Teaching International Journalism, Part 6 - Surviving the Game
All Reporting Road Trips Can Be Dangerous
As you start going on perilous assignments or malaria-infested adventures, it's important to think of your safety and health, to stay alive. When going on road trips, stay away from water which isn't bottled, and even then look twice before you drink, make sure the bottle is sealed and was never open; stay away from fruits and vegetables, besides bananas or unless cooked, and make sure to wear long sleeves at night if in a mosquito area. Always have the latest antimalarial medicine which works best for you in case you get severe chills or a head you can't lift anymore.I once wrote in this blog about a 35-year-old French foreign journalist in Ivory Coast who suddenly died of malaria.
Generally, before any arduous reporting trip, try to be well rested. And at the first sign of serious sickness, start drinking plenty of safe, bottled water. It's the best medication. If you are feeling low-energy, try to sober up for a few days, to get your full energy back. You don't want to be road tripping at less than 100 percent.
Here's an interesting six-part video series on photographers who survived conflict journalism, but barely.
The Most Dangerous Areas in the World
Dangerous reporting can happen anyplace, anytime. I believe the most dangerous is in a conflict zone in an area which is being fought over, where no one is in control, and where you are in between front lines, or the lines are unclear and continually shifting. This is where typically journalists get killed or kidnapped. The same goes for a standard riot. If you are in between the rioters and security forces, chances are much higher you will be hit by a bullet or by a rock. It's best to be on the side, above, or behind one of the lines attacking the other.
Also going into areas where whoever is in control is clearly hostile to Western journalists is also extremely treacherous. There are many other dangers lurking in your life as a freelance foreign journalist. Here's a list compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists:
Battlefield hazards such as crossfire, landmines, cluster bombs, booby traps, and artillery and air strikes; terrorist bombings; abduction for ransom or political gain; dangers posed by crowds, including the possibility of sexual assault, theft, tear gas attack, or violence; traffic hazards (the leading cause of unnatural deaths worldwide); border crossings and other interactions with potentially hostile or undisciplined armed groups; physical surveillance leading to abduction or identification of sources; electronic surveillance and interception of information or sources; potential trustworthiness and loyalties of sources, drivers, fixers, witnesses, and others; common crime, including the types of incidents; natural hazards, such as hurricanes and floods; and health risks ranging from water-borne diseases to AIDS.
Here's a video explaining what type of preparations you can make before embarking on a reporting trip to a dangerous area, including obviously getting to know the culture, the major players, the risks, and the lines you shouldn't cross.
All-Inclusive Security Guides
The CPJ has an entire security guide. Generally, I would say, always be fast on your feet when in dangerous areas, never hesitate, always go with your gut feeling, and be with your team, rather than with others you can't control.
This is why despite what many journalists do, I would never "embed" with any military or armed group, since that would put me in the line of fire of their enemies. Many journalists embed, but it's something I resisted during my time covering war and civil strife in Africa. Here's a Wikipedia entry on the practice of "embedded journalism."
Other very reputable organizations also have inclusive security guides or offer safety training sometimes for free, such as INSI, the International News Safety Institute. Here's a safety pact for freelance journalists by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, with plenty of tips on dealing with violence and a downloadable publication.
Here's a multi-chapter guide by Reporters Without Borders, including a hotline to call if a journalist is in danger.
An Increasingly Dangerous Profession
Following the recent execution of a freelance journalist by ISIS terrorists, there were a slew of articles on the dangers of freelancing in the world's most dangerous areas, such as this one, or this one and this one.
Sadly, I've know many journalists who've been killed, some whom I was working next to the day before. It seems the profession has gotten more and more dangerous, much like the conflicts journalists cover.
It's always better to get out alive and whole. But even when escaping death and serious injury, journalists often times go through harrowing experiences. Here's an article on the dangers covering the conflict in Syria. Here's one about more and more journalists, not being killed, but prosecuted. Here's an article about a journalist getting kicked out of Iraq,and one who just got kicked out of China. Sometimes charges are dropped, but sometimes they aren't and the journalist is sentenced to a very uncertain future in jail.
Some of My Own Experiences
On one of my trips to rebel-held northern Ivory Coast (photo above), everything was going well, until I ventured into an area where illicit gold and diamond mining were apparently taking place, and there were two rival rebel groups controlling a town I was driving through. Even though I had "rebel visas" to enter the area, one of the rebel groups was trying to assert more control or something at the time I was coming through. I was basically kidnapped, brought to a rebel leader's house, and forced to watch Chuck Norris films, while they wondered what to do with me. (I am not making this up). They then decided to drive me somewhere in a pickup truck, and I was put in the back of the open bed. Luckily, the area was being patrolled by Romanian peacekeepers, and when I saw them down the street, I started waving my arms frantically. After quickly reacting and driving up to us, and asking who I was, they strong-talked the rebels into driving me back to my car and letting me go. I decided not to try to go to the illicit diamond mines on that trip, as for me that was far enough into my comfort zone. Others might have pushed on.
If you do go to an extremely dangerous conflict zone, here's a primer on resources, organizations which offer hostile environment training and tips. I once took hostile environmental training from one of the top organizations which offers these sessions, and didn't find it useful at all. Basically you have to be extremely street smart, remain calm in the face of adversity and know how to smell danger and quickly get out before it's too late. Never argue with someone with a gun pointed at you. This seems obvious but was not followed by a journalist I worked alongside in Ivory Coast, Jean Helene.
Here is one of my own experiences of surviving a very bloody day in Abidjan, one year after that journalist had been killed. There was even an apparent plot to shoot down my car, while I was trying to investigate the existence of a possible mass grave. I was stopped by several tanks, and for me, to remain alive, that was the line I didn't cross. Here is a blog posting about being around vigilantes with guns and the heartbreak of being surrounded by AIDS. Some journalists have no lines, and survive, but others who keep pushing those lines, do unfortunately get killed while working. Others just keep tempting fate, while others have the worst luck.
If you enjoyed this lesson plan, here are all the chapters in My Guide to Teaching International Freelance Journalism.
Part 1, Geographies
Part 2, A Brief History Until Today
Part 3, Before You Go
Part 4, Potential Clients
Part 5, When You First Arrive
Part 6, Surviving the Game
Part 7, Books and Films To Educate and Inspire
Part 8, Perceptions
Part 9, Ethical Considerations
Part 10, Migrations and the Other
Part 11, Going Glocal
Part 12, Musings, Behind the Scenes and Critiques