork and Miguel Gil Moreno

Brill’s Content
September 2000

Unlike the wild weeks that preceded it, May 24 seemed destined to be a slow and easy day for Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora. The world’s attention was fixed on the sudden Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, so there was little demand for news footage from Sierra Leone, even though more than 500 United Nations peacekeepers had been taken hostage in a resurgence of the country’s brutal civil war. Gil Moreno, an award-winning cameraman for Associated Press Television News (APTN), could have stayed in Freetown but decided to drive outside the capital to Rogberi Junction, where the U.N. was trying to figure out whether some of its peacekeepers had been executed.

Rogberi Junction was quiet, but soon the competition showed up–a vehicle carrying the Reuters “dream team,” which consisted of Kurt Schork, a renowned war correspondent; Yannis Behrakis, a veteran photographer; and Mark Chisholm, a top-notch cameraman. The three men were Reuters’s best war-zone journalists; although Gil Moreno knew and liked all three, he would not have been glad to see them on this day. A week earlier, one of Gil Moreno’s supervisors had told the APTN team that editors at the agency were unhappy with their coverage of the capture of rebel leader Foday Sankoh. Reuters had badly beaten APTN on the story, and a major news organization, which was a client, had complained about it, according to four APTN journalists. Since the call, Gil Moreno had been pushing himself harder. He didn’t want to get beaten by the competition again.

There was the sound of gunfire in the distance. The soldiers at Rogberi Junction said the rebels–from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which had brutally maimed thousands of civilians–were being pushed back. The soldiers said they would escort the journalists if they wanted to get closer to the fighting. Although the road ahead was surrounded by jungle and often infiltrated by the rebels, the soldiers said it was safe, so Gil Moreno and the Reuters team pushed onward. They were heading into the sort of no-man’s-land that Gil Moreno, a Spaniard, had been warning other colleagues to avoid. “He said, ‘Someone will get killed, because this is not a safari,'” recalls a journalist who worked closely with Gil Moreno in Freetown.

Did Gil Moreno choose to run the risks simply because his competitors had? Kurt Schork covered mostly wars–Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, East Timor–for Reuters during the past decade and had the wisdom of experience. He was a risk taker, but he seemed invincible. A Rhodes scholar who studied at Oxford University with Bill Clinton, Schork had successful careers in real estate and in New York politics–becoming executive director of the city’s transit system–before turning to combat journalism at the age of 40. Schork was at the center of the world’s close-knit community of war correspondents, and Gil Moreno, though a highly respected veteran, looked up to him.

Schork drove the lead vehicle, Gil Moreno the second; soldiers were squeezed inside the cars and splayed on the hoods (a common sight in Sierra Leone). They didn’t get far. After a few miles the group ran into an RUF ambush. Schork and Gil Moreno were killed in the fusillade, as were four soldiers. Behrakis and Chisholm, who was hit in the arm, scrambled out of the cars and escaped into the jungle. Behrakis smeared himself with mud and leaves to blend into the terrain as the rebels looked for survivors; they came within 15 feet of him. After the rebels disappeared back into the bush, Behrakis and Chisholm walked to Rogberi Junction and sent out the news that two of the best war correspondents of the post-Cold War era had been killed on a dirt road in a country few people could find on a map–if they could even be bothered to look for it.

Wars kill journalists. But the deaths of Kurt Schork and Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora, in the same ambush, devastated their colleagues and should give pause to the rest of us who take for granted the stories and pictures we see on the news. War zones are chaotic and dangerous places where bad things happen. But bad things don’t happen all the time, and when they do, you can usually find reasons, or contributing reasons. One of the most alarming factors I learned as I talked with dozens of journalists about Gil Moreno was that he sensed that things were getting out of hand in Sierra Leone but felt obliged to take risks that he sensed might be unwise. No one knows exactly what Gil Moreno was thinking when he headed down that road with his friends from Reuters, but many journalists, particularly at The Associated Press, fear that it was the pressure of competition that led to his death.

The nexus between risks and competition among journalists is most acute for television cameramen like Gil Moreno. Writers can do much of their work based on the accounts of refugees and soldiers, and many of their stories have less to do with frontline action than with narrative and political analysis. Photographers need to spend more time on the front lines, but the commercial pressures are not as intense as they are for video cameramen trying to feed the monster that never sleeps–the television networks, which pay huge sums for images of war. This appetite for blood-splattered film is fed largely by two companies locked in their own fierce battle for dominance–APTN and Reuters, which are both based in London and sell footage to all the major networks in the United States.

Gil Moreno, a Barcelona native who practiced law before switching to journalism, was APTN’s star cameraman. He was one of the few Western correspondents to enter Grozny when Russian forces flattened the Chechen capital last winter. His journey into and out of the city was stunning. Not only was kidnapping a threat, but thousands of Russian artillery shells were landing in Grozny every day. For journalists, the war in Chechnya has been the most dangerous of any of the past decade, yet Gil Moreno emerged intact.

This wasn’t the first time he did what seemed undoable. When nearly every other Western journalist fled Kosovo or was kicked out before the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing in June 1999, Gil Moreno stayed behind. It took cleverness and courage to pull it off without being arrested or killed. Few journalists were surprised when Gil Moreno was awarded the prestigious Rory Peck Prize for television journalism in 1998.

Gil Moreno knew the danger that awaited him in Sierra Leone: His friend and APTN colleague Myles Tierney had been killed in Freetown a year earlier. The country had been tortured for years by a civil war in which the main rebel group, the RUF, funded its operations by gaining control of lucrative diamond-mining regions. The diamonds made their way to consumers in the developed world–primarily in America, Western Europe, and Japan–underwriting the purchase of guns and machetes that terrorized civilians in such countries as Sierra Leone, Angola, and Congo.

The rebels in Sierra Leone are led by Sankoh, whose fighters remain active in the bush even though he was captured on May 17 by pro-government troops. The rebels are, however, little more than plunderers with Ray-Bans and Kalashnikovs. In recent years a Nigerian-led intervention force prevented the RUF from taking control of the country, but last year, with the Nigerians wearying of the expense and bloodshed, the U.N. brokered a peace accord under which the RUF was given a share of power and an amnesty for crimes it committed during its reign of terror.

The Nigerian force was replaced by thousands of U.N. soldiers, who turned out to be the Keystone Cops of peacekeeping. Most of the U.N. soldiers arrived in Sierra Leone with little weaponry, unreliable communications gear, and scant awareness of the nastiness that awaited them. When they tried to take control of the RUF’s diamond-mining areas, the RUF attacked, seizing hundreds of U.N. hostages. With the battle-hardened Nigerians gone, the RUF sensed an opportunity to commandeer the entire country. It was May, and the war was on again.

Because the prestige of the United Nations was at stake, the war was on the front pages of newspapers and at the top of television broadcasts worldwide. Hundreds of journalists flocked to Freetown. There were two wars going on–one fought by soldiers, the other by journalists to get the best stories or pictures or television footage.

In recent years, Reuters and AP decided to supplement their print and photo businesses with full-fledged video operations. Most of the world’s broadcasters–especially those in America–were reducing their overseas staff, creating a lucrative void that Reuters and AP rushed to fill. Major broadcasters usually pay in excess of $1 million a year for footage from Reuters or APTN, each of which has hundreds of clients. Their battle has evolved into television journalism’s equivalent of Coke vs. Pepsi.

According to three journalists who worked in Freetown with Gil Moreno, he seemed anxious shortly after he arrived in early May. He would drive down a road and pass a government checkpoint, then pass through jungle where rebels might be hiding, then another government checkpoint–and he couldn’t trust any of the fighters, government soldiers and rebels alike. Many of the rebels were kids, many were on drugs, and Gil Moreno knew they might do anything to him–lie, steal, kill. The situation in Sierra Leone was more unpredictable, and therefore more dangerous, than anything he had come across before. Gil Moreno found himself stopping at checkpoints because it didn’t seem wise to go further–and then watched as other journalists ventured deeper into the jungle. The risks he took were calculated; he knew better than to roar down a jungle road without the faintest idea of whether an ambush might await him. He wasn’t being cowardly, just smart.

Gil Moreno’s attitude changed abruptly in mid-May. APTN was beaten by Reuters when Sankoh, the rebel leader who had been hiding in Freetown, was seized and taken into detention. Reuters quickly uploaded footage of crowds celebrating his capture. APTN had nothing. For several hours APTN editors outside Sierra Leone were unable to reach their team. According to four journalists I spoke with, the British Broadcasting Corporation, a major APTN client, complained about the lack of footage.

Editors at APTN in London were livid. While their team in Sierra Leone had performed splendidly since the war had re-ignited, the fact remained: Reuters had beaten them. A senior producer in Africa finally got through to the office in Freetown and let the team there know that they had been beaten and that their bosses were not pleased.

Gil Moreno and his APTN colleagues in Freetown were shocked and angry. They were risking their lives in a country where, a year earlier, an APTN cameraman had been killed. Gil Moreno expressed his displeasure to colleagues including Laurent van der Stockt, a photographer for the Gamma photo agency. “He told me there was a phone call from AP to tell them a client was complaining about the coverage in Sierra Leone, that it was not good enough,” van der Stockt says. “I said to Miguel, ‘Tell me you won’t care about that kind of s–t.'” Van der Stockt knew how the complaint would be interpreted: “It means ‘Go a bit more to the front line.'”

The management of APTN denies knowing of any complaint from a client about the coverage from Sierra Leone, or of any call to Sierra Leone to convey such a complaint. “Whether there was any feedback from a more junior member of staff I know not, but the staff members I’ve talked to say there is no knowledge of any complaint being passed on,” says Nigel Baker, the head of news for APTN. “I can’t say categorically that it didn’t happen, but I am not aware of it happening.”

BBC news media relations manager Jon Steel said in an e-mail, “There is no evidence of, and no one can recall, any complaint from BBC to APTN around that time, indeed we are not aware of any lapse in their coverage.”

Even if a news agency’s client complains about coverage, editors who sit behind desks thousands of miles from a war zone usually don’t criticize or second-guess their people in the field. If the story is a political story, a “rocket” (complaint) will be sent without hesitation, but in a war zone, a bit of criticism from an editor can nudge a journalist to take more risks, even if that’s not what the editor intends. Generally, print and photo editors refrain from those sorts of calls, but such prodding is more common in television, because the commercial pressure to provide fresh footage is intense, as are the rewards and the penalties.

I talked with someone who was among a group of journalists who traveled to Lungi Lo, a small village outside Freetown, with Gil Moreno the day after the call. A detachment of British soldiers stationed there told them that they should not go any further because RUF rebels might be in the jungle ahead. They stayed put and interviewed a group of refugees living in the village under British protection. Soon, however, a vehicle carrying a Reuters cameraman arrived at the base and headed up the road, toward the area the British soldiers had warned about.

The person I talked with explained what happened next: “Miguel was like, ‘I have to go. You think I want to do this? Reuters is going. After yesterday, I have to go.'”

A few miles up the road, by this person’s account, Gil Moreno met up with the Reuters vehicle, which had turned around and was heading back toward Freetown. The Reuters crew said they had just talked with villagers who warned them the RUF was indeed in the area. Gil Moreno, with great relief, turned his vehicle around and returned with them to Freetown.

Gil Moreno faced other pressures in Sierra Leone. On occasion, APTN and Reuters would purchase film in a war zone from freelance journalists and pseudo-journalists who show up in their offices with good footage–perhaps images of a massacre or of soldiers involved in a firefight. The footage often comes from high-risk areas that experienced journalists consider off-limits. Sometimes the film isn’t authentic–pictures of an old massacre passed off as new–but if the footage is strong and is judged to be authentic, Reuters or APTN or any number of broadcasters will pay good money for it.

That happened several days before Gil Moreno was killed. A freelancer offered combat film to the APTN staff in Freetown, but they turned it down, largely because the guy who offered it seemed unreliable. He was rumored to go into combat armed, more of a mercenary than a journalist. He took his video to the Reuters staff in Freetown, and they bought it for several thousand dollars. According to Rodney Pinder, editor of Reuters video news services, decisions relating to purchasing footage from freelancers are made “eight times out of ten” by the Reuters team on the ground; superiors in London are contacted only if the price is unusually high or if the authenticity of the film is questioned. In the following days, Reuters bought another batch of film from the same man.

Some of the footage was important and received widespread global attention. It included some of the first glimpses of corpses found in the bush dressed in what appeared to be U.N. military uniforms. The images seemed to confirm what the U.N. and its member states had most feared: that peacekeepers had been killed by the rebels.

Buying such footage is a murky business. How do you know that film shot by independent operators, or that they say they shot, is authentic? If you refuse the film, will a competitor buy it, thereby making your clients wonder why you don’t have it? Or will the film wind up on the Internet, where your clients will see it and wonder why they are paying you a million dollars a year when better stuff is available on the Web for free?

According to two journalists I spoke with, Gil Moreno and his colleagues at APTN, and even some journalists at Reuters, were upset that the combat footage, coming from an apparently dubious source, had been bought by Reuters. Although the film appears to have been authentic, the purchase of it legitimized a freelancer whose methods and means were thought by some to be below journalistic standards. After the purchases, the Reuters staff in Sierra Leone agreed with their APTN counterparts to refuse further offers from this freelancer. But the transaction increased the pressure on Gil Moreno and every other responsible cameraman because a precedent seemed to have been set; offers from pseudo-freelancers would be considered.

The pressures must have been weighing on Gil Moreno the day he was killed. I talked on the phone with Behrakis, a member of the Reuters dream team. Behrakis, based in Athens, told me that Gil Moreno did not seem troubled by the decision to go past the Rogberi Junction checkpoint. “We knew what we wanted to do and we decided to do it,” Behrakis says. “We knew it was risky but we didn’t think it was terribly risky. We took risks in other places that we thought were much more dangerous….We were in no-man’s-land, in a place that one day was controlled by the government, the next day controlled by the rebels. It was a very fluid situation. But this was a part of our job. We didn’t think it was crazy. We were just being professionals, doing what we do, reporting the story.” Even so, the risks involved in driving past Rogberi Junction were eerily similar to the risks that Gil Moreno had not wanted to take a week earlier when he saw a Reuters vehicle drive past the British camp in Lungi Lo, outside Freetown.

Many of the journalists I spoke with believe that in the wake of the tragedy in Sierra Leone, television pools–in which news organizations agree to share material they gather–should be used more frequently. Such arrangements were used by most television organizations in Sarajevo during much of the Bosnian war, largely because the fear of getting beat on a hot yet dangerous story was causing cameramen to take ill-considered risks. In Fiji, for example, Reuters and APTN agreed to create a pool after a cameraman was shot during a recent coup there. But according to APTN and Reuters news executives, a pool wasn’t even considered when the fighting erupted in Sierra Leone. It was, from the start, a battle for the best footage that has created, in its wake, a small army of embittered journalists.

“I don’t think it’s cool in a competitive, breaking situation for bosses to send rockets saying we got our asses kicked,” says one such journalist. “I think that should be criminal.”

The message has gotten through to top Reuters editors. According to Geert Linnebank, editor in chief of Reuters, staff there have made a point of not providing negative feedback to war correspondents. But now, he says, the policy will be formalized on paper and distributed throughout the London headquarters and to all bureaus. The same is not true at APTN. Baker says no such policy is being considered and he expressed surprise that a competitor would do so. “The majority of journalists I’ve known want feedback on how their material is being received,” he says. “It is standard of any news organization to give feedback on their performance.”

Reuters is also moving more quickly than The Associated Press to provide war-survival training to its combat journalists. The most popular course, “Hostile Environments and Emergency First Aid Training,” is offered by Centurion Risk Assessment Services, which is run by former members of the special forces unit of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines. It includes instruction on recognizing and avoiding mines and booby traps, how to protect yourself in a firefight, and combat first aid. At the beginning of the course, students are subjected to an exercise in which they are confronted with a simulated attack or hostage-taking.

The Centurion course is not cheap–about $2,000 for five days–but Reuters began, in late 1997, enrolling its combat journalists in it. More than 100 have taken part to date. According to Linnebank, Reuters will now require participation in the course before sending a journalist to a conflict zone; until now, the company encouraged participation but did not require it. The AP has sent only about 50 and has no plans to require participation in the course for journalists heading to war zones. “Obviously [the course] can sharpen people’s skills, but it is not the only way of learning how to conduct yourself safely,” claims Baker of APTN. Journalists can learn survival skills in the field, he says, and some journalists, by virtue of mandatory or voluntary military service, come into the profession with combat knowledge.

Behrakis credits his two years of military training and the Centurion course with helping him survive the ambush in Sierra Leone. He told me that as he was making his way through the jungle after the attack, he chose a path through the toughest terrain, because the easier path, where people would be expected to walk, would also be the most likely place to contain booby traps and mines. This was one of the tips he learned in the Centurion course. Schork was one of the first Reuters journalists to take the course. Gil Moreno, who was 32 years old when he died, had not taken it.

Of course, no amount of training could have saved them from the jungle ambush. Many dangerous situations come down to a matter of luck; in this case, two journalists survived the fusillade outside Rogberi Junction; two did not. But the pressure of competition, which can affect the risks journalists take, is a factor that, unlike luck, can be controlled, if decision-makers choose to do so. It might not have made a difference for Gil Moreno, but his colleagues don’t want to find themselves wondering about these issues ever again. As an APTN journalist put it, “We have to change the rules of engagement.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.