THERE is nowhere that journalists are forbidden, according to veteran filmmaker and writer James Brabazon, speaking at the May meeting of the London Freelance Branch about reporting from restricted countries. "The areas where people least want you to report are the most interesting to report from." He should know, Brabazon's journalism has taken him to over 60 countries, many of them conflict zones officially closed to journalists.
Brabazon, now series producer for Channel 4's Unreported World, said that the key to working in hostile environments is to plan around possible threats to getting the story: "More and more people are going to places that are life-threateningly dangerous without thinking about what could go wrong. It's impossible to do anything about the threats, but what you can do is understand how that threat is going to affect your objectives and how you mitigate those risks."
The process of risk assessment begins the moment you apply for your visa: "Wherever you're going, at the point you write ‘tourist' on your visa application form, because that's the easiest way to get one, you've signed your name to a lie. That immediately makes yourself and the people you're working with vulnerable," said Brabazon.
Award-winning freelance journalist Ramita Navai, who's reported from Iran, Afghanistan and Iraqi Kurdistan amongst other places, said there are opportune times when authorities allow journalists entry into difficult countries, such as during an election or natural disaster. Navai also said it's crucial to know your rights and she advised getting to know local journalists and authorities who can help in difficult situations.
Navai also said journalists must be mindful of cultural traditions: "You will be monitored when you don't know you're being (monitored). In some countries, if a man taps a woman on the shoulder, this will get the woman in trouble. It sounds very obvious but I've seen journalists make mistakes and these can get you in prison."
Both speakers emphasised that journalists have a duty of care to their contributors: "I'm still having bi-weekly conversations with a fixer I worked with in Egypt two years ago", said Brabazon: "The authorities know about him and at some point will decide that they want to use that film as a stick to beat him with, literally, not figuratively."
Navai said she's often asked if it's harder for women journalists in difficult countries; "You do have to take extra safety precautions, but actually, being a woman has its advantages. We get to report stories that men simply don't have access to."