Danger: Journalists at Work - IFJ Safety Manual


Working in a trouble zone presents myriad potential dangers for a journalist, snipers, stray bullets, car bombs, mines, kidnappings, ambushes, to name a few threats. Staying alive, avoiding injury, jail, expulsion or other perils - and still getting the story. That's the problem.

The lessons learnt by journalists over the years and risk awareness and first aid training can cut down the risks. An increased level of awareness based on an understanding of the threats and potential threats will enable journalists and media staff to reduce exposure to danger.

Staying out of trouble

No story is worth your life. You are more important than the story.

If you are clearly threatened, get out fast.

Be careful about reporting from both sides of a conflict. Crossing the battle zone is dangerous.

Avoid bias for one side or the other. You are a professional, not a participant.

Don't take obvious notes in public. Never pull out a microphone or notebook without permission. Get the story out of people conversationally first. If they turn funny at least you have something in your head.

Do not show detailed interest in military equipment. Never draw maps of military establishments or positions in notebooks. Keep the details in your head.

Stories in remote locations far from authority and medical assistance present added risk.

Remember that an irresponsible or ill-informed act may not only put you in danger, but could have repercussions on colleagues.

Know your destination

Find out all you can about the country / region / area you are traveling to - its recent history, the people in charge, the people involved in the story. Find out who hates whom and why.

Distrust what you read about your destination in other publications, however highly regarded. Everyone gets things wrong. Take nothing for granted. All over the world, what was conventional wisdom yesterday may no longer be true today. That is what news is about.

Find out about any laws that are in force restricting freedom of movement, the right to interview people and take photographs or film.

Learn the language well enough to identify yourself and talk to local residents. Time and money spent at a good language school are never wasted. If time and money are short, excellent phrase books and tapes are available to help you learn at least the basic words and phrases you need. Are you sure you know how to say clearly that you are a journalist? How to ask for help, medical assistance, the person in charge, a telephone?

Identify any cultural and religious sensitivity, which may impact on your ability to operate. Have there been any recent attacks on the media or are there any specific threats to the media in the area where you are operating?

For information on the situation in a particular country you can contact the IFJ.

Before leaving home base

Check details of any planned events you intend to cover to confirm timings, venues, routes, accessibility. Check with event organizers what arrangements, if any, are being made for the press.

Check that you have insurance which will provide adequate cover if you are injured or killed.

Get a covering letter from the media you are working for to identify you in particularly sensitive situations.

Leave at home all documents and clippings that might be seen as critical of the politics, religion, etc. of the places you are going to.

Get basic first aid training before you go.

A list of information sources which should cover the following areas: Climate, Geography, Political Situation, Ethnic and Religious Tensions, Medical Intelligence (i.e. prevalence of diseases). The Following sources will provide a general outline of the current situation on countries worldwide:




www.janes.com(Global Risk Centre)

www.zerorisk-international.com (Subscription Journalism Safety Website)

While you are there

Let your desk editors know where you are at all times, where you are going and when you expect to be back. Do the same locally with people you know and trust.

Try to find out from people in authority or control when and where they expect trouble.

Check with local residents who have experience and can gauge the mood and point out possible difficulties.

Keep your head down. It's obvious, but many journalists take unnecessary risks when the gun battles start. Stick close to walls. Or lie face down. Don't raise your head until it is safe. Maintain an awareness of what is going on, where are the combatants? Be aware that bullets will travel for around four kilometers if they do not hit their targets. This means that you may be in danger even though you are some distance from the fighting.

Be aware of your appearance, if you look like a soldier or a policeman you stand the chance of being shot at. If you behave like a member of the security forces you also stand the chance of being targeted. If you are with a security force patrol you also stand the risk of being targeted, make sure that you trust those whom you are with. If invited along with a security force patrol ensure that you retain control of your own situation, know where you are going and how to get out if there is trouble.

Be aware that your presence may influence combatants, either positively or negatively, be prepared to get yourself out of trouble if things go wrong.

Make sure that you are not using equipment or wearing clothing or jewelry which can reflect sunlight, your camera lenses, leather clothes and watches may attract attention, during a gunfight the reflection may be mistaken for a flash from a weapon.

Take the equipment that you will need to get you safely away from the danger area, a means of communications, access to transportation, food and water and your map and compass to enable you to navigate safely away from the fighting. If all else fails move away from the noise, then get out of the area.

Do as you are told when confronted by an armed person who gives clear instructions to clear out. Don't argue.

Be polite. There is no substitute for courtesy when on assignments. Treating people with respect is the only way you will get respectful treatment in return. It may help you get out of a dangerous spot.

If you are forced to hand over material try to obtain a written receipt. The situation can sometimes be resolved by speaking to a superior official.

Balance the risks against the possible benefits before plunging into a trouble spot. Often you can cover a story perfectly well from a distance. Feel around the edges of trouble before approaching officials, soldiers or direct sources. That way at least you have a colour story before you are told to get lost.

What to wear and carry

Always carry a complete set of identification papers, including an up to date International Press Card. Unless it is absolutely necessary do not carry passes issued by organisations involved in a conflict - they could be misinterpreted.

Carry plenty of cash. It can work wonders. However, it also makes you a target. Carry only what you will need, carry a 'muggers wallet'. If you carry two wallets, conceal your normal wallet containing all of your valuables, also carry a wallet with out of date credit cards, some low denomination notes and irrelevant material. In the event that you are held up for your wallet pass on the muggers wallet. Above all be aware that many journalists have been attacked for their possessions. Only carry what you can afford to lose and insure your equipment.

Dress appropriately. Often you will want to blend into the crowd. Sometimes it is safer to be conspicuous.

Never carry a gun or other weapon. Never wear wear olive green or anything that makes you look like a soldier.

Don't carry things that might lay you open to an accusation of spying, such as binoculars or equipment with antennae.

Be careful about any objects that look like weapons.

Never keep military documents, clothing or equipment as souvenirs.

Do not masquerade as anything other than what you are. To do so creates suspicions and risks for other professionals.

In high risk areas when you are invited to a meeting ensure that you authenticate your sources and do not go to meetings which are being held in a remote area. Inform colleagues and reliable contacts where you are going, who you are meeting, what time you are leaving and what time you are expected to return. In addition inform your colleagues what actions to take if you fail to return.

Carry a short-wave radio to keep track of developments from international radio stations.

Carry a white flag.

Keep your equipment to a minimum - too much to carry can hinder you in tricky situations. Be sensible in the use of equipment. Insensitivity can provoke the seizure or loss of your films, tapes or equipment.

You may end up in situations where no communication with the outside world is possible. Instead of using ordinary telephones, where possible, you should carry your own satellite telephone which will make voice, fax, e-mail and internet access possible.

Always carry a basic first aid kit.


Travel with friends. Road-blocks and armed patrols may pop up anywhere. Don't rely on local drivers. They may panic at the first sign of trouble.

Travel in groups with other journalists where practical. Use two cars in case one breaks down. If possible travel with journalists who know the area.

Select your car with care. Check engine and tyres.

Beware of giving lifts. Sometimes you may feel you have to take wounded soldiers or civilians in your car. Try to find an alternative. Get involved only as a last, life-saving resort.

Always ensure there are no arms in your vehicle.

Mark your car "Press" clearly in the local language, depending on the situation, if journalists are being targeted, any vehicle identifying the occupants as journalists may invite trouble.

Carry up-to-date maps and town plans.

Ask about mines. The road may have been cleared, but the hard shoulder or a parking space may not.

Enter volatile areas carefully and sensitively.

Take note of graffiti, which is a good indicator of the politics in the area.

If you drive, avoid actions which could be dangerous, such as doing a U-turn at a security checkpoint or police station, or near a patrol.

Don't use cars that resemble models used by the police or army. Avoid traveling in jeeps or military vehicles.

Never wash your car. Tampering can be detected more easily on a dirty car.

Never wear seat belts in a war zone - you may have to jump from the car quickly to avoid bullets.

Never sit in the back of a two-door car. It is impossible to get out quickly.

Take care when parking - to leave your car unattended may lead to it being stolen or destroyed. Park away from any potential riot, hijacking, burning, etc. Local residents or authorities may be able to advise you. Choose a parking place with a choice of escape routes.

Beware of empty streets. They are often empty for a reason.

At road blocks show hands empty except for your identity papers. Rest them on the dashboard. Don't make sudden movements into pockets or bags for documents. You should move slowly, be polite and follow instructions and do not use cameras without having first obtained permission.

Present as little as possible for inspection by officials. The less you give them to read, the less interesting you will be and the less time you will waste.

If you are traveling long distances or through sparsely populated areas, make sure you have adequate supplies of water, food and fuel.