Covering armed conflicts poses the most serious threat many journalists ever face. Being physically fit can help you avoid injury. One should also be emotionally prepared, appropriately equipped, properly trained, and adequately insured.
Security training courses for journalists have been offered by private firms since the 1990s; traditionally, they have been staffed mainly by former British or American military personnel. Most have taught personal-awareness skills oriented toward combat risks and battlefield hazards, along with emergency first aid. Such training is highly recommended for journalists who cover armed confrontation of any kind. Knowledge and skills are imparted both in the classroom and in complex field simulations that challenge journalists to apply their skills and work together. The training benefits foreign and local journalists alike.
Besides emerging with multiple sets of skills, the journalists often form bonds with one another. The training provides local journalists living and working in dangerous areas with the opportunity to meet and collaborate on neutral ground in ways that may transcend political, geographic, and other identities. Historically, security training courses have not specialized in addressing non-military contingencies, such as mitigating the risk of sexual assault while on assignment (see Chapter 2 Assessing and Responding to Risk) or lessening the hazards of covering organized crime (see Chapter 5 Organized Crime and Corruption). Since 2011, however, new and existing firms have been developing training modules covering civil scenarios and digital security.
Hostile-environment and emergency-first-aid courses are prerequisites for safe reporting in any situation involving armed engagement, including violent protests and clashes. The courses include exercises in how to react to a kidnapping scenario. Five-day courses are offered in Great Britain and the United States at a cost of US$3,000 or more. Three-day refresher courses, which are recommended periodically, cost at least US$2,000.
The Rory Peck Trust offers a Training Fund for freelancers to help cover the cost of security courses. The fund is available to “bona fide professional freelancers involved in newsgathering or current affairs for a minimum of 18 months.” The Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders offers courses on safety and stress management, as well as international humanitarian law, in collaboration with the French Red Cross. The course is conducted in French and held in the French Alps.
Multilateral agencies led by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, along with unilateral government agencies such as the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and private groups such as the International News Safety Institute, have provided security training for journalists in less developed nations on a periodic basis.
You should be fully equipped with gear appropriate to the situation. In extreme circumstances, 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 would involve wearing body armor rated to withstand shrapnel and high-powered bullets. In cases of street clashes or violence, it could mean wearing an inconspicuous anti-stab vest.
Journalists requiring body armor should choose a vest according to the expected threat. The U.S. National Institute of Justice has developed a six-tier rating system used by most manufacturers around the world. If you are covering armed conflict, you should choose a vest rated to stop high-velocity bullets fired by military rifles. Be aware, however, that no vest is bulletproof. One may still be severely injured or die from the trauma of blunt impact, even if the body armor does stop the projectile. Consider gender-specific designs and whether you require options such as side or groin protectors.
Helmets are a requirement for journalists covering war zones. Recognize, however, that even a top-rated helmet mainly provides protection against shrapnel, and is likely to be penetrated by any direct hit from a bullet fired by an assault or sniper rifle.
When in the field, dynamically risk assess when to don your body armour.
Body armor products are periodically updated as newer, lighter, and more reliable materials are developed. Journalists and news managers need to be mindful that different products may require different care. Ceramic plates may crack or break if they are dropped. Kevlar can deteriorate if it gets wet. Human sweat can degrade Kevlar and other products. Used body armor must be examined very carefully for signs of wear or weakening of fiber. All body armor must be properly stored and periodically inspected.
Protective gear is also available for covering civil unrest. Lightweight and relatively thin anti-stab vests can provide protection against knife attacks, rubber bullets, and other hazards. Baseball-style caps with metal plates are also available. Gas masks may also be worn, although in doing so journalists incur the risk that they could be mistaken for either riot police or demonstrators.
Be aware that in some countries, like Egypt and Thailand, body armor is considered a weapon and civilian use is illegal. As such, individuals can be arrested and prosecuted for using body armor. Always research whether it is legal for you to be in possession of such equipment before traveling. Local unions or press freedom groups often have this information on hand.
Choosing the vantage from which to observe a conflict is among the most important choices you may make. Thoroughly research the politics, history, and behavior of all armed groups active in an area. Cohesion, discipline, morale, training, firepower, and respect for civilians, including journalists, varies widely among different military forces, and among irregular forces such as insurgents or pro-government militias. Be aware that circumstances on the ground may change at any time without warning.
The term “embed” was popularized by the U.S. military in the early 2000s for journalists who arranged to travel with specific military units during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But journalists attaching themselves to military units to cover warfare goes back to the mid-19th century. Journalists who embed with any armed force are typically required to travel with the unit as ordered and avoid doing anything to reveal the unit’s location or otherwise compromise its security. But you should retain the right to report events, albeit after the fact, as you see fit. CPJ has documented a number of disputes over embedding arrangements. Military authorities and representatives of armed groups, for example, have denied access to journalists whose reporting was seen as unfavorable.
Those who report from any one side can also find themselves accused by another side of collaborating with the enemy. Decades ago, journalists were able to cover conflicts successfully from different sides in regions such as Central America. Today, both government forces and insurgents have detained or attacked journalists suspected of having relationships with their foes. In 2011, Ethiopian authorities imprisoned Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye on treason charges after they were found embedded with the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front. In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military forces detained numerous local journalists who were perceived as having had contact with insurgent forces. Some of those journalists were held for many months or years without ever being charged with a crime.
You face important trade-offs in determining whether to embed or to report unilaterally (that is, independent of military forces). Traveling with military forces provides you with exclusive access to frontline stories, but it can come at the expense of gaining other perspectives, including observing the impact of combat on civilians. Journalists traveling independently of armed forces may have a wider field of view. Fatalities are more common among journalists reporting unilaterally, but the risk of embedding with military forces should not be underestimated. Nine journalists were killed while embedded with military forces in Iraq from 2003 through 2009, while six embedded journalists died in Afghanistan from 2001 through 2011, CPJ research shows.
If you are embedded with a military force, be mindful not to stand out in a way that would suggest you are an officer or adviser. Snipers are trained to target the silhouettes of suspected officers within opposing military units. Journalists are sometimes required to wear the same uniforms as the combatants with whom they embed. Doing so does not compromise your professional obligations, but you should still wear or carry press credentials that would identify your status on closer inspection. Uniformed journalists should expect to be treated as enemy combatants by opposing forces; that includes situations in which you are separated from your military unit.
Journalists working unilaterally should also be aware of how their appearance and demeanor may look from afar. Photojournalists holding cameras or carrying gear have been mistaken for combatants, CPJ research shows. In 2003, machine gunfire from a U.S. tank killed veteran Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana as he was working outside Abu Ghraib Prison. One soldier later told investigators he thought Dana was an insurgent with a rocket-propelled grenade. If you are working unilaterally, choose clothing that does not resemble military gear and does not stand out from afar. Darker earth tones are preferable to brighter colors.
In covering armed conflict, be aware of the impact of real-time reports. What may be a compelling, fresh report to an audience far from the conflict zone may be perceived in the field as passing information to the enemy. Keep in mind that your professional role is to observe and report on the conflict, not to participate in even an inadvertent way.
Different rules of war apply depending on whether you are embedded or not. A credentialed, uniformed journalist legally becomes a part of the military unit with whom he or she is traveling, according to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Embedded journalists may be fired upon legally by opposing forces as part of the unit, and the individual journalist may later be detained legally and held for the duration of hostilities as a prisoner of war.
Prisoner-of-war status can be a benefit. POWs are legally required to be imprisoned away from hostilities, and they must be fed, given medical attention, and publicly identified as prisoners (as opposed to being held incommunicado), as well as being allowed to send and receive mail. POWs may not be charged with espionage or civilian crimes, such as entering a nation without a visa.
Journalists are entitled to cover armed conflict as civilians operating independently of any armed force, according to the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions. No civilian, including a journalist, may be legally targeted by any forces. But independent journalists face certain risks. Journalists captured while working unilaterally can be charged with civilian crimes such as espionage and can be subject to the potentially poor or abusive standards of civilian imprisonment.
Reporting on Terrorist Attacks
Terrorist attacks are becoming increasingly common and no region is immune. Explosions, marauding gunmen, knife attacks, vehicular rammings, and sieges resulting in mass casualties across the world are always in the news.
Journalists, both freelancers and staffers, are required to cover such incidents, often at great personal risk. In order to stay safe, journalists need to understand the dynamics of terrorist attacks and the threats that can materialize in highly fluid and violent situations.
When covering any kind of terrorist attack, positioning needs to be the key consideration. The journalistic goal will always be to get as close as possible to the attack. However, secondary attacks are a significant danger.
In January 2017, at least four journalists were injured in a secondary attack on a hotel in Mogadishu. As medics and journalists were arriving to cover the initial attack, a second bomb was detonated. In total at least 28 people were killed.
Remaining at the scene of a terrorist attack indefinitely can put you at risk of a secondary attack, especially if you are positioned next to the cordons around the attack site. It is always best to minimize your time at the scene: get what you need and then pull back to a safe location.
During marauding attacks, the key is to remain mobile and be able to move away quickly from a sudden threat. Risk assess every location and identify areas of safe refuge or exits through which you can escape if the situation turns dangerous.
At static locations, position yourself in a safe area with access control so people cannot wander around you. It is always sensible to seek an elevated area. Identify and communicate all exits in case evacuation is necessary.
In case of a secondary explosion, consider the building’s material and the material of surrounding infrastructure. During a blast, normal glass will shatter and can cause deadly injuries. Materials that splinter are also very dangerous.
Witnesses, survivors of violent events and those connected to individuals involved may be agitated or traumatized. “Journalists will always seek to approach witnesses and survivors, but journalists should do it with sensitivity, including knowing when and how to back off,” notes the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma in its guide, Tragedies and Journalists. More than anything else, this means respecting survivors’ wishes about whether they want to be interviewed or have their emotions recorded; demonstrating such respect, in fact, may well lead survivors to allow journalists greater access. Police and rescue authorities may also be traumatized. Understand that this may not be the best or only time to ask questions of either survivors or authorities.
Crowds may gather around the scenes of incidents, possibly posing a threat to journalists. People in crowds are often emotional; many could have loved ones involved in the incident and may be hostile to media intrusion. Carefully consider if they are potentially dangerous and amend your behavior according to the mood. It may be sensible not to intrude if the crowd is angry. Try to remain at the edge of the crowd rather than inside of it.
If operating at night, remember risks can escalate as people, particularly security forces, are often more jumpy when it is darker outside and their vision is restricted.
Always be your own judge of the risk level. If you are taking cues from others, make sure they are people who have a good sense of danger. Often at terrorist attacks, a large number of media arrive. It is possible that during such events, a crowd mentality develops among journalists and they can egg each other on. In these situations, dangers are sometimes ignored. The presence of others creates a false sense of security and everyone is taking the lead from someone else.
Interacting with armed groups at checkpoints is dangerous and unpredictable. Numerous civilians, including at least four journalists, were killed at U.S. military checkpoints in Iraq from 2003 through 2005. Soldiers guarding checkpoints often operate in fear of suicide bombings and other attacks.
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 also be advisable. Stay focused and alert when navigating unfamiliar roads, and be aware that checkpoint signs and signals can be nonexistent or confusing. Many checkpoint casualties have stemmed from poor or misunderstood communication. Some roads should simply be avoided, particularly at night.
Checkpoints set up by irregular forces, militias, or paramilitary groups are even more dangerous and unpredictable because of poor discipline and the absence of clear lines of authority. In Libya in 2011, four New York Times journalists were seized at a checkpoint operated by forces allied with Muammar Qaddafi and held for six days, during which they were assaulted and mistreated. Their driver, Mohamed Shaglouf, was killed.
Journalists may encounter drunk or impaired personnel at checkpoints run by combatants, including irregular forces; they may be ordered to produce cash or other favors in exchange for being allowed to proceed. Some journalists carry small denominations of currency, packs of cigarettes, or items such as inexpensive watches in their original packaging to offer as small bribes. Be mindful not to do anything that could escalate the situation or the soldiers’ demands. Engage on a level of mutual respect, without showing fear and with an overriding goal of safe exit.
Navigating checkpoints is a component of most journalist training courses (see Appendix B Security Training).
Satellite technology is a critical tool for journalists working in conflict zones where the Internet and other international connections are unreliable or have been shut down by authorities. In 2012, in the Syrian city of Homs--an opposition stronghold bombarded by government forces and effectively cut off by authorities seeking to quash news coverage--international and local journalists used satellite technology to file reports and communicate with news organizations.
American-born reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik, who had been working with other reporters in a makeshift press center, were killed along with Syrian civilians by government shelling in February 2012. Some journalists who had worked in Homs suspected Syrian authorities targeted the building, although the city was also under heavy overall bombardment. If government forces had targeted the building, they could have relied on several forms of intelligence, including the tracking of journalists' satellite signals.
Technology experts agree that satellite phones can be tracked with ease. Detecting radio frequency emissions is "relatively simple for a trained technician," according to SaferMobile, a U.S.-based nonprofit dedicated to helping human rights defenders and journalists use mobile technology more securely. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to Internet freedom, describes "ample" commercially available tracking devices. Satellite phones can also be tracked through their own built-in GPS devices. "GPS location data" may be "transmitted by the sat phone in the clear," noted SaferMobile.
Experts recommend strict protocols when using satellite phones in a hostile environment:
- Avoid using a satellite phone (or any radio frequency-based device) from the same location more than once.
- Avoid using a satellite phone or similar device from a location that cannot be easily evacuated in case of attack.
- Keep the maximum length of any transmission to 10 minutes. (Some experts warn that even this could be too long, as instantaneous tracking is at least possible.)
- Turn off the machine and remove its battery as soon as the transmission is over and before traveling.
- Avoid having multiple parties transmit from the same location.
Satellite transmissions, while encrypted, are not entirely secure either. In a 2012 report, for example, two German academics announced that they had broken two commonly used encryption algorithms. The U.S. nonprofit Small World News noted in its 2012 "Guide to Safely Using Satphones" that many governments are capable of defeating encryption. Use code words in highly sensitive transmissions, Small World News advises, or avoid satellite phones entirely for such communications.
If your satellite phone is confiscated, authorities or hostile actors can access critical information from its call log, phone book, and sent folder. Experts such as those at Small World advise that you routinely delete call logs and sent folders to protect your sources, and that you keep the sim card separate from the phone when not transmitting.