Before setting off on an assignment in a dangerous area, you must be prepared physically, mentally and logistically. This means gathering information, assessing risks, choosing “fixers” and trustworthy contacts, and working out safety and communications procedures for use while you are travelling.
1. LOCAL KNOWLEDGE AND RISK ASSESSMENT
Find out as much as you can about the place where you intend to go, such as security and social, political and health conditions, as well as the climate, media and infrastructure. Familiarise yourself with the culture, customs and codes of dress and behaviour. This will help you better understand your surroundings and integrate more easily.
To gather as much information as possible, you should contact:
- Local news organisations and colleagues who are already there or who have recently returned. Through word of mouth you should be able to find a fixer and a driver, as well as somewhere to stay and places to go. There are journalists’ discussion groups on social media for exchanging advice, such as the Vulture Club on Facebook.
- Diplomats from your own country and representatives from the United Nations or NGOs working in the area.
- Researchers, humanitarian workers and military personnel familiar with the area.
- More experienced journalists – ask them how they would approach the assignment.
- Find out what permits and accreditation you need for the country or region. The bureaucracy could be tedious and time-consuming, but once you arrive in the country or find yourself stopped at a checkpoint, you will be relieved that you have the right permits.
Assess the risks carefully
Before leaving, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I know enough about the place where I am going? In particular, am I aware of how they behave towards women, towards different social or ethnic groups, and so on?
- Is the subject sufficiently newsworthy to justify the risks that I am taking?
- What are the potential risks and how well prepared am I to cope with them?
- Have I worked out a procedure to stay in contact with my newsdesk and my family?
- Do I really want to go and am I physically and psychologically ready?
Know your limitations: if an assignment appears difficult and you do not really want to go, speak to your manager or a family member. Listen to your instincts and do not force yourself to go.
The BBC, and the Rory Peck Trust which helps freelance journalists, both recommend carrying out a written assessment of the hazards that the assignment might entail and the steps that can be taken to minimise them. These might include health, climate, infrastructure, crowds, conflict, risk of kidnapping, bomb attacks, etc.
The Rory Peck Trust (www.rorypecktrust.org) and the International News Safety Institute (www.newssafety.org) have checklists and sample documents on their websites to enable you to carry out your own risk assessment and establish a procedure for communicating with your newsdesk and other key contacts, so that you can keep them informed and sound the alarm in the event of an emergency.
Risk of embedded reporting
In order to cover an armed conflict at close quarters, many journalists recommend being “embedded” as a safety measure. This means asking a military unit, either from the regular army or a rebel group, to be embedded with them for the assignment and thus benefit from their protection. However, there is a danger of coming under fire or attack from the other side. For this reason, it is recommended that embedded journalists take extra care in areas of gunfire and always wear clothing that distinguishes them from the troops, avoiding battle fatigues and carrying a sign with the logo “PRESS” or “TV”. It is worth recalling that journalists working in areas of armed conflict are considered as civilians under article 79 of the Geneva Conventions (see Appendix 1) and should be protected as such, provided they take no part in the hostilities. Journalists should also be aware of the danger that may come from within the group in which they are embedded. Women journalists, in particular, should take account of the risk of being sexually harassed by regular or rebel soldiers.
2. HEALTH PRECAUTIONS
Only travel to a dangerous area if you are in good physical and psychological health. Plan well in advance. Some vaccinations must be carried out three weeks before departure.
Visit you doctor for a complete health check-up. Tell your doctor if you are taking medicine or if you are pregnant or liable to become pregnant. Some medicines may be contraindicated if you are.
- See a dentist. It’s a good idea to avoid toothache while you are in a war zone.
- Update your vaccinations and note them in your international vaccination card.
- Be aware of your blood type and any allergies you may have. Note these in your identity documents.
If you are taking medication, ensure that:
- You have copy of your prescription with the international generic name of the medication.
- You have twice the quantity of medication required for the duration of your mission.
- You keep your medication within reach.
Update your standard vaccinations:
- Diphtheria, tetanus, polio
- Whooping cough
- Measles, mumps, rubella
Country-specific vaccinations – some are compulsory (seek advice from the health authority in your home country)
- Yellow fever (sub-Saharan Africa and Amazon region)
- Typhoid fever (developing countries)
- Hepatitis A (developing countries)
- Hepatitis B (for long trips)
- Rabies (for remote areas)
- Japanese encephalitis (rural areas in India and Southeast Asia)
- Tick-borne encephalitis (temperate areas of Central and Eastern Europe)
- Meningococcal meningitis groups A+C+W135+Y (Sahel. Compulsory for Mecca)
Visit http://www.pasteur.fr/en/ for recommended vaccinations by country.
Malaria is a major health problem worldwide, mostly in the tropics and especially sub-Saharan Africa. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says there are 200 million cases a year and at least 500,000 deaths. Steps to prevent it vary according to the part of the world and the length of stay. Just as for tourists, it is based on:
- protecting against mosquito bites (repellent sprays, mosquito nets)
- taking pills throughout the trip and upon returndiagnosing fever and managing attacks.
3. FIRST AID AND HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT TRAINING
You are advised to take a first aid course and refresh your knowledge regularly. The course, which may be given by the Red Cross or Civil Defence, will teach you how to respond in an emergency. On its BBC Academy website, the broadcaster has posted a video that demonstrates how to deal with, for example, severe bleeding from a lower limb or a chest wound.
Some editors and insurers also encourage journalists to undergo hostile environment training, which usually takes several days and is supervised by former soldiers. The journalists learn, for example, how to detect mines and how to move around in a combat zone, and are subjected to a simulated kidnapping. Private companies usually give such training courses, but the French Defence Ministry also provides two per year that are free of charge. The organisation RISC (www. risctraining.org) also provides free training, financed by donations, for freelance journalists working in dangerous areas.
There is a list of such organisations in Appendix VII. The International News Safety Initiative, launched by the International News Safety Institute (INSI), organizes courses in countries such as Egypt, Lebanon and Democratic Republic of Congo, where the dangers for women are especially significant. Its courses are constantly adapted to take account of the challenges that women face in their country. No course is identical, but all take hostile environments and cultural factors into consideration. There is a list of organisations offering courses in Appendix VII.
4. FINANCES, FORMALITIES, FAMILY: SET OFF WITH PEACE OF MIND
Insurance If you are working as a freelancer, make sure you have insurance to cover illness, repatriation, disability and loss of life. Take time to compare policies and make sure they are compatible with the conditions of your assignment. Some do not cover risks associated with war, terrorism or demonstrations. Find out whether the policy can be changed while you are on assignment, for example to add another country or risk category. Keep your insurance company’s emergency contact details on you and make sure you know the procedure to request repatriation in the event of an accident or health issue. Also give your key contacts this information before you set off. Note: RSF offers insurance coverage tailored specifically for journalists going on dangerous assignments (see Appendix VI).
Finances, estate and personal life
Before leaving, settle all financial and business affairs that could be a cause for concern during your assignment, such as your tax declaration or life insurance. You should also try to settle any disputes with family or friends to prevent unresolved quarrels from affecting your morale or concentration while you are away.
If you are kidnapped during your assignment, one of the first things your abductors may do is to enter your name in a search engine to find out more about you. For this reason we suggest you have a thorough clear-out (see Chapter 4):
- Leave with as “clean” a digital identity as possible, online as well as on your laptop and smartphone. Bear in mind that women, in particular, may be subjected to harassment, blackmail and smears. So don’t carry family photos, for example.
- Determine what are the most significant risks and the most sensitive data.
- Install digital safety tools and learn how to use them.
As you could lose your identity documents during your assignment, or you may need to prove at some stage that you are a journalist, not a spy, you are advised to create your own password-protected private Web page to which you should upload some of your personal documents (such as your identity card, passport and medical prescriptions) and information about your status as a journalist (such as your press card and a letter of assignment from the editor). To create this page, all you need to do is open a blog on a free platform such as WordPress, create a page or an article, upload your documents, then, in the advanced settings, select “Visibility: Private” or “Password protected” before publishing. You could also just create a new email account specifically to host a copy of your documents: upload these in a draft and memorise the password to that new account (Note: this password must be unique and must not make it easy to guess the passcodes to your other accounts). In case of abduction, you could tell your abductors to check that email or that web page to confirm your identity.
5. PREPARING YOUR KITBAG: CHECKLISTS
Keep a basic kit for reporting in high-risk areas. This basic kit shows the key items to take in high-risk areas. It has been put together by the AFP news agency with help from specialists, including military experts, and ideally should be kept packed at all times and ready to be adapted and topped up according to circumstances.
- Press vest and bulletproof vest (If your employer has no bulletproof vests, they can be borrowed from various organizations including Reporters Without Borders.) Press vests and bulletproof vests designed for women are available.
- Light helmet
- Insulated blanket
- Coloured glowsticks / lightsticks
- Snap links
- Toilet waste bags
- Multi-function tool
- Head lantern with white, red and blue beams
- Dark rucksack with several pockets and loops for attaching accessories
- Gas mask
- Oxygen mask
- Multiple plug adapter
- Strong adhesive tape
- Super glue
- Hand and ear warmers
- Compressed tee-shirt
- Protective eyeglasses
- Pocket flashlight
- Wind-up flashlight
- Zip lock bags
- Flat Swiss-style knife
- Saline solution
- Foldable cutlery Earplugs
IMAGE © AFP
- 2 USB flash drives for a quick backup
- 1 universal charger for use in a car
- 1 international adapter for electric sockets
Banned: anything in camouflage print and knives (use a multi-function tool instead)
- Important documents (also take photocopies)
- Passport, valid for at least six months. If you are travelling to countries with incompatible visas, consider obtaining a second passport.
- Press card
- A card showing your blood type and any serious allergies
- International vaccination card
- International driving licence
- Road maps and city street maps
- List of emergency contacts, including your newsdesk, consular authorities, hospitals, assistance organisations etc.
- Local and international currency in small denominations, distributed among several pockets
Clothing: discreet, durable and appropriate for the climate
- Comfortable, solid and waterproof walking boots
- Light, neutral-coloured trousers (not khaki)
- Tee-shirt – for women, a long, loose-fitting shirt or tunic
- Jacket of a neutral colour (not khaki)
- Waterproof jacket
- Scarf or head covering as a protection against sand, tear gas etc.
- Bracelet with blood type marked on it
- No valuable objects such as watches, gold chains or rings
- A whistle in case of personal attack or to indicate one’s presence
AFP suggests having two kitbags. The idea is to be able to run about 500 metres or yards with the entire load on one’s back. The bags should not be too heavy and should have many pockets. One, containing nothing essential, can be left is a hotel room while the second is carried at all times. Don’t forget that anything inaccessible is useless.
In the first bag you should have:
- A sleeping bag suitable for the temperature, and a mosquito net in areas where malaria is endemic
- A spare pair of light shoes such as trainers or running shoes
- Spare trousers
- A shirt for more formal occasions
- Three or four spare pairs of underwear
- Personal care items: soap, toothbrush, micro-fleece towel (for quick drying)
- Sanitary protections for women
- Small packets of wipes
- Combination padlock
- A tube of Super Glue to repair broken equipment
- A small sewing kit
- Small zip lock bags for waterproof storage
In the second, which you should keep on you, you should already have your basic kit ready:
- Important documents and money
- Phone kit: charger, battery, international power adapter. Your emergency number should be stored on a shortcut key
- Notebook and pencils
- Sunglasses, hat and sun cream
- Anti-bacterial hand gel
- Water purification tablets
- Mosquito repellent
- Packets of wipes and tissues
- Small zip lock bags for waterproof storage
- Safety equipment:Press armband or other removable ID
- Gaffer-type tape to use for writing PRESS or TV on any surface
- Protective equipment such as bullet-proof vest and helmet
- Noise-reducing earplugs
- Swimming goggles for protection against tear gas
- Mask that covers the face and nose
- Survival equipment
- Swiss knife
- Head lantern with spare batteries or wind-up type
- Cereal or energy bars
- Bottled water
- Survival blanket
First aid kit:
- Medication; painkillers, antidiarrhoeals, broad-spectrum antibiotics, antispasmodics, antiallergics, antimalarials. If possible, take products that can be administered without water.
- Tourniquet to stop bleeding in an emergency. Make sure it is practical, light and can be applied with one hand, i.e. on oneself.
- Haemostatic cushion for use on haemorrhages. This should be used instead of a tourniquet where possible and can be applied to wounds to the head, neck and body.
- Antiseptic, for disinfecting wounds.
- Adhesive sutures for cuts
- Sterile compresses
- Microporous sticking plasters
- Dressings that can be cut to size
- Emergency scissors for cutting clothing or dressings
- Compression bandage
- Elasticated bandage
- Gel for burns
- Instant cold packs to relieve bruises and sprains
- Protective breathing mask
- Protective plastic gloves
- Saline solution suitable for use on the eyes and in the nose
- Safety pins
- Plastic bag for rubbish
REMEMBER BEFORE LEAVING
Make sure you are vaccinated, in good health and trained in first aid and safety Assess the risks of the assignment and prepare for the worst Ensure your family is forewarned and safe Draw up a checklist of what you need to take.