Artwork: Jack Forbes
Artwork: Jack Forbes

Physical safety: Civil disorder

Updated July 20, 2021

Reporting from locations affected by crowd violence can be dangerous, with numerous media workers injured every year covering incidents such as violent protests.

To minimize the risk, media workers should consider the following safety advice:

Assignment planning

  • Find out who will be present and their likely attitude toward the media (e.g. extremist groups, counter-protesters, armed vigilantes, riot police).
  • Research and understand the layout of the location, identifying likely flashpoints and main escape routes.
  • Work out what you will do and where you will go in an emergency.
  • Working after dark is riskier and should be avoided whenever possible.
  • If staying overnight, select a property a safe distance from potential flashpoints.
  • Identify and record the location of the closest point of medical assistance.
  • See the CPJ’s assignment planning resources advice for more information.

Staff considerations

  • Consider if an individual’s profile, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation could make them a potential target for any hostile actors at the location.
  • Those reporting on the ground should have a degree of physical fitness to allow them to respond and move quickly to emerging dangers.
  • Individuals should not be expected to work alone. Always try to work with a colleague and agree on an emergency rendezvous point. For more information, please see CPJ’s solo reporting advice.

Communication

  • Set up a regular check-in procedure with your office, family, or friends.
  • Put in place emergency protocols in case of injury or arrest, including details of who to call for assistance (e.g. a legal representative). See CPJ’s arrest and detention safety note for more advice.
  • Consider the need for a “backwatcher” to help keep you aware of what is going on around you and any developing threats.

Clothing & equipment

  • Wear clothing and footwear with laces that allow you to move swiftly.
  • Avoid wearing items that can be grabbed such as necklaces, scarves, lanyards, and ponytails, as well as flammable material such as nylon.
  • Where violence is anticipated, the use of protective goggles/glasses, tear gas respirators, and helmets should be considered. Protective body vests should also be considered if live ammunition is a risk. For more information, see CPJ’s personal protective equipment (PPE) guide.
  • Ensure you have a full battery on your cell phone and take a portable charger with you.
  • Consider what supplies to take with you, such as drinking water, energy bars, and a first aid kit.
  • Always limit valuables in your possession to a minimum.

Transportation

  • Plan all journeys in advance and be prepared to maintain a flexible itinerary. Note that travel can be affected at short notice due to road closures and blockades.
  • Always park your vehicle in a secure location and facing the direction of escape, or ensure you have an alternative guaranteed and secure mode of transport.
  • Do not leave any equipment in vehicles. After dark, the risk of criminal actions increases.

Positioning

  • Always consider your position. Try to find an elevated vantage point that may offer greater safety (e.g. a balcony or roof top).
  • Stay in close proximity to hard shelter, such as a building or structure with a roof — but maintain a safe distance from glass-fronted buildings.
  • Plan multiple evacuation routes in case circumstances become hostile. Do so by examining maps of the location, and go through the plan again on arrival, which may need to be modified based upon local circumstances (e.g. road closures).
  • Plan a strategy when working in or close to a crowd, and identify all potential escape routes. Try to keep to the outside of the crowd and avoid the middle where it is harder to escape from.

Awareness

  • Always use discretion when filming, especially around extremists, the security forces, and sensitive state sites and infrastructure etc.
  • Remain alert to the dangers from looting and arson such as falling debris, smashed glass and fire.
  • Maintain a low profile and gauge the mood of protesters toward the media before entering any crowd
  • Be aware of the threat of stampedes, especially if and when tear gas is deployed
  • Continuously observe and read the mood and demeanor of the authorities. Visual cues such as police arriving in riot gear, shield walls, or throwing of projectiles are potential indicators that aggression can be expected. Pull back to a safe location when such “red flags” are evident.

In situations where tear gas may be used:

  • Wear personal protective equipment including a tear gas mask, eye protection, and a helmet.
  • Contact lenses are not advisable.
  • Avoid wearing skin products (e.g. makeup or moisturizer), especially if oil-based.
  • Individuals with asthma or respiratory issues should avoid areas where teargas is being used.
  • Take note of landmarks (e,g. sign posts, curbs, railings) that can be used to help you navigate out of an area if you are struggling to see.
  • If you are exposed to teargas, try to find higher ground and stand in fresh air to allow the breeze to carry away the gas. Do not rub your eyes or face. When you are able to, shower in cold water to wash the gas from your skin, but do not bathe. Clothing may need to be washed several times to remove the crystals completely, or discarded.

Dealing with aggression:

  • Read body language and use your own body language to pacify a situation.
  • Keep eye contact with an aggressor, use open hand gestures and keep talking with a calming manner.
  • Keep an extended arm’s length from the threat. Back away and if someone grabs hold of you, break away firmly without aggression. If cornered and in danger, shout.
  • If the situation escalates, keep a hand free to protect your head and move with short, deliberate steps to avoid falling. If in a team, stick together and link arms.
  • Be aware of the situation and your own safety. While there are times when documenting aggression can be newsworthy, taking pictures of aggressive individuals can escalate a situation.

Digital security

Your devices could be at risk of being broken, stolen, or confiscated while covering civil disorder. To reduce the risk, consider the following safety advice:

  • Back up your devices before going out on assignment. This includes making a backup copy of the content on your mobile device.
  • Set up your devices to remote wipe beforehand. This will allow you to delete content from your device if it is stolen or taken from you. A device will only wipe if it has access to the internet or to mobile data.
  • Know what data is on your devices and where it is stored. Take steps to remove data that you would not want others to access. This could include work-related documents or photos of your family. If you have a spare phone, consider taking that and leaving your personal phone behind. Ensure that this phone has limited personal information about you or your sources on it.
  • Review what content is stored in messaging apps and take steps to delete anything that you would not want others to read, including messages, documents, and photos. You should consider using end-to-end encrypted messaging apps, such as Signal or WhatsApp. Currently best practice for using these apps involves setting up two-factor authentication and enabling messages to disappear. You can do this in the settings section of the apps.
  • Review your contact list and delete contacts that may be sensitive. Contacts are stored in the cloud account linked to the email used to set up the phone as well as apps on the phone and the SIM card.
  • Log out of and delete any apps and services that you will not need while reporting on the story. This will better protect your accounts from being accessed should someone gain access to your device.
  • Consider the best way to lock and unlock your phone. Biometrics make it easier for you to unlock your phone while reporting. However, it can also make it easier for others to unlock too, for example, by forcefully holding your thumb on the phone. If you are concerned about others gaining access to your device, then putting a long PIN code may be the best option for you.
  • While on location reporting on civil unrest it is a good idea to make regular backups either to the cloud, via messaging apps or email, or to an external device, such as a HD card. This will prevent data from being lost should your devices be destroyed or taken.
  • If you are live streaming be aware that your location is being broadcast in real time on the internet, which can make you vulnerable to a physical security incident.
  • Make a plan for how to contact others should there be a communications blackout and you lose phone service and internet connection. For more information, see CPJ’s safety note on internet shutdowns.
  • To learn more about how to secure your devices and communications, see CPJ’s digital safety kit.

For additional information and tools for pre-assignment preparation and post-incident assistance, visit CPJ’s Resource Center.