It is all very well to send journalists to far-flung warzones, but it is worthwhile training them to stay alive there too.
So there I am, struggling uphill, weighed down by a bulletproof jacket and helmet, a rucksack, a trauma medical kit hanging from my belt, thick army boots and enough thermal underwear to keep me warm throughout an entire Siberian winter. It’s starting to rain. This would not be a good time to have a heart attack.
On second thoughts, this is probably the ideal time to have one. Not far from me are three former British Special Forces medics who’re acting like Rambo and think I’m an extra in a sequel they’re filming. Suddenly one of them shouts he’s been shot and his stomach has fallen out.
This is our cue. Seven other unfortunates and I rush to his side. Actually the others rush – I just concentrate on trying to remain steady and not fall over.
Welcome to a ‘hostile environment training’ course for media personnel in the hills of Herefordshire, England. It’s a ‘must-do’ for reporters covering warzones. In fact, British insurance companies won’t insure journalists unless they’ve completed the week-long training and received a graduating certificate.
I’m a little late in doing one – after at least a decade of covering wars, my editors finally woke up to the fact that maybe growing up in Johannesburg doesn’t fully qualify one for knowing everything there is to know about working in some of the world’s most dangerous hotspots.
So that is why I find myself kitted out like Santa Claus on a bad day, worriedly peering into a compass that I’m probably holding upside down. It’s day three and each morning we sit in a classroom for six hours learning how to stay safe in riots, kidnappings and far-flung hellish places. In the afternoons we conduct practical exercises mostly geared towards first aid and trauma. Five days is not a long time, but it is enough to cover the basics.
Each day we’re divided into groups and sent off on missions – today we are to interview a commander of a Syrian rebel group – and be back before tea. The instructors camouflage themselves as government troops or Al Qaeda factions and set up roadblocks, kidnappings and other situations we could very well find ourselves in.
It was funny when they staged a car puncture and a woman was ‘bleeding’ and an elderly man drove past, stopped, and inquired if he could help – it kind of took the drama out of the moment. A colleague remarked, “Lord help the poor sod who sprains his ankle and has one of us assisting him – afterwards he’ll probably land up in a hospital emergency ward.”
But on a serious note there’s a lot that can go wrong when you’re on your own with a small crew in the middle of nowhere.
It wasn’t so long ago that I got caught in a demonstration just off Tahrir Square in Cairo. I was without body armour, cameraman, or any sense of where I was. I’d been on my way back from a rooftop live position to the hotel when mayhem broke out. The police were firing rounds of teargas and youngsters on either side of me were picking up bits of pavement and hurling them past me. There was nowhere to run. I was pushed up against a barricaded shop window and spent three harrowing hours crouching there with the tear gas stinging my eyes. I learnt a few valuable lessons that day. Always wear protective clothing. Know your exit points before venturing into a protest situation. Always have an emergency phone number to call.
Too many newsrooms are ill equipped when it comes to the safety of their staff. The statistics are sobering. According to the International News Safety Institute, 19 journalists and media staff were killed during the first three months of this year – mostly in Syria, Pakistan, Brazil, Haiti and Somalia. A total of 978 journalists have been killed since 1992, and 232 are imprisoned worldwide. Journalists continue to be targets. And while there’s no conclusive proof that these courses are diminishing the numbers, in the same way a soldier would never go to war without preparation, so too is it ludicrous to think of sending journalists to the frontline without any kind of training.
Gone are the days when emblazoning the word ‘media’ across one’s body armour would guarantee safety – in fact the opposite is happening. In Afghanistan, we wore blue vests while the American soldiers among whom we were embedded wore khaki. We stood out – especially to the many Taliban who felt the media were to blame and chose to fire at a colleague of mine deliberately.
Knowing about the country where one is being deployed is vital. In some regions working for a Russian network has protected me, while in other places it’s been far safer to keep quiet. I was once covering a protest in a Serbian enclave in Albanian Kosovo. The demonstrators were great fans of Russia but they hated the Americans. As usually happens, within a minute the demonstration turned ugly and the protestors turned on us.
Unfortunately, a group had heard me talking English a few moments earlier and now demanded to know if I was an American spy. Luckily we had a local fixer/translator (another imperative when covering dangerous zones) who managed to convince the crowd I really did work for Russian TV and we escaped.
A lot of media houses have woken up to the very dangerous world we live in and have a structured safety and security policy in place. The BBC, for instance, won’t deploy anyone unless they have a handwriting sample and three questions ‘for proof of life’ recorded. These are three questions only they know the answers to and which will help confirm identity in cases of ransom.
What to do in cases of emergency is paramount and is an issue that needs to be addressed – and of which all staff need to be made aware – long before a team is sent out. It includes making sure the head office has an accurate contact list of all the team’s mobile, satellite and landline numbers, making sure they check in at a particular hour every day and that there’s someone in head-office updated at all times over their movements.
I remember being in Tripoli when all the embassies were being evacuated. I was told it was my call – either evacuate with them, or stay – but with no idea how I’d eventually leave. If there was one thing I learnt from the Herefordshire course it was this: have an evacuation policy in place before your crew enters a dangerous area. Freelancers bear the brunt of this – pushing the boundaries of what is safe – with no back-up and more than often no insurance. There does, fortunately, seem to be a turnaround in some quarters. Networks are becoming more aware of the responsibility they have to the freelancers whose services they employ.
More and more newsrooms are also choosing to deploy teams with an undercover security guard. But it’s risky – and expensive. It also begs the question of using local security. In Afghanistan it cost us $1 000 a day to have a SUV with Afghans brandishing AK47s following us everywhere we went – it made us an obvious target. On a later trip we decided to ditch all the protection and travel incognito with local taxis. But these kind of decisions need to be made in advance – either through the advice of a security firm, of which there are many, or through the experience of staff members.
Many of these security companies offer updates in real time that provide concise analysis for journalists. The information includes which roads to avoid, if there’re any last minute political changes, safe hotels, and the like.
The hostile environment courses have been on the market for at least two decades. But even if one doesn’t participate in such a course, it’s vital that journalists deployed to dangerous places are given tips and support – it could ultimately mean the difference between life and death. n
Paula Slier is a South African-born international correspondent based in the Middle East.