Graffiti that reads "Derna is gone" is seen on a damaged shop wall in Derna on September 21, 2023, after a deadly storm hit Libya. (Reuters/Zohra Bensemra)
Graffiti that reads "Derna is gone" is seen on a damaged shop wall in Derna on September 21, 2023, after a deadly storm hit Libya. (Reuters/Zohra Bensemra)

CPJ Safety Advisory: Covering Libya’s floods

Days after September floods killed thousands in the coastal Libyan city of Derna, protesters took to the streets to blame local authorities for failing to maintain the local dams.

On September 19, Libya’s eastern administration ordered local and foreign journalists to leave the city of Derna by noon that day on the grounds that the reporters were impeding the ongoing rescue operations. These restrictions on media access – along with internet and mobile network shutdowns – will likely significantly curtail the availability of information beyond state-controlled channels. In addition, a number of Libyan journalists were reported to have been detained for several hours and interrogated by security forces.

Derna is under the control of military commander Khalifa Haftar. Haftar and the Libyan National Army militia, who are overseeing the humanitarian relief operation, are allegedly using the disaster response to consolidate control of the area, potentially impeding humanitarian assistance.

Local journalists covering this disaster should be aware of the following risks and can minimize hazards by following CPJ guidance:

Arrest and Detention

In advance, consider:

  • Is there a lawyer or local influential figure you can reach out to in case of arrest? Store their name and contact number on your phone, and also on a piece of paper and/or written on your arm.

  • Who will pay for any lawyer/legal representative?

  • Can you notify your embassy/consulate or government of your arrest (if applicable)?

  • Where are you 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.

  • Take local advice from fixers and other journalists before going into a situation.

On assignment:

  • Do not work alone and if necessary buddy up with other journalists.

  • Ensure you have a local person with you at all times.

  • Maintain situational awareness throughout and if you are hearing reports of others being arrested, react accordingly.

  • 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:

  • 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.

  • 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. Multiple officers should always be present at any strip search, so insist that your team stay with you during any search.

  • Women should insist that any strip search is conducted by a female officer.

  • 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.

Assault and Protest Safety

Protest preparation

  • Set up a regular check-in procedure with your office, family, or friends.

  • Consider the need for a “backwatcher” to help keep you aware of what is going on around you and any developing threats.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

At protests: Positioning

  • Always consider your position. 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.

  • 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 harsh policing is enforced.

  • 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.

Dealing with aggression: crowds can easily turn against journalists so be prepared:

  • 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.

Trauma from Exposure to High Number of Deaths and Extreme Suffering

It is not uncommon for journalists to experience mental distress while reporting on natural disasters and when being exposed to death. This distress can also manifest itself as long-term post-traumatic stress.

It is advisable to follow these steps to manage your mental health:

  • Eat and drink regularly.

  • Try to ensure you get enough sleep, although it may be challenging when experiencing distress.

  • Avoid turning to alcohol and substance as a solution.

  • Speak to colleagues and others about what you are witnessing.

  • Remember that experiencing stress and distress when covering such tragic assignments is a normal human reaction.

  • If applicable, reach out to your management for support and explore what support mechanisms are available to you.

  • Upon your return, seek mental health support. The Dart Centre is dedicated to assisting journalists experiencing trauma.  

Digital Safety and Device Preparedness

Take measures to increase your digital safety and communications while working in the region. Journalists may be at risk of detention and having their devices searched. Communications in the area may be restricted, leaving media workers unable to contact editors and sources.

Take the following steps:

  • Internet access may be limited or restricted. Consider downloading maps or printing any resources you might need prior to arriving in the area. However, be mindful about carrying printed material that could reveal information about your sources or intentions while in the region as you may be detained at checkpoints or by the authorities.

  • Have a plan for how you will communicate with your colleagues and newsrooms should there be a communications shutdown. Read CPJ’s guide to Internet shutdowns for more information.

  • Try to communicate with others using end-to-end encrypted messaging apps, such as WhatsApp. In the case of an internet shutdown, be aware that any SMS messages or phone calls you make could be intercepted. Regularly delete any sensitive conversations from your messaging apps in case you are detained and your devices are taken.

  • Try to travel with new devices. If this is not possible, wipe your current device so that it only includes content relevant for your trip, including content on your phone, tablet, and laptop, as well as information stored in apps. Protect your devices with passwords and passcodes. Clear your browsing history regularly on all of your devices in case of detention or arrest.

  • Backup your devices to an external hard drive or to the cloud before traveling out to report.

  • If your device is confiscated or anything is inserted into it, assume it is compromised and that any information has been copied.

  • Know the law regarding the use of encryption in the country and consider turning it on for your computers and Android devices. All iPhones since 2014 come with encryption as standard. You will need to power down your device to enable the encryption.

  • 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. Instructions for remote wipe for the iPhone can be found here and for Android phones here. 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.

  • Review your online profile before traveling to cover the story to see if there is any data that could put you at risk in case of detention, including personal photos and location information. Take steps to take down this data. See CPJ’s guide to removing personal data from the internet.

For further information about reporting on a natural disaster please see please see the CPJ Safety Note.

Journalists requiring assistance can contact CPJ via [email protected].

CPJ Emergencies has additional information on basic preparedness, assessing and responding to risk, or safety measures when covering civil conflict and disturbances. Journalists can find more safety information here.