“Always, constantly, constantly, every minute, weigh the benefits against the risks. And as soon as you come to the point where you feel uncomfortable with that equation, get out, go, leave. It’s not worth it. There is no story worth getting killed for.”
— Terry Anderson, the former Associated Press Middle East correspondent who was held hostage in Beirut for nearly seven years.
Worldwide, journalists are increasingly coming under threat of harassment, attack, imprisonment or murder, said the Committee to Protect Journalists.
To help journalists protect themselves against both physical and legal risks during dangerous assignments, the group’s “Journalist Security Guide: Covering the News in a Dangerous and Changing World,” offers these helpful tips.
Crime and terrorist scenes
1. During a hostage standoff or other unsettled scenario, don’t expose yourself to risk from further disturbances. Ask whether perpetrators may still be at large in the area. In a terrorist attack or other acts designed to attract public attention, consider the chance of follow-up attacks. You may wish to remain on the periphery and interview witnesses as they leave the area.
2. Clearly display credentials, including local government-issued credentials whenever possible.
3. Avoid contact with material that is potential evidence.
4. In stories involving private property, know the laws concerning access to public and private property, trespassing, and invasion of privacy.
5. Crime reporters with a vehicle may keep an emergency bag that includes a change of clothes, foul-weather gear, a flashlight and a first-aid kit.
6. Keep your mobile phone charged and with you. But remember that hostile subjects can track these phones.
7. At least one editor should always be aware of your work, sources and progress.
8. When you approach a potentially hostile subject, be accompanied or observed by a colleague. Communicate to hostile subjects that you are not working alone and that your activities are being closely monitored by a news organization or colleague. Cultivate a senior law enforcement officer to whom you or others could turn in case of emergency.
1. Be physically fit. This will help you avoid injury.
2. Be emotionally prepared, appropriately equipped and insured.
3. Take hostile-environment and emergency-first-aid courses prior to reporting in any situation involving armed engagement, including exercises in how to react to a kidnapping scenario.
4. Thoroughly research the politics, history and behavior of all armed groups active in an area.
5. Bring the appropriate gear. In extreme cases, this could involve wearing hazmat suits, carrying detectors, or ingesting oral tablets to block or act against possible biological, chemical or nuclear agents. In combat zones, it may involve wearing body armor rated to withstand shrapnel and high-powered bullets. Be aware that even with armor, you could still die from the trauma of blunt impact; and that helmets protect only against shrapnel and not a direct hit.
6. Choose a safe vantage point from which to observe a conflict.
7. Be aware of the impact of real-time reports. They may be perceived as passing information to the enemy. If embedded with any armed force, avoid doing anything to reveal the unit’s location or otherwise compromise its security.
8. If embedded, do not stand out in a way that would suggest you are an officer or adviser. Snipers target silhouettes of suspected officers in opposing military units.
9. If not embedded, choose clothing that does not resemble military gear and does not stand out. Be aware of how your appearance may look from far. Photojournalists holding cameras or carrying gear have been mistaken for combatants and killed by friendly forces.
10. Before traveling on local roads, consult with colleagues, military officials, and trusted local sources to determine possible checkpoint locations and their operators. Learn in advance all checkpoint procedures, such as the warning signals used by military forces and the protocol expected of approaching vehicles. Reduce speed as you approach a checkpoint, remove sunglasses, show free hands, and be respectful. Allowing soldiers or militants to search your vehicle may be advisable. If encountering drunk or impaired personnel at checkpoints run by combatants, you may be ordered to produce cash or other favors in exchange for being allowed to proceed. So carry small denominations of currency, packs of cigarettes, or items such as inexpensive watches in their original packaging to offer as small bribes. Don’t do anything to escalate the situation or the soldiers’ demands.
11. Satellite phones can easily be tracked. In a hostile environment, avoid using a satellite phone (or any radio frequency-based device) from the same location more than once. Keep the length of any transmission short. Turn off the machine and remove its battery right after transmission. Avoid having multiple parties transmit from the same location. Use code words in sensitive transmissions.
12. Most journalists and security experts recommend that you not carry firearms or other gear associated with combatants. Doing so can undermine your status as an observer and the status of all other journalists working in the conflict area.
13. To avoid sexual violence, dress conservatively and in accord with local custom. Avoid wearing necklaces, ponytails, or anything that can be grabbed; as well as tight-fitting T-shirts and jeans, makeup and jewelry. Carrying equipment discreetly, in nondescript bags, can also avoid unwanted attention. Consider carrying pepper spray or spray deodorant to deter aggressors.
14. Always prepare a security assessment in advance. The plan should identify contact people and the time and means of communication; describe all known hazards, including the history of problems in the area; and outline contingency plans that address the perceived risks. Risks to be identified may include battlefield hazards like crossfire, landmines, booby traps, and artillery and air strikes; border crossings and other interactions with potentially hostile or undisciplined armed groups; physical surveillance leading to abduction or identification of sources; electronic surveillance and interception of information or sources; potential trustworthiness of sources, drivers, fixers, witnesses and others; and health risks. Assess the communications infrastructure in the area and the availability of food, water, medical care and power; as well as your desired profile, such as whether you wish to travel in a vehicle marked “Press” or prefer to blend in with other civilians.
Read also: Are reporters prepared to cover gunfights?
(CJJ12 was published in hardcopy in September 2017.)