By Patrick Egwu
Journalists around the world work under extremely difficult conditions and threats. In some countries, journalists are targeted and treated as endangered species. In Africa, journalists continue to face growing attacks and threats from state actors and their security agents especially for their stories that expose corruption, human rights abuses and holding the powerful to account. Amid these growing attacks, it is important that journalists learn useful tips that could help in keeping them safe from these threats while doing their work. This article will offer and explain some of these tips.
Getting insured: Most journalists work under extreme conditions without adequate welfare and insurance. Salaries and welfare packages are poor and sometimes delayed. In most cases, they have no insurance coverage for medical issues, accidents or death. And when something goes wrong in the field for example, their families are left to bear the burden alone due to unavailable or inadequate insurance plans. Therefore, it is important that media organisations and employers provide adequate and special insurance cover for journalists and other auxiliary media staff on their payroll. This helps to take care of their expenses in cases of medical emergencies, accidents or terminal injuries. “We can’t take our safety for granted as journalists,” says Lekan Otufodunrin, the executive director of Media Career Development Network. “Before we sign our employment [or freelance] contracts, we need to pay attention to issues like this.”
Personal security: It is important to do a thorough risk and security analysis of the location you want to travel for your story. This is important especially in hostile environments and crisis zones. Ask questions from fellow colleagues who have recently or previously travelled to such cities, villages or countries and hear what they say. Their firsthand experiences and knowledge of the terrain will be an additional resource for you. In speaking with sources while in the field, “Decide wisely where a good meeting point for you and your sources could be,” says Theophilus Abbah, a media researcher and programme director at Daily Trust Foundation. Abbah adds that a journalist’s editor or management should always be aware of their investigation so they can monitor and follow up if the safety of the journalist is at risk.
Know local laws: Every entity or place has laws or rules that guide and regulate the conduct of individuals. This is why before you travel to any place for a story, it is important to learn and know the local laws of the city or country or the people you want to write about such as libel, defamation, privacy and indigenous laws. This takes you steps ahead and will help you and your media organisation avoid a possible legal battle. Some repressive countries have introduced different laws to gag the activities of journalists and a deep knowledge of these laws and rules will help to prevent a legal suit. It is also important to know the laws of the subjects or topics you are working on. For example, before doing a story on tax evasion, you should know the different tax laws that exist and define situations in which an individual is guilty of not disclosing his tax returns.
Digital security: As a journalist, digital security and literacy are two of the most useful skills you should learn and be conscious of especially in this digital age. A simple hack or system malfunction can threaten your file or make you lose all your vital documents and information. In worse cases, hackers could access your devices and use the information they access to blackmail you. Digital skills and actions like two-factor authentication, unpredictable passwords, encrypting devices and files will help protect your vital documents and files. In reporting risky stories, always ensure your GPS locator is turned off to avoid giving away your location. Autocratic regimes and administrations often track the location of journalists through advanced surveillance technologies.
Keeping records: Record keeping is an integral part of a journalist’s daily life and safety. Therefore, it is important to keep an accurate record while pursuing a story. These include; written notes in journals, personal computer, iPad, phone digital notes, voice/sound records. Abbah notes that these “must be as accurate as possible, dated and filed in such a way they can be recovered when necessary.” In cases of emergencies for example, written notes recordings can help in showing trails/traces and in uncovering some hidden details about the work of the journalist such as the people in his contact whom he spoke to at every given point, meeting locations and other vital personal details that connect the story in some ways.
Security training: For journalists covering hostile environments or taking up risky assignments, security training is an essential part of their tool kits and go-to resource. Some of this training includes the Hostile Environment Training [HEFAT] which is offered by experts and nonprofit organisations like the Rory Peck Trust, BBC, the ACOS Alliance and the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma. This training provides journalists with a lot of skills and resources to navigate difficult situations while in the field. The training normally covers risk assessment and situational awareness; emergency first aid; digital security, legal matters and trauma awareness with an emphasis on resiliency-building and science-informed techniques for managing stress and mental health. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of webinars and courses on personal security have been organised by media nonprofits and every journalist should seize the opportunity to learn new skills that could be a lifeline while in the field.
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