Targeted - Press Gazette

Sunday Times foreign editor Sean Ryan last week received simultaneous calls from correspondents in life-threatening danger.

Iraq correspondent Hala Jaber had been told she was on a death list and colleague Christina Lamb had come under sustained fire on three sides while embedded with British Paras in Afghanistan.

While Jaber became the first Sunday Times journalist to be pulled out using The Sunday Times's "emergency evacuation procedure" — Lamb's first-person report of the two-hour firefight made pages one, two and three of the paper and she made her own way to safety.

British Press Awards foreign reporter of the year Jaber, now back in the UK, said she had no plans to return to Iraq.

She said: "I think the idea at the moment is that we need to analyse and look into [the dangers of reporting from Iraq], but with a threat like that, there's no way I think I can do it."

Baghdad-based Jaber, above left, was told by a "trusted contact" that she was intended to be the next "Atwar Bahjat" — a reference to her friend, the female Arab journalist who was kidnapped and murdered by an Iraqi death squad in February.

Jaber's Arab fixer and her photographer husband Steve Bent were also subject to the same threats last Wednesday.

Because there were no more flights that day, The Sunday Times sent a squad of 10 former Royal Marines, led by an ex-Special Boat Service officer, who arrived in three cars.

Jaber, her husband and the fixer were taken into the safety of the Green Zone before flying out of Iraq by private plane on Thursday.

She told Press Gazette: "Everything is at a really frightening stage. Journalists have been killed [and] have been kidnapped, but to receive a direct threat like that is a horrible feeling.

"It just shows you that there is no one secure any more. It's a total collapse of security.

They say it's better — it's far from better, it's really worse. People are being killed left, right and centre nowadays."

Asked if she could see any way forward for safety in Iraq, Jaber said: "As a journalist I hope people who are picking out and scaring journalists away come to realise that, no matter what they think of us, we do good in Iraq for the people and for them. We do tell the other side of the story, and to drive us away like that is not an answer."

Ryan said: "Different reporters have different ideas about the level of security they want. Some reporters like to have somebody with a gun in their car when they're moving around — Hala Jaber is not one of those.

She feels that weapons just attract the wrong sort of attention and she would much rather operate by keeping a very low profile.

So she drives round with a fixer and a battered old car that nobody notices.

"She's an amazing woman of exceptional courage and I wouldn't be surprised if she's pressing to go back to Iraq before too long.

We'll have to take the best advice on how to keep her safe and it may be that we have to wait before she can go back."

Meanwhile, Lamb said she would definitely be going back to Afghanistan, but would think very hard about embedding again with the Paras in Helmand province.

She said that it was the closest she had come to serious injury while reporting, despite covering many conflicts in the past.

Lamb said: "Usually you're on one side or the other, particularly as a reporter rather than a photographer, you don't have to be right in the absolute thick of it. But this time, I was in the middle of it, with Kalashnikov fire, mortars and grenades coming from three sides."

Lamb revealed in her Sunday Times piece that she was asked by one of the Paras during the gunfight if she had ever used a pistol.

Asked if she would have taken the pistol if offered, she told Press Gazette: "My instinct was absolutely not, I'm a journalist — not a participant in this.

I always work very much on my own, I have never used armed guards, bodyguards or anything that attracts attention, so my instinct was absolutely not to. But had we been cornered in one of those trenches and the only way to survive was to fight, I don't know.

Fortunately, it never quite got to that."

Sean Ryan said that the paper's emergency evacuation procedure had only been introduced recently, partly because of the security situation in Baghdad.

He said: "It's more than a layman journalist can manage to think of, in terms of planning security. Even with the most experienced foreign correspondents, these are circumstances unlike any that they've been in before, so we do feel it's the responsible thing to do to take the best professional security advice that we can find."

Security firm Diligence, which was responsible for evacuating Jaber, also has arrangements to look after journalists from Reuters and APTN.

Diligence's chief operating officer, Trefor Williams, said: "We won't send a big white SUV, but more like two armoured taxis, with a couple of local drivers. Should you look behind the screens, you'll see a couple of bristling ex-Marines or a couple of special forces guys who are kitted out to the teeth."

Williams said: "Journalists live close to the line as it is. Hala and Steve's threshold for threat is higher than a lot of the engineers working out in Baghdad, so when we get a call from a journalist, you immediately react, and when you have to act that quickly, you don't really have a chance to plan — you just have to go with force and pull them out."