Law enforcement officers detain journalists on assignment, photographed by a Reuters photographer a moment before his own detention, in Minsk, Belarus, on July 28, 2020. (Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko)

Physical and Digital Safety: Arrest and detention

Covering certain stories–such as human rights abuses, corruption, or civil unrest–can place you at a higher risk of arrest and detention, particularly in countries with authoritarian regimes or with a heavy militarized and police presence.

When confronted by the authorities it is generally prudent to comply with their commands, even if they are not lawful, in order to protect your safety.

Journalists should consider the following digital and physical safety advice to help better protect themselves.

Digital Security Advice

Taking steps to secure your devices and your data in advance of potential detention or arrest can reduce the possibility of others accessing information about you and your sources.

Preparing your devices

If you are arrested or detained, your devices may be confiscated and searched.

Take the following steps to secure your device and your data:

  • Secure your devices with a pinlock or password. Be aware that this may not stop authorities from being able to unlock it.
  • Know the law regarding use of encryption in the country you are reporting in, and consider turning it on for your computers and Android devices. The recent iPhone comes with encryption as standard. You will need to power down your device to enable the encryption.
  • Know what data, including documents and photos, is kept on your devices and where it is located. Remove data that you feel puts you at risk.
  • Regularly back up your information to an external storage device, such as a hard drive. You should then delete the content from the device. Be aware that authorities or criminal groups with sophisticated tech capacity may still be able to recover deleted content.
  • Encrypt your external drives. It is a good idea to keep copies of your data on more than one drive and store them in separate places ideally not your home or office, which could be searched if you are detained.
  • Clear your browsing history regularly, and log out regularly from all your accounts.
  • Know what content is in your messaging apps and set up a process for regularly backing up and deleting content.
  • Manage the contacts in your phones and messaging apps. Remove details of people you feel could put you or them at risk. Be aware that contacts are stored in apps and in the cloud, as well as on the SIM card.
  • Set up your devices to remote wipe. If you are concerned you won’t have time to remote wipe your devices if arrested or detained you should speak with a trusted contact about wiping them for you. A device will only wipe if it is connected to the internet or mobile data. Consider whether wiping your device will make you look more suspicious.
  • If your devices leave your line of sight and are then returned to you at a later date they may have been infected with spyware. If possible, you should buy new devices. If this is not possible, you should carry out a factory reset of your phone but be aware that it may not remove the spyware.

Protecting your accounts

If you are detained you may be asked to hand over passwords to your online accounts. While you may not be able to prevent people from accessing your accounts, you can take preventative steps to limit the data available to them.

Limit people’s access to content in your accounts:

  • Review the content in all your accounts, especially email and social media, regularly. Know what information could put you or others at risk.
  • Regularly back up and delete content from these accounts, including old emails and social media messages. Be aware that this content will only be deleted from your account; it will not be deleted from the account of the person you are in contact with. Unless the service you are using is end-to-end encrypted, like Signal or WhatsApp, a copy of all your data, including emails and messages, is kept by the company and can be subpoenaed by governments.
  • Your social media accounts give away a lot of information about who you are in contact with via your followers and friends lists. This information can be used to map your personal and professional networks. Review your friends and followers on social media and remove anyone you feel puts your or others at risk. A copy of this data will still exist on the server of the company and can be subpoenaed by governments.
  • Be aware that photos and videos held in online services can be used to identify personal contacts, such as family members, as well as professional ones, including sources.
  • Make access to your accounts more difficult by logging out of your accounts and regularly clearing your browsing history. Limit the number of messaging apps and email services applications on your phone or computer.

Physical Security Advice

Pre-assignment considerations

  • Research and understand what your legal rights are as a journalist in the country you are reporting in. Try to find out:

–What you can/cannot be arrested for;

–Details of previous journalist arrests and how they were treated;

–Which units are likely to be making arrests on the day (i.e. uniformed police, covert/undercover officers, the military, etc.)

–How long you can be detained before being charged;

–If you will be allowed to make a phone call(s) and to whom;

–If you will have access to a lawyer/legal representative who can speak your language;

–Who will pay for any lawyer/legal representative;

–If your embassy/consulate will be notified of your arrest (if applicable);

–Where you are likely to be taken if arrested

  • Consider if taking any items or equipment on assignment with you might increase your chances of being arrested (e.g. satellite phones, walkie talkies, binoculars, military style clothing, night vision goggles, etc.)
  • Always ensure you have the correct and valid documents with you (e.g. press credentials, driver’s license, passport, visa, etc.)
  • Take a fully charged mobile phone with you, some cash, any medication you might be taking, and basic supplies like drinking water, energy snacks, and warm clothes.
  • Dress appropriately for the conditions. If detained by the police you may be wearing the same clothes for some time.
  • Think about how you will react if you are arrested. Be aware that police officers can be heavy handed and aggressive depending on the location and situation.
  • Take the minimum amount of equipment necessary to help prevent equipment losses.
  • For more information, please consult CPJ’s Risk Assessment template.


  • Identify a legal representative who can be contacted if you are arrested. Store their name and contact number on your phone, and also on a piece of paper and/or written on your arm.
  • If working abroad, record the emergency contact details of your embassy/consulate in your phone.
  • Try and avoid working alone. If you do it may take longer to raise the alarm if you are detained/arrested.
  • If there is a chance of detention/arrest, set up a regular check-in procedure with your office, family, or friends. Let them know how often you plan on checking in, an overdue procedure, and what time they can expect you to return.

On assignment

  • Try to avoid hanging around in the same place for an extended period of time, especially if in a sensitive area such as outside a political building.
  • Police officers in many countries dislike being filmed or photographed. Be mindful of this when working close to or around the police.
  • Never carry any weapons, alcohol, drugs, or other sensitive material that could increase the chances of being arrested.

If you are detained/arrested

  • Before arresting you, the police officer should tell you that you are being arrested and for what reason. Pay attention to the location, time and circumstances leading up to the arrest.
  • Always stay calm and be respectful. If wearing a hat and/or sunglasses, take them off. Maintain eye contact with the officer if possible and don’t resist.
  • It is advisable to avoid photographing or filming the arrest – it might provoke the police and may lead to your equipment being damaged or confiscated.
  • Keep your bag, equipment, and electronic devices within your line of sight whenever possible.
  • Make the police aware of any health conditions, such as asthma or diabetes. Tell the police as soon as you’re arrested if you are taking medication to control your condition.
  • Tell the police if you have a history of mental health problems or if you are having mental health issues at the time.
  • If possible, document as much information about the police officers involved as you can, including their names, numbers, departments, and readily identifiable features (e.g. tattoos, facial hair etc.)
  • Pay attention to individuals standing around who could be a witness to your arrest. If necessary, ask them to raise the alarm.
  • If you do not speak or cannot read the local language, do not sign any documents or admit to anything until a translator and/or lawyer or legal representative is present.
  • The police officer may search you, pat you down, or conduct a strip search if they believe you might be hiding illegal items. A strip search ought to be conducted in a private place where you could be more vulnerable. Multiple officers should always be present at any strip search, and women should insist that any strip search is conducted by a female officer.
  • Depending on your location the police officers may try to intimidate you and/or coerce you into admitting to a crime. Under such circumstances, stick to your story, avoid admitting anything that you did not do, and wait for legal support to arrive.
  • If you are assaulted by any police officer try to keep a record of your injuries, medical treatment received, and any hospital visits. Try to take notes of the names and a visual description of those responsible.

CPJ’s online Safety Kit provides journalists and newsrooms with basic safety information on physical, digital, and psychological safety resources and tools, including covering civil unrest. If you need assistance, journalists should contact CPJ via [email protected].