WORKING IN A WAR ZONE: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW, UNDERSTAND AND BE AWARE OF
The risks of the job are particularly serious for those journalists, whether freelance or staff, who have to travel to and survive in war zones. It is essential to prepare properly and not to underestimate the difficulties of an assignment of this kind.
Ten journalists recount their own experiences and pass on their advice.
“PLAN EVERYTHING CAREFULLY IN ADVANCE”
Iqbal Khattak, journalist and Reporters Without Border representative in Pakistan
“When leaving for any danger zone for a story, you need to have a prior permission from the media you are working for, or for which you plan to do the story. Then you need to ask yourself if are you trained enough to cope with any situation that may arise during your assignment. How familiar are you with the area? How well do you know the actors of the conflict? And what coping mechanisms do you have if you face any kind of problem? That has to be pre-arranged. It’s also very important to give your supervisor daily updates on what you are going to do during the day and how you plan to report back in the evening.
“You have to be very familiar with the traditions of the area you are going to. If you are not sensitive to the local culture, you may put yourself in serious trouble. So you should be familiar with the local dress, customs and traditions, and adapt the way you talk to people.
“If you are planning a visit to a no-go area, you need to know which group is holding the zone. Then you’d better ask the group for permission before heading there. And if there is more than one group claiming the area, you must be extremely careful because there will be inter-group rivalry and you may get caught in between.
“DON’T TRUST ANYONE”
Stéphanie Perez, senior reporter for France 2 television
“You should find out as much as you can. Call colleagues and workmates in the field who can give advice and recommend a fixer. Talk to diplomats, including those in the French embassy, who can give you an up-to-date snapshot of the country at the time you are due to travel.
“Wear clothes that are as neutral as possible: wide trousers, loose shirt or tunic, nothing that shows your figure. Stay in a group, if possible with a male colleague whose presence might deter any potential pests.
“Don’t trust anyone and always remain on guard. Even the seemingly nicest people can turn against you. Don’t tell your driver in the evening where you are going the next day, which might allow time for him to tell those around him. Wait until you are in the car before you tell him where you are going and don’t give him your itinerary for the day, only from one hour to the next. Your fixer knows the area, so you should listen to him. If he believes something is wrong and you should turn back, don’t push your luck.
“During violent demonstrations or riots, wear a helmet as protection against stone-throwing. Avoid narrow streets and make a mental note of the main roads so you can make your escape, or shops where you could take shelter if need be.”
“I ALWAYS ASSUME THAT WE ARE BUGGED AND MONITORED”
Christophe Boltanski, senior report for the news magazine l’Obs
“In any dangerous environment, your fixer is key. He will be your interpreter and can also warn you of any danger. You should choose someone you trust. It is also important to have a good driver and a decent car. A mechanical breakdown can be serious, and if this happens in the wrong place, it’s even worse. It’s best not to cut corners.
“As far as cyber-security is concerned, I always assume that we are bugged and monitored and the best things is to keep anything potentially compromising on USB sticks which you leave at home before leaving. When you are on assignment, always keep your notebook on you. You can use code words or pseudonyms to protect your sources.
“When there is a risk of abduction, such as in Baghdad, it is advisable not to make any advance arrangements to meet people. Also, it’s best not to stay too long in one place when you are interviewing someone. Stay half an hour then leave. Sometimes you just have to rely on your gut feeling and, if you don’t feel entirely comfortable, just say “that’s enough, I must go” without making a big thing of it.
“To maintain stability in your family life whenever you are away on assignment, I believe you should talk about it with your children, reassure them, send them photos of where you are, show them your hotel, your room and the people you are with – if you are able to – to downplay the dangers.”
“A SECRET FACEBOOK COMMUNITY FOR JOURNALISTS”
Oksana Romaniuk, Reporters Without Borders representative in Ukraine and executive director of the Kiev-based NGO Institute for Mass Information
“We’ve had experience with very tough protests in Maidan (Square, in Kiev). At first we told journalists to identify themselves with an orange emblem. But we soon realized that Ukrainian police officers were targeting these local journalists and their orange stickers. So we decided to make black and white stickers that read PRESS in English, for journalists to wear on their helmet or jacket.
“Then police were afraid to shoot because they could be faced with a foreign journalist and they did not want to get into trouble… We know that in some cases that helped. Identification should be removable, like a sticker, in case you’re in a crowd that’s hostile towards journalists.
“Of course, you should also wear convenient shoes, trainers to be able to run. At first we had building hats. These can protect your head once from a stone, but they fall off easily. So, with the help of Reporters Without Borders, we bought snowboard helmets.
“They are perfect – they protect you from rubber bullets and stones. We also had ballistic glasses against rubber bullets, and masks and respirators for tear gas. We used a secret Facebook community for journalists: on their mobile phones, reporters were able to check their positions, send alerts and run to help one another.”
“NEVER TRAVEL ALONE”
Paul-Stéphane MANIER, documentary-maker and TV journalist, member of the Reporters without Borders administration board
“If I have one piece of advice, it’s never to travel alone. Always be embedded with someone who is responsible for your safety, whether it’s regular troops or a rebel group. If you feel that the authorities are doing everything they can to prevent you from going to the theatre of operations, you can take your chances and make your own way there.
“But it is a good idea to find some way of making sure the other side knows that you are going to be there, so that they don’t take you for someone disguised as a journalist who has come to deliver weapons for example.
“When your route is blocked by fighters who would kill you for your watch, you should keep a low profile and not try to be too clever. And be patient. If you are held against your will, you have no idea how long this will last.
“You should cooperate, but you must never give up the names and addresses of those who might suffer as a result. You should memorise as much as you can and only keep a few phone numbers in your address book. Leave your laptop or your smartphone behind and take hardly anything with you.
“One day, in mid-assignment while everything was going well, an alarm bell sounded in my head, telling me ‘careful – your luck might run out’. That’s when I gave up war reporting. I will never know whether my instinct was right or wrong, but I’m still here and that’s something!”
“YOU MUST BE MENTALLY STRONG”
Martine Laroche-Joubert, senior reporter for France 2 television
“Most conflict zones are unpredictable places. You should travel with a photojournalist you get on well with and who has the same idea of danger as you, someone you trust and you can rely on if things go wrong. Neither should put any pressure on the other – that would be a recipe for disaster. You should have decent shoes and be fit enough to run if you have to.
“When I’m in Syria, my iPhone is turned off and I leave it outside the border, in Turkey, so that Bashar Al-Assad’s troops, with the help of the Russians, can’t use its signal to track me down. And if I contact my newsdesk using a satellite phone, it’s only for 10 seconds at a time, just to say “I’m OK” before hanging up.
“The most important thing is your state of mind. It is normal to be afraid in the face of danger. Fear can produce the right response. But you must not panic. Panic is contagious and will lead to wrong decisions. You must be mentally strong and be with people who are also mentally strong. It can happen that you find yourself having to stay in hiding for hours, unable to move. You must be able to wait it out without panicking.”
“IN CAPTIVITY, THE MAIN THING IS TO BREAK THE ICE WITH YOUR JAILERS”
Martin Schibbye, Swedish freelance journalist who spent 438 days in jail in Ethiopia
“Always have a plan and prepare for the worst. When my photographer and I were arrested in Ethiopia while we were reporting on a group of rebels fighting for independence, we had set up a system whereby we reported home every 24 hours by telephone, and if we lost contact, our colleague at home would sound the alarm.
“That worked. And when she got news that we’d been arrested, she immediately changed the passwords to our email and social media accounts. That’s a good thing to do, because during a tough interrogation you might give those up.
“In captivity, the main thing is to try to break the ice and establish some kind of personal contact with your jailers and make them see you as a human being. What we did in the beginning was talk about football – that’s really the international language – talking about Sweden and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
“Joke with people, without questioning their authority. Cooperate with them. And they may take all your clothes and humiliate you, they may torture you, but there’s one thing they can’t do and that is to take away your right to decide who you are. You’re a journalist and you can take a teaspoon of cement and think about how you would tell this story.
“Try to steal a pen and paper to take notes and hide them. And get some physical exercise in your cell, however narrow. You can jump up and down, walk in figure eight (so you don’t get dizzy), and recite poems and songs by heart to give you strength.”
“WHEN YOU ARE UNDER THREAT, IT IS IMPORTANT TO HAVE AN INTERNATIONAL SUPPORT NETWORK”
Dina Meza, investigative journalist and Reporters Without Borders representative in Honduras
“In Honduras, freedom of expression is fragile and journalists are repressed. The newspaper I work for is monitored. I regularly get death threats and my own family is threatened. My car has been sabotaged, our lawyer was killed, I have had to move house several times. My family spends half its budget on safety precautions. It has been difficult, but how could I leave our country to my children in this state? That’s what keeps me going.
“I protect myself by making sure I am never alone. I have armed guards outside my house. I never arrange meetings by email or telephone, I always take out my phone battery before I meet anyone and I only go when I have checked that I am not being followed.
“I only arrange future meetings face-to-face. Before I meet someone, I check their background thoroughly beforehand in order to avoid a potential trap, but also to see to what extent the person concerned is putting himself or herself in danger by talking to me. You must always be aware of the risks you and your contacts face. I encrypt my data and save them on several memory cards which I hide in safe places.
“When you are under threat, it is important for protection to have an international support network to make people more aware of you. If you feel the danger you face is too great, you should consider leaving, and also, for example, getting trained in cyber-security and finding allies so that you are better equipped to return later.”
“ALWAYS BE AWARE OF WHAT’S HAPPENING AROUND YOU”
Emmanuel Sérot, technical editor in charge of security at AFP
“There’s safety in numbers. Our trainers tell people ‘you can go faster alone but further in a group’! We generally travel in teams comprising text, photo and video journalists, with a driver and a fixer. If need be, we appoint a “go to” person for security, who is not necessarily the most experienced member of the team but someone who knows the terrain and speaks the language. In such cases, we have a security meeting every morning. The fixer gives his input and the newsdesk is informed. “
When you are approaching a suspicious-looking checkpoint, you sometimes have a brief moment when there is still time to turn round and make a getaway. This is why you should always be aware of what’s happening around you.
“Anything out of the ordinary — for example an empty road or heavy traffic in the opposite direction, an unexpected crowd of people or stationary vehicles – could be a sign of trouble ahead before checkpoint guards have seen you. In any dangerous situation, we recommend activating the alarm on the tracking system that all our journalists working in hotspots are equipped with.
“Knowing that senior editors have been alerted can affect how we manage a difficult situation.”
“SHOW HUMILITY AND RESPECT”
Alain Mingam, photo-journalist and member of the Reporters Without Borders administration board
“Journalists are merely witnesses, but also attractive targets for monetary gain and, increasingly, for political reasons. So they must be careful when using mobile phones, which can pinpoint their position quickly thanks to geolocation technology. Protection of one’s sources and encoding one’s data are therefore essential in order to avoid putting contacts in danger.
“Freelancers should be aware that the adrenaline rush they want to win recognition can put them into danger. The crisis in the media and cut-throat competition among journalists can sometimes drive them to take excessive risks and thus become more vulnerable.
“My last piece of advice is to show humility and respect, and to follow the rules of decency and the customs of the country you are in. Being patronizing and scornful will only put the journalist and all his or her colleagues in danger.”