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INSIDE TRACK: Locals bear risks for international assignments

I got a text message the other day that helped me sleep easier that night.

It was from the young man who had worked as my interpreter and fixer while I was on recent assignment in eastern Ukraine.

He was responding to my inquiry as to whether he was alive and well, after news broke that a foreign journalist and his fixer had been killed near the fiercely contested town of Sloviansk, where Ukrainian forces and anti-Kiev rebels have been involved in clashes.

Knowing that the young man - who for security reasons we will call Aleksander - was working with other foreign reporters following my departure from the region, I suddenly had the ominous feeling that he may have become another victim of this ever escalating conflict.

Fortunately, Aleksander was safe and sound, though sadly Italian photojournalist Andrea Rocchelli and his Russian fixer and interpreter Andrei Mironov had become the first media workers to be killed since the start of fighting in eastern Ukraine. Another French photographer, William Roguelon, had his legs shredded by shell fragments in the same incident.

It's been a bad time for foreign reporters of late. A few weeks ago in the Central African Republic (CAR) another French photographer, Camille Lepage was killed in a firefight, while British foreign correspondent Anthony Loyd of The Times was shot twice in the legs and photographer Jack Hill badly beaten after being kidnapped in Syria.

While war reporting has always been hazardous, all these incidents highlight the changing nature of the threats correspondents face.

To begin with, most conflicts these days rarely have clearly demarcated frontlines or conventional forces engaged in the fighting.

Add to this the fact that press freedoms are at best curtailed and in some cases foreign journalists seen as prized targets in many of these countries and the new dimensions of risk become apparent.

Yet hazardous as the foreign correspondent's role is, it often pales in its level of risk compared to that faced by indigenous reporters.

While in eastern Ukraine I met many local journalists who, long before the current conflict, ran the gauntlet of intimidation, death threats, detention, torture and execution. As figures drawn up for the World Press Freedom Index by the journalists' organisation Reporters Without Borders show, it is the same depressing story in many parts of the world.

Moreover, while the focus generally falls on correspondents themselves, spare a thought for those local fixers and interpreters without whom we could not gather our words and pictures.

The risks my colleagues like Aleksander take are enormous. Frequently selfless and loyal to the job in a way that is inspiring, there is no glory for them in seeing their work published or winning awards.

Often, too, they are paid nothing like what would be commensurate for the dangers they face and continue to live in the midst of violence long after the foreign correspondent has moved on.

These local reporters and fixers are the true heroes of our profession.

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