Journalism can be a dangerous job and we are increasingly seeing journalists being attacked both online and on the field. Jeff Belzil, International Women’s Media Foundation security director held a webinar to prepare journalists for covering civil unrest and reporting safely within their communities. 

He gave a number of useful tips to be aware of.

How not to stand out during looting and protests when taking pictures as a journalist 

  • Personal awareness is important when taking pictures or interviewing sources. Have situational awareness  – awareness of your surroundings and environment – looking around to see if anyone is watching you. Make them aware that you have also spotted them and are aware of them then change your standing position because they are counting on the element of surprise. If you can move away from where you are and look out for security forces then head in that direction. If you remain in that spot you may get attacked but finding security personnel may dispel or discourage them.
  • Work in teams if possible. Pair up with a photojournalist on the scene and stand with your backs to each other. Find a ‘back watcher’ – someone who can literally watch your back while you work and can’t see what’s happening behind you. Sometimes you will have to pull away when things get too dangerous and retreat back to safety then come back to that scene much later.
  • Staying indoors is where you are most at risk of contracting Covid-19. The risk is lower when outside, but still make sure to have a mask.
  • Try to avoid reporting within your own community, it’s too dangerous, you’re too exposed. It is where you live and it will be difficult to protect yourself. Rather let a colleague do it.

Protecting yourself online

  • Facebook: Have two accounts, one that is public for work and professional connections and another one that is private where people cannot find your friends, and relatives and see your pictures and information.
  • WhatsApp: Don’t put your full name on your profile or pictures where you are recognisable. 
  • Instagram: Have a public and private account. Don’t post pictures of your home, neighbourhood, or hangout spots on your public accounts. It will be easy for your habits to be traced.
  • Do not click on images or links sent to you via WhatsApp, especially WhatsApp groups. They can activate malware on your phone.
  • Have a security WhatsApp group of no more than 15 people. Tell them where you’re going and for how long. Establish a secret code word that they will know immediately when you are in danger and need urgent help.
  • Don’t be tapped or hacked: have a personal and professional phone (a burner phone). Install spyware on your gadgets. Have a pin code on your phone.

Staying safe reporting on politics

  • Don’t give out your personal phone number, get a cheap phone or secondary sim card for calling sensitive contacts. 
  • Never meet at a source’s home or your place of residence. Don’t go straight home after speaking to sensitive sources, you could be followed and you don’t want them knowing where you live. 
  • Where possible don’t use your car to go to the location, use public transport. 
  • Try to book meetings/interviews 24 hours in advance, not a week or more in advance. You want to have the meeting last minute. 

How to manage risk?

  • Perform a risk assessment: Ask yourself what is the threat?  Are you going to be attacked? Can I be caught in the crossfire? Will it be a violent protest? Is there a possibility of sexual harassment? Am I exposed to petty crime, armed robbery, or carjacking? Are there any identity-based risks such as doxing?
  • What are you going to do to mitigate this? Go with someone. Arrive early and have protection or protective gear. Avoid distractions. Practice scenarios and have third-party awareness. Have two exit routes.

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How does your profile affect your safety?

  • Identity: Be aware that you can be targeted based on your race, skin colour, gender, religion, and sexuality.
  • Appearance: the type of clothing you are wearing may bring attention to you. If you are not dressed like the average person you’ll stand out. For example, wearing military gear, personal protective equipment (big body armor, helmets, etc.), camera bags and large cameras. Use an ordinary backpack so as to not attract any attention.
  • Behaviour: Practise situational awareness when taking pictures and conducting interviews. 

What to wear out on the field while reporting

  • Wear running shoes with good support
  • Avoid military clothes
  • Avoid long ponytails, they can be used to attack you
  • Avoid lanyards
  • Avoid nylon, polyester or acrylic – when there is fire you could burn easily. Cotton is better
  • Keep your press ID on your waist
  • Avoid too many straps on your bags

What to carry to volatile assignments

  • A respirator or gas mask
  • Eye protection
  • Head protection
  • Identification
  • A medical kit
  • Body armor and a helmet in extreme cases
  • Face masks (N95)

Belzil gave these final tips:

  • Try to film from higher ground or above a crowd
  • Know your limits and when to get out
  • Working after dark is more dangerous
  • Learn to read the crowd and try to stay on the outskirts if it is risky
  • If individuals are staring or being verbally abusive, keep your distance from them
  • Work as a team when shooting pictures 
  • Try to arrive earlier



Tips for journalists’ safety in Africa

How to: Staying safe online for journalists

An interview with Hopewell Chin’ono



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