Never have so many different types of journalists reported the news on so many different platforms. Yet no matter the form of journalism—from investigative to beat reporting, foreign correspondence to domestic coverage, blogging to photojournalism—thorough preparation is the starting point.
No matter what your beat is, understanding the risks involved in every story is crucial to staying your safe. Before any assignment, you should undertake a risk-versus-reward assessment to evaluate whether the story is worth the danger.
Everyone wants to push the boundaries of journalism and get to the story. But sometimes the price can be too high. In order to stay safe, it is essential to know when to pull back from a situation, or even when not to publish a story.
Remember that obtaining the right access to a story plays a huge role in ensuring your safety. Finding an individual with the right leverage to introduce you to the key players in a story can make the critical difference, even in the toughest of environments.
Carefully research your assignment or beat. Learn the terrain, history, players, dynamics, and trends by drawing on diverse viewpoints. (See the sections below on Foreign Correspondence and Domestic Journalism.) Be versed in the culture, mores, and idioms of any group being covered. Language skills are very helpful, especially knowing basic terms and phrases. Develop a list of potential news sources across a range of perspectives. Draft detailed contingency plans in case of emergencies, identifying exit routes and trusted contacts you will keep updated on your location, plans, and work details. (See Chapter 2 Assessing and Responding to Risk.) Other valuable preparatory steps include obtaining appropriate health insurance as well as vaccinations (as explained in the sections below on Insurance Coverage and Medical Care and Vaccinations), understanding information and communications security (as covered in Chapter 3 Technology Security), and receiving appropriate conflict training and equipment (as described in Chapter 4 Armed Conflict).
Thoroughly researching a foreign destination before traveling there is essential to staying safe. Closely review news reports reflecting a range of perspectives, diverse academic sources, travel and health advisories from the World Health Organization and other governmental or multilateral agencies, and reports on human rights and press freedom from both government and nongovernmental sources. Common travel guides can provide essential information about cultures and their mores. Before traveling to a location, especially for the first time, seek the advice of journalists with experience in that locale. Situation-specific advice from trusted colleagues is crucial in planning an assignment and assessing risks. If you are inexperienced in the profession or new to a particular location, you might also consider asking seasoned colleagues if you can accompany them for a time as they work.
Make every effort to learn basic expressions in native languages to enable daily interactions and to show respect, both of which can enhance your security. Research travel routes out of the area along with the status of available medical facilities. American University’s Foreign Correspondence Network provides a list of diverse resources that can help in your preparation.
Always prepare a security assessment in advance of a potentially dangerous assignment. Before departing, establish clear points of contact with editors, colleagues, and family members or friends. Your contacts in the field should know how to reach your family members and editors; your relatives and editors, in turn, must know how to reach your local contacts. Research in advance where you might want to stay, the state of the communications infrastructure, and the possibility of surveillance. Decide how you intend to communicate with editors and others at home—by landline telephone, Voice over Internet Protocol, chat, or email—and whether to choose pseudonyms along with some kind of code system, forms of encryption, or other secure means of electronic communication. (See Chapter 3 Technology Security.) Before departure, arrange or develop specific leads for fixers, drivers, and translators. Use great care and diligence in vetting local support staff, and be sure to seek recommendations from colleagues. Because your safety is often in the hands of support staff, it’s essential that you choose trustworthy, knowledgeable individuals. Journalists aspiring to embed with military units should make contacts and arrangements before they go.
In many nations, it may be wise to have someone meet you at the airport and escort you to your initial lodging. That will allow you to acclimate and avoid unfamiliar hazards such as unsafe roads or criminals. If you are being met at the airport, be sure that you have a photograph and the mobile number of the individual meeting you. Call them and visually establish that they are really the person they are supposed to be. Do not simply trust that the person holding a board with your name is who he or she says they are.
Choose lodging in advance. Your choice of a hotel or other lodging depends in part on the profile you want to keep. Large hotels catering to business clientele often provide high levels of security but may tend to raise your profile. Western hotels are also more likely to be targeted by terrorists groups. Choosing a small hotel or private lodging allows you to keep a lower profile, which may enhance your ability to carry out an assignment. Such lodging, however, typically has lower levels of security or none at all. Avoid rooms or lodging with balconies or windows that can be accessed by intruders. Always plan exit routes in case of emergencies.
Large hotels also provide services such as wireless internet, although connections can be compromised in repressive countries.
Recommended security training or equipment such as body armor should be obtained in advance. (See Chapter 4 Armed Conflict.) Prescription medication should be packed in original, labeled containers in carry-on luggage, the World Health Organization advises. You may wish to pack duplicate medications (along with contact information for your physician) in other bags in case your carry-on luggage is lost or stolen. Liquids over three ounces or 85 milliliters must be packed in stowed luggage to clear most airport security inspections. You should also carry an international vaccination card as well as official documentation of your blood type and any allergies or other medical conditions. Identify the availability of medical care in the reporting area, including the locations of hospitals, clinics, and primary-care physicians.
Appropriate clothing, including foul-weather gear, should also be purchased before departure. Journalists operating overseas should choose earth tones or dark colors that will not stand out at a distance and are distinct from the blue used by law enforcement or the army green or camouflage colors used by military units. Any journalist expecting to cover a moving story by foot must have supportive footwear, a sturdy backpack, and comfortable sleeping gear. Break in footwear before arriving on assignment. Pack gear that may be hard to find in less developed nations; such items could include batteries, flashlights, notebooks, tampons, dental floss, a compact first-aid kit, antiseptic, and athlete’s foot cream, as well as pouches or devices to hide money. (See Appendix A Checklists for a more comprehensive list of gear.) Journalists should make sure that they have access to cash in either U.S. dollars or euros. The International Federation of Journalists recommends carrying a dummy wallet filled with official-looking cards and some cash in case you are robbed.
Your passport and any required visas should be up to date. The passport should have at least six months before expiration and enough blank pages for visa stamps. You may also wish to obtain an international driver’s license in advance from a reputable provider. Having an international license, along with a license from your home jurisdiction, is required in some nations and may make it easier to rent cars in some locations.
While foreign journalists face significant logistical and security challenges, domestic journalists face more severe threats to their lives and freedom. Nearly nine in 10 work-related fatalities since 1992 have involved local journalists covering news in their home countries, CPJ research shows. And more than 95 percent of journalists jailed worldwide are local reporters, photojournalists, bloggers, and editors, according to CPJ research. The need for thorough preparation and security planning is especially acute for domestic reporters.
If you are new to the profession, a beat, or a particular type of assignment, you may wish to seek out experienced colleagues for advice and potential mentoring. With permission, accompany a seasoned colleague for a time as he or she works; you can gain valuable hands-on knowledge by watching a veteran at work. You should research all applicable press laws, including statutes governing access to public information, access to private property, libel and slander, and the restrictions on content that many repressive countries seek to impose. Countries such as Ethiopia, for example, consider the mere coverage of opposition groups to be an antistate crime. China imprisons writers who are critical of the central government or the Communist Party. Dozens of journalists each year are jailed worldwide on such antistate charges. Even if you choose to push content boundaries, you need to know the restrictions and the potentially significant implications of going beyond them.
Beat reporters covering politics, corruption, crime, and conflict are at particularly high risk of attack or imprisonment, CPJ research shows. If you are covering a beat, you should invest time in understanding the security implications of your topic; identifying the major actors and learning their motivations; and understanding the ramifications of going beyond red lines that are enforced through statute or violent, extralegal means. Editors should allow journalists who are new to a beat enough preparatory time for them to meet sources, talk to experienced colleagues, and learn practices and terminology relevant to the topic. A crime beat, in particular, demands an understanding of law enforcement procedures. (See Chapter 5 Organized Crime and Corruption, and Chapter 6 Civil Matters and Disturbances.) On crime and other high-risk assignments, you should develop a security assessment in consultation with editors. (See Chapter 2 Assessing and Responding to Risk.)
Freelancers should understand the potential risk of an assignment, along with the news organization’s ability to provide support. Don’t hesitate to turn down a risky assignment.
If you are a freelancer considering an assignment for a domestic or international news outlet, you should have a clear understanding of the potential risk and the news organization’s ability and willingness to provide support if you encounter trouble. You should always develop a security assessment prior to a potentially dangerous assignment, enlist reliable security contacts, and establish a precise procedure for regular check-ins. (See Chapter 2 Assessing and Responding to Risk.) Freelancers should not hesitate to turn down a risky assignment. In some highly repressive countries, you may be forbidden by law from working as a journalist for an international news organization. Know the law and the implications of working for foreign news media. In a number of other countries, you may not wish to be identified in a byline or credit line. You should understand the implications of having your name appear on a story produced by a news organization based in a country seen as an adversary. Clearly convey to the assigning outlet your wishes about being identified.
All local reporters should learn what professional support is available. A number of countries have effective professional organizations that can provide guidance about laws concerning the press, along with practical advice on certain assignments. If you encounter trouble, some national organizations are also able to intervene on your behalf or publicize your case. You should also be aware that international groups such as CPJ and Reporters Without Borders can generate global attention and advocacy in case of harassment or threats. (For a listing of local and international groups, see Appendix E Journalism Organizations. The International Freedom of Expression Exchange maintains a comprehensive list of groups.)
If you are asked to work as an interpreter or fixer for an international journalist, get a clear understanding of the risk inherent in the assignment. Make sure you understand in advance whom you are seeing and where you are going. Evaluate the international journalist with whom you may work, assessing their experience, track record, and tolerance for risk. Consider the perception of appearing in a hostile area with a reporter from a country that is seen as an adversary. Understand that you can turn down an assignment, and understand what level of support the assigning journalist or news outlet can provide if you encounter trouble. Get a clear understanding of your role in an assignment. Are you being asked to interpret and provide logistics? Or are you also doing reporting? The latter has additional security implications that you should understand.
For all types of local reporters and fixers, news outlets and their editors should clearly explain the role that the individual is expected to play and the legal and security support the organization is able to provide if a problem occurs. Editors should understand that a local journalist may turn down a risky assignment, and accept that judgment without penalty to the individual. News outlets must consider their ethical obligation in assigning a local freelance reporter to a dangerous task.
Independent bloggers, videographers, and citizen journalists have emerged as important providers of news, particularly during the Arab uprisings that began in 2011. In Libya and Syria, where authorities blocked international media access, local citizens came forward as independent journalists. Some filmed government crackdowns and posted footage online, while others disseminated breaking news through independent blogs, micro-blogs, and social media. In heavily restricted areas, their work opened a window through which the rest of the world could view the conflicts. Several of these journalists paid with their lives. In Syria, independent videographers Ferzat Jarban and Basil al-Sayed died in apparent targeted killings; in Libya, the founder of an independent website, Mohammed al-Nabbous, was shot while streaming live audio from a battle in Benghazi.
Independent bloggers and videographers should develop a network of professional and family contacts that can be mobilized in an emergency. The London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting has helped citizen journalists organize local networks in the Balkans and the Middle East. In many nations, such networks must be created in a manner that protects the identities of their members. (See Chapter 3 Technology Security for detailed information on how to communicate securely.) Prepare a security assessment as described in Chapter 2. Independent bloggers, videographers, and other citizens taking up journalistic work in times of crisis should understand the acute dangers of working without institutional support and operating largely on one’s own. Rigorous security planning, including the use of safe communication and the practice of making regular contact with colleagues and relatives, is vital.
Obtain press credentials before reporting, as you may need to prove your status upon demand. Many news organizations issue credentials on request to contract employees and other freelancers. At the very least, freelancers should obtain from an assigning news outlet a letter on the organization’s stationery that states their affiliation. Various journalist associations and trade groups also issue press credentials to qualified individuals who join their organizations, including the National Writers Union and the National Press Photographers Association, each based in the United States, and the International Federation of Journalists, based in Belgium. The Frontline Freelancers Register plans to begin issuing credentials for international freelance in 2018. Many press associations in other nations do the same, although independent bloggers can still face difficulty in getting credentials. Independent bloggers may find that compiling a portfolio of their journalistic work can help them make a case for obtaining press credentials.
You should also research and obtain press credentials from municipal, regional, or national authorities, recognizing that officials may issue credentials on a selective basis in an attempt to influence coverage (See Chapter 6 Civil Matters and Disturbances). Press credentials from a local police department could prove useful when you’re covering a local demonstration. Credentials may also be needed to take pictures or record events in public buildings such as state capitols or national assemblies.
Journalists traveling internationally should also research and inquire whether they need a journalist visa to report in a country. The answer is not always clear. In such cases, journalists should speak with other reporters and government officials to determine how best to proceed. In many instances, journalists have traveled to restrictive countries on tourist or other non-journalistic visas as a way to circumvent censorship and effectively carry out their work. Journalists should, however, weigh, potential legal consequences.
“In countries where the government might place restrictions on foreign reporters, you need to weigh those limitations against the consequences of being caught without proper accreditation,” according to a fact sheet on credentialing compiled by journalist Michael Collins for the U.S.-based Society of Professional Journalists. “In the end it’s a decision only you can make, but when dealing with the police, armed forces, or other officials it’s almost always better to have official accreditation.”
Military authorities sometimes issue their own credentials to journalists. Government military forces as well as rebel armed groups may require a journalist to obtain written authorization from a superior officer in order to clear armed checkpoints. These authorizations can range from a letter signed with a group’s official seal to the business card of a commander who writes a brief note on the back. Be mindful of which credentials and authorizations you show at any given time. One group may perceive the possession of a rival’s authorization as a sign of enemy collaboration.
Journalists working internationally should travel with multiple photocopies of their passport, credentials, and any accrediting letters, in addition to extra passport-size photos.
Securing adequate health and disability insurance is among the more difficult challenges faced by many journalists. Staff journalists working domestically should thoroughly review any policies provided by their employers for conditions and restrictions. Contract journalists should attempt to negotiate for coverage with their assigning news organization. But freelance journalists may have to find and pay for coverage on their own; they should take the time to research plans that fit their specific needs. (A surprising number of journalists, from community radio reporters working in less-developed nations to war photojournalists working for major Western media, routinely work with little or no health insurance, as dozens of working journalists have told CPJ.)
Journalist associations in more affluent nations may offer access to different health and life insurance plans. The Society of Professional Journalists offers a number of insurance plans, including hospital income insurance, major medical insurance for severe and long-term injuries, accidental death or dismemberment benefits, and disability income insurance. The SPJ plans are not available in all U.S. states and are not available to journalists working outside the United States. The National Writers Union and National Press Photographers Association offer insurance plans to their respective members.
Journalists working internationally have some options. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) recommends a scheme called Insurance for Journalists.com that provides traveling journalists with online insurance for accidental death and disablement, sickness, medical evacuation and, if necessary, repatriation. Reporters without Borders offers a scheme to its members that offers various insurance options, including for older journalists. U.S.-based reporters, Brazilians residing in Brazil, and Canadians in Canada are not eligible for the RSF insurance plan.
UK and EEA journalists are also able to take advantage of a scheme offered by Voyager Traveler Insurance. High Risk Voyager is a specialist online Travel Insurance product for individuals and groups traveling to high risk territorial zones such as war zones, crisis zones, and disaster relief zones.
A number of private insurance brokers and firms also offer health, disability, and life insurance to travelers, including journalists working internationally; the costs and coverage vary depending on many factors. (See a listing of potential providers in Appendix C Insurance Providers.) Thoroughly research your options and review the policies for possible restrictions, such as exclusions for injuries resulting from acts of war or terrorism. The World Health Organization recommends that international travelers confirm that their insurance covers changes in itinerary, emergency medical evacuation, and repatriation of remains in case of death. Keep in mind that coverage of long-term injury or disability may be the most important part of any plan. Coverage for contingencies such as emergency medical evacuation can be prohibitively expensive, and evacuation itself may not be possible in major war zones or extremely remote areas. In such cases, journalists may have no choice but to rely on locally available medical treatment.
Keeping physically fit and maintaining a proper diet are primary preventive measures. Journalists expecting to be abroad or on remote assignment for any significant length of time should consider pre-departure visits to medical professionals, including their primary care physician, dentist, optometrist, gynecologist, or physical therapist. Any necessary dental work, in particular, should be resolved before leaving.
If you’re going abroad or on remote assignment, it’s important to take care of your health. Visit your primary care physician and other medical professionals in advance.
If you plan to work internationally, consult with a qualified physician or clinic that caters to international travelers to ensure you receive all recommended vaccinations in advance. As proof of vaccinations, make and carry photocopies of a signed and stamped yellow-colored International Certificate of Vaccination as approved by the World Health Organization; this certificate is available from almost all qualified clinics. Some insurers, the World Health Organization says, may require proof of immunization as a condition for emergency medical coverage or repatriation in case of emergency. Some nations may require proof of vaccination as a condition of entry; check the requirements of specific nations.
Know your blood type and carry a blood donor card or other medical card that clearly indicates it. Those working in hostile environments may wish to wear either a bracelet or a laminated card around their neck indicating their blood type and any allergies. Anyone allergic to drugs such as penicillin should always carry or wear a prominent card, bracelet, or other identification alerting medical personnel to the allergy. If you have any life threatening allergies, let your colleagues know. In nations with especially high rates of HIV infection, some Western embassies maintain blood banks open to embassy staff and other nationals visiting the nation. Journalists may have the option to donate blood with the understanding that the blood bank would be made available to them if necessary. Be mindful of the risks of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.