In conflicts past, Western journalists could move almost invisibly from one side to the other to get the real story. But veteran war correspondents say that is no longer the case; journalists are increasingly becoming targets in hostile environments.
To better arm themselves in the hot zones of today, the Committee to Protect Journalists has put together a safety handbook titled “On Assignment: Covering Conflict Safely.” The 31-page guide, released in late February and available at CPJ’s Web site (www.cpj.org), provides an overview of security and biochemical training courses, protective gear, health precautions and ways to minimize risk in conflict areas.
“We’re trying to lay out strategic concerns to help journalists prepare themselves for a variety of situations,” said handbook author Frank Smyth, security program coordinator at CPJ. The organization monitors abuses against the press and promotes press freedom worldwide.
A decade after publishing a safety guide for journalists covering the war in Yugoslavia, CPJ decided to update it to reflect changes in technology and tactics. The new guide is also more general than the earlier publication.
One of the biggest changes is that reporters may encounter biological or chemical weapons, Smyth said. He strongly recommends journalists take biochemical training as well as security training. Companies that offer these courses are listed in the handbook, as are those that provide protective gear, armored vehicles and health insurance. A listing of hot spot information sources, such as Zero-Risk International and International Crisis Group, also is included.
“In El Salvador, the most you thought you might need was a bulletproof vest,” said Smyth, who covered the region in the 1980s. “Now, if you are going to Iraq, you’ll need much more than that.”
Since the cost for a five-day training course exceeds $2,000, the guide also lists foundations that may help reporters foot the bill.
The murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl last year also changed the ground rules for all journalists in hostile territory, Smyth said. For the first time, correspondents are at heightened risk for being set up. CPJ, which will publish a longer manual on reporting under sustained risk later this year, offers some basic guidelines in the handbook for staying safe.
Staying in touch is one key. Reporters should tell their editors their itineraries every day, and they should consider working in groups whenever possible. They must be cautious when using the telephone and computers in case they are being monitored. Also, correspondents should be aware of their behavior and their dress so they do not make themselves conspicuous or do something provocative. Never carry a weapon.
For some, the conflict doesn’t end when they return home. The guide cites a 2001 study that shows war correspondents exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress that are even stronger than police officers and firefighters. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (www.dartcenter.org) refers reporters to professional counselors worldwide.
Though they might have spent years abroad, veteran journalists can benefit from the handbook, said David Wood, national security correspondent at Newhouse News Service, who has covered conflicts in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and Afghanistan.
“For people who’ve already been doing this, it’s a wake-up call,” Woods said. “You’re not as safe as you pretend you are.”
In addition to looking at CPJ’s guide, reporters may want to review the International Federation of Journalists’ handbook, “Live News: A Survival Guide for Journalists.” IFJ, a Brussels-based press freedom group, is launching on May 3 the International News Safety Institute, which will promote safety training, materials and assistance for the media.
Released in February, IFJ’s 135-page manual includes preparation tips, such as staying physically fit and bringing the right clothing and equipment. Should you carry a white flag with you? Yes, says IFJ.
It also covers traveling with or without escorts, taking cover, becoming a target, positioning during a riot, surviving an abduction and tending to injuries. The guide also discusses post-traumatic stress disorder.
The handbook is available at the federation’s Web site, www.ifj.org.
Reporters covering conflict need training, especially since most people today are not as familiar with war and the military as their predecessors were, said Newsweek correspondent Roy Gutman, who won a 1993 Pulitzer for his Bosnia coverage for Newsday.
“It’s important that reporters feel as confident as they can without being overconfident,” said Gutman, who recalled having to search for his own flak jacket while covering the Balkans. “These safety handbooks try to guide you into reducing the risks so you can be a little less uneasy.”
Tami Luhby is a reporter at Newsday in New York.