LONDON – Richard Gizbert (search) spent more than a decade as an ABC News correspondent, covering wars in Bosnia, Chechnya and Somalia. It was fatherhood, though, that led him to turn down assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan, a decision he believes cost him his job.
An employment tribunal hearing on Gizbert's allegation of unfair dismissal opened Friday. He is seeking $4.2 million in lost earnings.
ABC says war zone assignments are voluntary and argues that its decision not to renew Gizbert's freelance contract was motivated by budget pressures.
The case highlights difficulties facing news organizations and journalists as major stories erupt in conflict zones, making journalism an increasingly dangerous profession.
At least 135 journalists have died doing their jobs since 2003, including 56 in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. The 2002 beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (search) in Pakistan was a chilling demonstration of new dangers.
"The risk you face is not just being caught in the crossfire, like I was," said former British Broadcasting Corp. foreign correspondent Martin Bell (search), who was injured by shrapnel while covering the Bosnian war and is testifying as an expert witness on Gizbert's behalf.
Foreign journalists are now being targeted, he said.
"As soon as you go outside in Baghdad or Basra ... there's a very high chance of being kidnapped and executed," he said in an interview.
Mimi Gurbst, ABC's vice president of news coverage, said at the hearing that Gizbert was one of many staffers dropped after she was ordered to cut costs by 10 percent over two years. She said those laid off included many who regularly accepted assignments in conflict zones, and Gizbert's refusal to do so was not the reason for his dismissal.
Gizbert, who is from Ottawa, had given up his staff correspondent position in 2002 to work as a London-based freelancer, an arrangement he says was meant to ensure he would not have to travel to war zones. ABC hired him for two one-year contracts but decided last year not to sign him to a third.
Gurbst said the demands on the ABC News London bureau were huge, particularly since cutbacks to foreign coverage in the late 1990s had reduced overseas staff, while the need for international stories had been high since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
That meant anyone who wasn't extremely flexible and able to fill a number of different roles was vulnerable, she said. Gizbert's freelance status meant he was more likely to be laid off than a staff member, Gurbst said.
"It seemed to me that Richard was aware [when he signed his first freelance contract] these restrictions ... would mean his work was not as useful to ABC," she testified.
"As a freelancer, Richard was more vulnerable to our need to reduce costs."
Gizbert, 47, said in an interview that he did not believe the network's explanation.
"There's just no way that you fire a correspondent who's being productive in the way that I am unless it's on the war-zone issue," he said.
While he had frequently covered conflicts earlier in his career, Gizbert said he became increasingly reluctant to do so as his children grew up.
"A lot of people stop doing it when their kids come along," he said. "I stopped doing it a little later than that, when my kids started asking me why I was doing it and I really couldn't come up with a good answer."
ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said Gizbert's claim was "preposterous ... [and] practically a libel against us" and that the network was confident the tribunal would agree.
Schneider said it was crucial for ABC, which is part of the Walt Disney Co., to cover the Iraq war but that it was able to do so with reporters who wanted to go.