PH+SocialGood: How journalists can stay safe when covering conflict
MANILA, Philippines – For veteran journalists who took part in the Manila leg of the 2014 PH+SocialGood Journalism Forum, there is one golden rule in ensuring the safety of journalists: "No story is worth your life."
The unfortunate reality is journalists get killed for doing their jobs. In 2013 alone, 71 journalists were killed worldwide, with 39% of the incidents happening in war zones. France-based Reporters Without Borders also noted 8% of those killed are freelance journalists.
Some would say journalism is a noble vocation, but former Reuters chief operating officer Stuart Karle explained during the forum held on September 17 why it is of paramount importance for journalists to be safe.
"If you're a freelance journalist, don't go to Iraq. There are a few stories that are worth dying for. There are causes worth dying for. But as a journalist, if you are dead, you can't (do the story), you can't do anything," Karle said.
What can journalists – freelancers and correspondents alike – do to ensure their safety?
Veteran journalists gave their advice on how to be safe when covering sensitive situations. Here are some tips from Karle:
- Make sure people know where you are
- Make sure you have your passport and your details all the time
- Make sure people know how to reach your government
- Make sure you check in regularly. When you fail to do so, alarm bells go off because people start looking for you.
- Never believe completely when you get handed from person to person to prevent "hand offs"
Karle explained: "There are places in the world where you are asked to get off a taxi on this side of the hill, you go over, and take another one on the other side of the hill. That is a hand off. That is a very dangerous moment. You don't know who is on the other side of the hill. So make sure your fixer goes with you and make sure your fixer knows these people and check who's around there. What happened in Iraq and in Syria was because people taking the hand off started changing. They were basically professional kidnappers who would then sell people. And if it was somebody who's in for the money, that's a good sale because you could buy them out. We never had them (in Reuters) but other agencies did. If it was somebody who was out to make a point, which you've now seen a lot lately, that's helpless. You have to know who's going to handle you every step of the way."
- Never go somewhere unless you know how to get off
Karle elaborated: "It's hard because it could be speculative. Sometimes you can be on a boat for 5 days and then get off. There's no way to get off that boat for those 5 days. It's important to always know how you're going to get out."
Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, a counter-terrorism expert, has two main tips:
- Talk to veterans who are familiar with the area
- Learn to trust your desk
Ressa knows all too well the danger of going against the advice of the desk, both as a journalist and as a news manager.
Back when she was still a CNN correspondent, Ressa wanted to go to Pakistan to meet a source whom she had been following for a while, but she was prohibited from doing so.
"I was so angry at my desk for not letting me go to Pakistan. They stopped me. I had many exclusives at that point and this was an exclusive because it could have led me to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks). I was really happy they stopped me because two months after that (Wall Street Journal reporter) Daniel Pearl was kidnapped. And you know, Daniel Pearl was beheaded," Ressa said.
The tables were turned on Ressa when ABS-CBN senior broadcaster Ces Drilon was kidnapped, along with two of the network's cameramen, by the Abu Sayyaf in 2008.
Drilon and her cameramen were able to get out alive after 10 days of negotiations. Ressa, then head of the ABS-CBN news and current affairs department, suspended Drilon for 3 months for disobeying "explicit instructions" not to leave the city.
Helping each other
How can journalists help each other? Publicity is always an effective protective measure, said IndieVoices founder and North Base Media co-founder Sasa Vucinic.
"You can help by writing articles about them, professional support. Once it is known that they are threatening you, the situation changes," Vucinic said. "The only thing that threats cannot survive is public eye and people knowing about them."
In dangerous situations, journalists also tend to look out for each other, said ABS-CBN senior vice president for news and current affairs Ging Reyes.
In the case of the 2013 siege of Zamboanga, for instance, Reyes said their regional and Manila-based team all worked together to coordinate their coverage. During the onslaught of Typhoon Yolanda, rival networks helped each other in locating their journalists after massive floods wreaked havoc in Tacloban.
"Times like those, journalists take care of each other. There's no competition, network wars or stuff like that. They have no choice. They have to help each other. And that's what happened in many parts of the country and many parts of the world whenever journalists are faced with danger, they will try to protect each other. Of course, it helps if you have more resources," Reyes said.
Journalists are advised to always err on the side of caution when it comes to safety, but Global Center for Journalism and Democracy Executive Director Kelli Arena said there is no magic formula.
The dangers of the job are part of the reality that journalists must understand going into the profession.
"We are a target in certain places and that's not going to change and there is no magic formula to keep people safe all the time and as long as you realize that going in, that's how it's going to be. There's nothing more you can do about that except clearly follow the advice and the mark even if that sometimes doesn't end well," Arena said.
Despite the risks, there is no shortage of journalists who are willing to go out there to tell stories.
Egyptian journalist Shahira Amin became famous for quitting her job at the height of the Arab Spring to join the uprising against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
"I'm just very happy to say we're not shying away. We're out there covering the stories because this is our life mission. For a lot of us, this is what we do. And I could get threats from time to time from the national security apparatus but it doesn't stop me. I get intimidated but I wake up the next morning and say, you now, I have to go back and do what I do," Amin said. – Rappler.com
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The event is happening on Saturday, September 16. For interested participants, see more details here.