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14 Oct 2011 Panel 3: Safety of journalists reporting in conflicts and emergencies
Hidetoshi Fujisawa, Senior Chief Correspondent, NHK (Japan) Dealing with biohazards and the nuclear threat
I would like to talk about how the Japanese media responded to the unprecedented chain of disaster of earthquake, tsunami and following nuclear power plant accident which assaulted Japan half a year ago, and what lessons we learned as a media from that experience. Before doing so, please give me a little time for thanking you, not as a representative from Japan as I am not the prime minister, but as ordinary Japanese citizen for what you have done to help us by encouraging words and donations to the affected people.
Please first look at these newspapers. These are the national newspapers published the day after the disaster. I have never seen such enormous front page headlines before. One national newspaper even combined the front page with the last page to produce this giantsized front page. What is especially noteworthy was that they continued emergency disaster broadcasting 24 hours for several days. Broadcasters, such as my network NHK, continued emergency disaster broadcasting 24 hours for several days. It was about a month later when our broadcasting resumed somewhat normal programming. In those reporting of the disaster, what are the challenges faced? I would like to review NHK's case. Our emergency reporting right after the disaster happened was smooth, well handled and according to the manuals we had prepared. We almost instantly stopped normal programs and changed to emergency broadcast. The only and most important role of disaster reporting, crisis reporting, is to save as many lives as possible by swift notification of the danger which may fall upon the public. For that mission being successfully done, we run a drill, that is an off-line mock emergency broadcasting every night after the last daily news program. 20 thousand people were killed or still missing in this disaster. That is a very sad and regrettable fact, but it is also a fact that a lot of lives were saved by emergency tsunami alarm and broadcasting on TV and radio. What is regrettable was the fact that a lot of people did not flee away from the low coastal area to higher altitude, even though they heard the alarm announcement. That is because no tsunamis or very low tsunamis reached to the shore even though tsunami warnings were announced. The national meteorological agency and broadcasters are now in the process of reviewing the announcement method and standard to make the warnings more effective and practical. After the initial stage of disaster reporting, our focus of course moved onto the coverage of the disaster damage and human casualties. There we faced a lot of problems. Dangerous places were all over, with roads damaged and traffic prohibited, communications cut, after shocks repeated frequently which meant incessant possibilities of another tsunami. Our challenges were how to get the affected areas and report the situation there.
Logistics were the most important at this stage. No fuels for vehicles, no place to stay, even no food for the field crew. In order to cope with these difficulties, we had to mobilize as many personnel as possible from all over Japan. At the peak of our coverage, the number of coverage teams in the affected areas amounted to 1.000, one tenth of all NHK personnel. Communications among the coverage teams in the field were almost impossible. Making it hard for them to share dangerous information with each other. How to share information so that we could avoid danger and risk, so that we could better inform the public on the situation in the disaster area were the big lessons and challenges. We have to review and overcome in the same situation which may happen in the future. These challenges, I suppose, are the same kind of challenges Red Cross and other aid organizations faced in this disaster response. How to better perform and better serve those affected people, that was a great homework we have now in common. Next, I would like to move to the lessons we learned from the nuclear disaster. We Japanese had experienced minor nuclear related accident at level 1 or 2 before. But this severest kind of nuclear power plant accident, in this case is level 7, was the first ever. First for any power company, for the government and for us the media too. There were many criticisms expressed from the public about media's reporting on the accident. That the media was just transmitting what the power company and the government announcements, verbatim, exactly what they say. Those criticisms are partly right and partly wrong. We may not have been able to collect enough and independent information to satisfy the public. But it is also true that in the early stage of the accident, nobody could tell exactly what is really happening in the reactors. Even now, they can't. In these situations, we had to rely on the information and data released from the power company and the government, other than that, we had no source of information. But of course, we have a lot to regret as well. We could have been better prepared for this kind of accident, by accumulating knowledge and information of a possible nuclear accident, reactor structures and radiation effect and so on. We relied heavily on outside experts and that was of course natural because nuclear field are quite technical. But those experts were in many cases not well trained to explain clearly and in understandable terms to the public, causing among the public unnecessary confusion. What we learned from this was that we need to prepare and train reporters to be experts. That is very necessary for the media to be trustworthy in their reporting. With regard to the safety of coverage, it was our big concern for us in this case as well and continues so even now. NHK as well as other print and broadcast media have tried to send reporters to the radiation contaminated area as much as possible, but with the highest caution to the safety. NHK has set guidelines for the coverage in the radiation contaminated areas since minor accidents 15 years ago and has revised the contents continually since then. As far as the permissible accumulated radiation dose, it is 1 mili-sieverts and this guideline book states that if the dose reaches 0.5, one should stop the coverage and retreat to safer place with less radiation or to take shelter in a safer place. So far, no reporter exceeds this limit, with the highest dose so far being 0.8ms.
Safety first is our principle, and the law of ALARA should be and is applied to us the media and the people as well. But the audience and readers express frustration with fewer reports from the contaminated area, reflecting great concerns with the radiation contamination. Some say media is too cautious, and the real situation in the contaminated area are hardly provided. How to meet both needs, safety of the reporters and the expectations from the public is a big dilemma facing us. Also with regard to the coverage in the bio hazardous conditions, same problems and similar principles apply. Safety first is more important because for example in the influenza pandemic such as H1N1, there always will be a possibility that a media people may become a carrier and spread the virus through their coverage. In conclusion, I would like to suggest a couple of things. One is to share as much risk information as possible among the media. Another is more cooperated safety training environment for both organizational and free lance journalists. ICRC can be a platform, coordinator, catalyst for both of these efforts, as we share a lot in common with each other.