Violent and deadly protests have flared in urban centers across Colombia since April 28, 2021, including Bogotá, the capital, as well as Cali, Medellín, Pereira, Bucaramanga, Ibagué, Zipaquirá, and Buenaventura, according to news reports. Initially sparked by President Iván Duque’s proposed tax reforms–which were later dropped–protests have since morphed into a wider movement against poverty, inequality, and perceived corruption, in turn fueled by anger over police brutality and frustration over officials’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to The Guardian.
The United Nations has accused the security forces of using excessive force against civilians, resulting in dozens of deaths along with hundreds of injuries and arrests, according to Human Rights Watch. Tensions remain high, particularly in the city of Cali, where Duque has vowed to send more troops after clashes between protesters and armed civilians, as reported by Deutsche Welle.
Between April 28 and May 7, the Bogotá-based Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) documented at least 115 incidents involving journalists covering the protests, including robberies, harassment, and injuries; nearly half of the violations were allegedly committed by the National Police and its Mobile Anti-Riot Squad, or ESMAD.
Physical safety considerations
Media workers should anticipate and be prepared for significant levels of violence on the ground, which could come from the security forces (such as ESMAD), armed civilian groups/vigilantes, and/or protesters. Dangers may include (but are not limited to) the use of the following:
- Water cannons
- Flash/stun grenades
- Tear gas (including injury from tear gas canisters)
- Rubber bullets
- Live ammunition (from both the police and armed civilians)
- Bean bag rounds
- Beatings with police batons/truncheons and riot shields
- Projectiles (such as rocks and molotov cocktails)
- Vehicle ramming of crowds
- Sexual assault
- Plan all journeys in advance and be prepared to maintain a flexible itinerary. Travel can be affected at short notice due to blockades, as recently witnessed on the main highway between Cali and Buenaventura. Note that airports can be affected, with Alfonso Bonilla Aragón airport in Cali temporarily closed in early May due to the unrest.
- Consider the profile and gender of media workers, noting that Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has recorded multiple examples of sexual assault during arrests.
- If staying at a hotel, select a property a safe distance from potential flashpoints, noting that La Luna hotel in Cali was attacked and set on fire on May 4.
- Be aware of the reported presence of armed civilian groups at certain locations, who are likely to be well-armed and who may wear a particular color, such as white. Where possible always try and identify which vigilante groups, counter-protesters, and security forces may be present at the location (e.g. ESMAD), and research the typical tactics they use on the ground.
- Where violence is anticipated, the use of protective safety goggles/glasses, helmets, and tear gas respirators should be considered. For more information see the CPJ’s personal protective equipment (PPE) guide here.
- If there is a risk of live ammunition being used, Level III A and above body armor should be considered. Note that ballistic-grade body armor is heavy and can reduce mobility and endurance.
- Individuals should not be expected to work alone at protest locations. Try to work with a colleague and set up a regular check-in procedure with your base, family, or friends. Working after dark is riskier and should be avoided if possible. For more information please see CPJ’s advice for journalists reporting alone.
- Plan an advance escape strategy in case circumstances become hostile. Do so by examining maps of the location and identifying all available exit routes. Go through the plan again on arrival, which may need to be modified based on local circumstances (e.g. road blockades).
- Plan an emergency rendezvous point if you are working with others and unable to get to your means of transportation.
- Ensure that you have the correct accreditation or press identification, and have it on display if safe to do so. For freelancers, a letter from the commissioning employer is helpful.
- Identify and record the location of the closest point of medical assistance.
- Have in place emergency protocols in case of injury, arrest, or kidnapping. Identify the best people for your emergency contact to reach out to–for example your fixer, local journalists who may be able to help, and/or your embassy.
- Know your legal rights in the state you are in before reporting on any protest.
- Use CPJ’s risk assessment form (available in multiple languages) to plan your assignment in advance.
Clothing, equipment, & transportation
- Do not rely on public transport. Over 36 TransMilenio stations and 163 buses were recently targeted in Bogotá, while an estimated 60% of the Cali bus network has been destroyed, according to the BBC. Note that transport services could be suspended with little warning.
- Ensure you have sufficient fuel for the journey, noting recent reports of shortages in Cali.
- Take some emergency provisions with you, considering recent reports of food shortages in Cali. Note that supply shortages may increase if roadblocks to major ports and cities continue.
- Ensure your phone is fully charged up before departure, and consider the risk of communication networks being disrupted, as recently reported in Cali.
- It is recommended to avoid wearing lanyards around the neck to prevent strangulation or being pulled over. Consider a velcro pouch on the bicep instead, and wear a PRESS badge if safe to do so.
- Wear clothing that helps you ‘blend in,’ that doesn’t look too ‘tactical’ or ‘military,’ and that allows you to move swiftly. Try and avoid loose clothing, political slogans, media branding, military colors/patterns, any colors associated with groups that might single you out by the police, and flammable materials (e.g. nylon).
- Wear footwear with hard soles, laces, and some kind of ankle support.
- Tie long hair up to prevent individuals from pulling you from behind.
- 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.
- Take the minimum amount of equipment necessary with you, and avoid wearing expensive jewelry and/or watches. Do not leave valuable equipment in vehicles, which could be broken into. After dark, the criminal risk increases.
- Take a medical kit with you. Please refer to CPJ’s Personal Gear checklist and also CPJ’s PPE guide for more information.
With the authorities
- Remain vigilant to vehicles approaching you and parked close to you. Be aware that police have reportedly charged crowds with motorcycles, and that protesters have been fired upon from armored vehicles and unidentified vehicles. In addition, there have been reports of police-owned trucks carrying violent agitators around who attack individuals.
- Always use discretion when filming, especially around sensitive state sites, infrastructure, and the security forces.
- Maintain situational awareness at all times, and stay in close proximity to hard shelter such as a building or structure with a roof.
- Extra police may be called in to a location and may not know the geography of the area or be as familiar with local legislation. In the event of unrest, be aware that a lack of communication between different police forces could result in poor command and control.
- Continuously observe and read the mood and demeanor of the authorities in relation to the crowd dynamic. Police can become more aggressive if the crowd is agitated (or vice versa). Visual cues such as the appearance of police dressed in riot gear, shield walls, or throwing of projectiles are potential indicators that aggression can be expected. Pull back to a safe location, or plan a quick extraction when such “red flags” are evident.
With protesters & armed civilian groups
- Be aware that protesters or counter protesters could be armed, with the presence of plain clothed vigilante groups in certain locations. Note reports of protesters being shot by armed civilians, according to Bloomberg. If firearms are visible, move to hard cover and assess the situation.
- Stay to the periphery of any crowd, noting the risk of potential stampedes, especially if/when tear gas is deployed. Avoid lingering in natural exit routes in case the crowd panics.
- Gauge the mood of protesters toward journalists before entering any crowd. Constantly monitor for aggressive individuals who may be shouting, drunk, emotional, and/or causing trouble. Always try and maintain a safe distance from such individuals.
- If individuals or the crowd in general becomes hostile, it may help to deliberately avoid eye contact and to stop taking pictures/filming. You will need to balance the risk versus reward, but engagement of any sort can be perceived as a challenge.
- Dozens of police, public, and private buildings have been attacked over the past few weeks. Try to maintain a safe working distance from buildings as well as vehicles, noting the dangers associated with looting, vandalism, and arson (e.g. falling debris, smashed glass and fire).
- Journalists should remain conscious of being targeted by vehicles and remain vigilant to any vehicle approaching them. Remain on the sides of roads and routinely assess locations to shelter in or escape to.
- Due to the risk of violence, consider reporting from a higher vantage point such as a building rooftop, upper floor window, or balcony (where feasible).
- Media workers should be conscious of not outstaying their welcome around a crowd. Minimize your time to what is absolutely necessary. Always try to keep to the outside and not get sucked into the middle where it is hard to escape.
- Photojournalists generally work in the thick of the action and by default are at greater risk. They should therefore consider having someone watching their back. Remember to look up from the viewfinder every few seconds, and do not wear the camera strap around your neck to avoid the risk of strangulation. Get your shots and get out.
Dealing with tear gas
The use of tear gas can result in sneezing, coughing, spitting, crying, and the production of mucus that obstructs breathing. In some cases, individuals may vomit, and breathing may become labored. Such symptoms could potentially increase media workers’ level of exposure to coronavirus infection via airborne virus droplets. Individuals who suffer from respiratory issues like asthma, who are listed in the COVID-19 vulnerable category, should therefore avoid covering crowd events and protests if tear gas is likely to be deployed.
In addition, evidence suggests that tear gas can actually increase an individual’s susceptibility to pathogens such as novel coronavirus, as highlighted by NPR.
For guidance about dealing with exposure to and the effects of tear gas, please refer to CPJ’s civil disorder advisory.
Maintaining physical distancing at any protest location is challenging, and members of the public may not wear face coverings/face masks at all. Such confinement could potentially expose them to virus droplets, as well as verbal or physical attack from hostile members of the public–who could deliberately cough or sneeze over them.
Be aware that people shouting or chanting can result in the spread of virus droplets, therefore increasing media workers’ level of exposure to coronavirus infection.
- Be aware of individuals getting close to you who could cough or sneeze over you–either accidentally or deliberately.
- The use of a N95 / FFP2 standard face mask is essential at any crowded event or protest.
- Ensure you wash your hands regularly, properly, and thoroughly throughout the assignment. Use hand alcohol-based sanitizer regularly if you can’t wash your hands, but do not make this a substitute for a regular hand washing routine.
- All equipment should be thoroughly cleaned post-assignment.
- All clothing and shoes should be removed before re-entering your home and washed / cleaned with hot water and detergent.
- For much more detailed COVID-19 guidance, please refer to CPJ’s safety advisory here.
Digital safety planning & considerations
Preparing devices to cover protests
Taking steps to secure your devices and your data before covering a protest can reduce the possibility of others accessing information about you and your sources.
- Ensure you have a full battery on your cell phone and take a portable power bank with you.
- Prepare your devices. Know what data is on your phone and your laptop and how that could put you or others at risk. Back up and remove information that you would not want accessed by others if your devices are stolen, confiscated, or broken.
- Secure your devices with a pinlock or password. Be aware that this may not stop authorities from being able to unlock it.
- Log out of and remove any apps from your phone that you will not use at the event.
- Where possible use end-to-end encrypted messaging services, such as Signal or WhatsApp, to communicate with others. Be aware that phone conversations and SMS can be intercepted by law enforcement.
- 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.
- If you are concerned about taking your personal phone to cover the event, consider buying a cheap second phone and taking that instead.
- Encrypt your devices. See CPJ’s guide on encrypting devices.
- Secure your accounts with two-factor authentication and long, unique passwords. Put passcodes on your devices instead of using biometrics. See CPJ’s guide on securing accounts.
- The Colombian army is reported to use social media to gather information on journalists, as documented by CPJ. To better protect against this, review your online profile and take down or limit access to personal information, especially data that can be used to locate you, contact you, or verify your identity. Speak with family members about how to secure their online data. For more information, see CPJ’s guide to protecting against online attacks.
- Back up content from the event regularly when on the ground. This will prevent you from losing content if your devices are taken or broken.
- Be aware that live tweeting or live streaming your exact location at the event could put you at greater physical risk.
- Be vigilant for people who may wish to break or steal your devices.
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 preventive 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 you 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 applications on your phone or computers.