Reporting conflict? Do it safely!

  • Don't enter a conflict zone unless you've had first-aid training.
  • The biggest risks are not bombs or bullets - but sickness, disease and vehicle accidents.
  • Carry cash - but be aware that this can also make you a target.
  • There's no such thing as a bullet-proof vest.
  • Have an organisation behind you.

The Dangerous Assignment briefing hosted by the Journalists@YourService centre in Brussels in November 2001 saw Andrew Kain from UK personal security advisers AKEgroup and Patrick Van Der Water of the Belgian Armed Forces explain the risks to personal safety for journalists working in conflict regions. Here are some of the key points.

First-aid the first necessity

"Don't go to a conflict region unless you've taken a first-aid course". Andrew Kain and Patrick Van Der Water both agree that this is a vital first step in preparing for a hazardous assignment. Says Van Der Water, "the first moments after injury are vital to survival", explaining that operating a "buddy" system could save your life. "If your foot is blown off by a mine, you want to know that your camera person knows how to deal with the wound." And first-aid training is an ongoing responsibility, one that needs updating every year.

Biggest risk not bombs or bullets

The greatest risks to personal safety come not from bombs or bullets, but from sickness, disease and vehicle accidents. This is the overwhelming evidence from journalists returning from the front line, states Kain. "Illness can slow you down and make you more vulnerable", he says, and cerebral malaria can kill.

In chaotic situations, journalists need to take extra care over the basics. Taking your own personal water purification kit is relatively cheap, and "for the cost of a filtration system and a water bottle, you can avoid a lot of the most common medical problems". Portable malaria diagnosis kits are already coming onto the market; with these you can detect the disease early and commence treatment immediately. But "take the pills", he advises, despite sometimes unpleasant side effects.

Don't make yourself a target

Not making yourself a target is critical. "At 50 metres, a journalist can easily appear a threat." And, "if you travel with the military, you identify yourself with them by association. So don't travel at the front of convoys, and don't travel on top of vehicles."

If you're wearing a flak jacket and helmet, let alone a camouflage jacket, you can easily appear to be a soldier, especially in conditions of low light like dawn and dusk. And with technologies such as night-vision and heat-sensing equipment in wide use among the military, "it's no use hiding behind a bush". As such equipment shows only silhouettes, it is vital to not to appear threatening.

Another risk is the opportunity that your presence poses for banditry. A group of journalists in a house with expensive equipment and a lot of cash can be a tempting target for outlaw elements. You need to consider what kind of security you are going to have within the conflict zone. And when you have to use cash take only enough for the deal, and handle it discreetly.

Know how to use equipment

Both stress the importance of knowing your equipment, how to use it and its limitations. "There's no such thing as a bullet-proof vest", says Van Der Water. What you may get issued with is a flak jacket, which reduces the risk from shrapnel and other flying debris but is not proof against bullets. If you are issued with one, do it up properly. A flak jacket hanging open at the front is worse than useless - it's a target.

You are not necessarily safe when inside a vehicle, he explains. "You may think you're protected travelling in an armoured vehicle, but they won't stop rounds from a an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade)." Nor are you secure if the vehicle tips over and you're not wearing your seat belt. Groups on a Belgian Army training course are shown what happens to a minivan when it is hit by an RPG round.

Accountability - your person is valuable

Accountability is a key issue, states Kain. "You have to make people understand that there will be a comeback if you are killed or injured." Those who threaten you need to know that they will be held accountable, he says. The better-known you are as a journalist (especially within the region), then the safer you are.

One participant pointed out that freelances are therefore even more vulnerable than staff journalists. They are likely to push the limits further in trying for a story or for a shot. And they are also the most at risk if caught by hostile forces. It is a necessary prerequisite therefore to have the backup of an organisation behind you when in the danger zone.

Training reduces the risks

"The big media organisations know that giving journalists personal safety training will save them money," says Kain. "It costs a lot less in the long term to ensure their staff are safe." Safety training is not a panacea, he says, but gives journalists a better understanding of what is happening on the ground and so reduces the risks.

"Never, ever, use a weapon of any kind" is one of the final points. If you pick one up, others know how to use it better than you. And if you do know how to use it, then you are endangering other journalists. Sometimes, it seems, the best defence is innocence.

Last modified: 08 December 2001 - © 2002 contributors
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