Feb 27 2012

Mending the Holes in Your Safety Net

The terrible deaths of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik have drawn journalists’s attention again to questions of safety. What kind of risks should journalists take in order to cover a story and what responsibility do media vessels who use the services of freelancers hold towards their safety?

Syria’s uprising is one of the most fascinating stories of the passing few years. A country so closed, sealed and segregated that very few journalists ever entered it, a notoriously oppressive regime, the heroic courage of a people who suddenly rise against it and the shocking brutality on part of the government that tries to oppress it. All this in the context of the Arab Spring, of the tension between Israel and Iran and of the long shadow Syria casts over Lebanon. The interest in the story, however, is well matched by the dangers involved in covering it. The Syrian regime made its hostility to the media, local and international, crystal clear. Nobody in their right minds desires to spend time in any prison cells, let alone in Assad’s notorious dens.
Even a fleeting encounter in the street with Syria’s famous Muhabarat (intelligence services) can be highly unpleasant, to put it mildly.

A few GRN correspondents have been in Syria over the last few months, and we still have journalists reporting from there now. Normally no reporter lasts in Syria for more than a couple of weeks. Either they are made to understand in no uncertain terms that their presence in not welcome, and leave the country, or, if reluctant to take the hint, they get thrown out by the authorities. Yet others keep slipping in to take their place. This story is just too important to be left uncovered. Yet, the perils should not be overlooked or underestimated. How does one find the right balance?

It was a chilling coincidence that in the same week of the death of these two reporters in Homs, the esteemed Frontline Club in London sent out a survey asking journalists’ view on the question of their own safety and the thorny issue of responsibility. If you are a freelance, please fill it out:

One of the questions in the survey is “Is there any story worth dying for”. As a journalist in the field my answer to this question may have varied, but as an editor for GRN my answer is a loud and echoing NO.

Most of us may agree that broadcasters and newspapers who use the work of freelancers owe them support and compensation if they get hurt while reporting, but legally and practically the answer might be very different. Do not go into a dangerous zone without appropriate insurance. Furthermore, do not go anywhere without insurance. GRN can help you purchase reasonably priced insurance. If we commission you to go somewhere were we are short of reporters and hungry for coverage we might even pay for your insurance, but we can’t do it for all the correspondents on our lists everywhere.

Safety advice in different places vary. In some places it is advised to not move around alone. In others, not to be out after dark. All journalists with whom we’ve discussed the subject recently mentioned they always tell somebody trustworthy where they are going. When relevant, get a body armour and a helmet. In places where journalists are tracked and followed, make sure your communication channels are secure. It is well worthwhile investing in software that scrambles your location and obfuscates it when you email or otherwise communicate using your computer.

A subject not addressed by the survey, but is acutely relevant especially in places like Syria, is the safety of your sources and fixers. A western journalist who gets arrested will, in the vast majority of cases, get released and deported. However the local people, exposed by searches on computers, notepads and mobile phones, may be subjected to prolonged arrest, torture, and death. Get rid of your computer files as soon as you can by emailing them and deleting them, and code as much of the information as possible.

The Facebook group The Vulture Club group is a useful place to hook up with other journalists on the ground, post information about your location, and seek help of all kinds. Do request to join it.

And please post your safety tips here. I know we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg here, so this is mostly an invitation for you to share your experiences and ideas for safety and security.

And be careful out there.


  1. Henry

    There are a couple of other things to think about: In some places it might be worth not using e-mail or any electronic communications at all. Send bland text messages, prompting the recipient to check the ‘Drafts’ of a pre-arranged random Gmail account – if it’s in ‘Drafts’, the message should never been sent, so less chance of ever being intercepted. Also, do not use ‘smart phones’, pick up an old 2g Nokia handset from pre 2006 and a handful of SIM cards, keep changing, make calls while on the move – let us know, we’ll bill broadcasters for your phone calls. If you are shooting video, pass it on as soon as possible.

    Amazingly enough I used to be in the field myself – during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. One time I was arrested at a checkpoint between Sarajevo Airport and the city…I was a radio reporter at the time and was travelling with a snapper…we were accused of spying…fairly standard stuff. The bearded drunk waving an AK-47 who stopped us was bored….we had all our gear confiscated – at least so I thought, it turns out the photographer thought it would be a good idea to hang onto a ‘point and click’ camera in his top pocket.. We were very lucky they didn’t find it. There is a balance between telling a story and taking too much risk – it’s obvious really – the expression the army uses is ‘live to fight another day’…tactical withdrawal whatever….

    That said, I can quite understand staying on…

  2. Carmen Gentile

    The first rule of conflict reporting I learned from the seasoned war correspondents that mentored me: always err on the side of caution. If it feels wrong, don’t do it.

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