Canadian journalists in Japan: at risk?

*this story has been updated as phone calls are returned

Canadian media editors are keeping close tabs on the radiation risks to their staff in Japan. Cliff Lonsdale reports.

Radio France recently reported that they are withdrawing six of the
seven reporters and technical staff they sent to Japan, over concerns of
radiation, and journalist organizations are urging journalists on the ground to equip themselves with anti-radiation meds.

The Toronto Star has three correspondents covering the story: Rosie Dimanno in Tokyo and Rick Westhead and Bill Shiller in the north. 
Tuesday afternoon The Star‘s foreign editor, Colin McKenzie, told J-Source:

“We were more alarmed in the morning than we are at the moment, but it’s still not a great situation. Our guy closest to the zone, Rick Westhead, is moving west to, sort of, get up wind.   We’re not moving any closer to the zone. We think it’s safe to stay in Tokyo and the boys in the field get to make the call on their own about their comfort level with the safety of the situation.  Neither are within more than 150 clicks of the reactor at the moment. They’re both way further north. So it’s not as urgent for us as for some guys who are closer, but we’re definitely working out how to slide towards the exits.”
He added: “I think you just want to stay as far away as possible from anything like a Chernobyl-style plume. It doesn’t look we’re into that scenario at the moment, and the wind is shifting as I understand it, as we speak, to just blow straight out to sea, so we’re not as anxious as we were this morning.”
Could the reporters get out if they wanted to?
“They can certainly drive up wind,” McKenzie said, then hesitated. “There’s this dreadful shortage of gasoline in the entire zone. So, without going into too many details about our troop movements, one guy’s close to an airport so he can get out, if he thinks that’s what he needs to do, tomorrow morning, and the other guy is trying to figure out how to move to the west, and that may require a bus or a train, because there’s no gasoline for the car.”

CBC’s crisis management team in Toronto moved into action Monday night as the nuclear threat grew.  “We activated last night to deal with some of the contingencies, especially in light of the last explosion at the plant,” Harris Silver, Manager of High Risk Deployment for CBC’s English Services told J-Source Tuesday.

“We decided to see where we were at in terms of the specific risks, how comfortable people were and look at what mitigation measures we can put in place, and then the corporation itself looks at, sort of, the corporate risk. Because obviously there’s the CBC, there’s RadCan, so the company has to look at the risk from a corporate level as well.”

CBC News has about 10 people in Japan, covering for English television and radio, and Radio-Canada has a similar number there, working for the French-language services, he said. 
CBC has a detailed planning process, including ongoing risk assessment and contingency planning.  But this time the prospect of nuclear contamination took everything to a higher level.

“It’s obviously a different risk that we probably haven’t looked at in quite a while. During the cold war days it was significantly much more of a risk, or perceived as such, but I would say it’s covered in the (hostile environment) courses and we’ve addressed it because there have been risks in terms of chemical spills, biological threats, which are similar in nature in terms of protective measures, but obviously getting back into a nuclear radiation threat, is different again.”

All CBC employees sent to Japan would have been given hostile environment training, he said. But he agreed that would not apply to locally hired freelances, adding: “That’s a different case.”
Silver said the crisis management team assesses reports from a variety of sources.

“(We) try and get a reading on how accurate they are, what attempted coverage that we want to provide, where we feel that we can provide it within a reasonable level of risk,  then we kind of make those decisions based on the picture that we develop.”

But he stressed that individuals in the field still retain the final right to decide to stop covering the story if they believe they are in danger.  

“Under the Canada Labour Code, everyone always has the right of refusal, based on their threat.”