5 Tips for staying safe in conflict zones

A young Kurdish YPG fighter runs past sniper fire in the contested zone in Kobani, Syria. The role of freelancers, who make a living by selling individual stories to multiple outlets, has expanded across conflict zones in recent years with the spread of technology and social media. While some are cautious and well-trained, others take major risks in hopes of getting a picture or story that no one else has, and thus is more valuable. And they often lack the institutional support staff writers receive if they get into trouble in a conflict zone.  (AP Photo/Jake, Simkin)
A young Kurdish YPG fighter runs past sniper fire in the contested zone in Kobani, Syria. The role of freelancers, who make a living by selling individual stories to multiple outlets, has expanded across conflict zones in recent years. While some are cautious and well-trained, others take major risks in hopes of getting a picture or story that no one else has. (AP Photo/Jake, Simkin)
The world isn't getting any safer for members of the media: According to Reporters Without Borders’ annual “roundup of violence against journalists” 66 were killed, 119 kidnapped, and 853 arrested in 2014.

At the same time, difficult and dangerous stories still need telling, and there will always be those drawn to covering conflicts. The big players' budgets are shrinking but the ways in which information is spread have become more mobile and immediate. In turn, anyone who uses social media now has access to a near-global audience. As a result, the work of outside sources is increasingly used to satisfy our expectation for news in an instant. All of which means it has never been easier for inexperienced, poorly supported newbies to give risky reporting a go.

Conflict novices are OK; Every hard-bitten war correspondent has a “first time I got shot at” story – right? All roads to veteran status start with an initial frontline foray. But unprepared, poorly supported first-timers are not OK.

So for starters, read the following five tips to staying safe on a high-risk job.

  • Don't go: Obvious, right? What better way to stay safe from the dangers of high-risk reporting than avoiding it in the first place? It's an extremely effective method for the maintenance of mind, body and soul. Am I joking? Maybe a little. But there's a serious side to this and that's to ensure you properly consider whether this type of work is actually what you want to do. Conflict coverage can look enticing through the prism of a well-crafted report. In reality, it's often dirty, distressing and dispiriting work. Ask yourself why you're interested. Then consider the potential impact on those closest to you. If you do all that and still feel up for it then great, read on.
  • Train early, train right and keep on training: If you've never had hostile environment training, then you're not as prepared as you should be to work in a hostile environment. Fact: Even if you were born and raised in a war zone, or consider yourself the hardest scribbler in town, this training is a must-do. It's a poor soul who believes they already know everything about anything. It's a dangerous colleague who thinks they already know it all about high-risk working. Get on a course as a priority. Embrace and enjoy the chance to learn amongst peers. If you already have some experience, then welcome the opportunity to pass that on and enhance the learning of others. Last, but most importantly, get medical skills. A significant part of such courses is training in basic trauma medicine. It's life-saving stuff, and if you want to work in dangerous places you owe it to your colleagues to know this. So Hostile Environment First Aid Training (HEFAT) is a must. Do one, practice the skills, build knowledge and experience, refresh it all every three years maximum, and ensure you're properly prepared. Speaking of being properly prepared.
  • Prepare with the right equipment: Doing high-risk work requires specialist safety kit. I'm talking body armor, head and eye protection, gas masks, medical equipment and survival gear. Know what you need and don't leave home without it. What you take specifically will depend on the type of coverage and potential threats. But make sure you've done that assessment properly and have what's required to cover all eventualities. Then ensure you've kit enough for any drivers or fixers you use, too. People often forget that last point. Generally because they haven't bothered with tip number four.
  • Have a plan that works and a plan for when it doesn't: We're talking about work that may put your life in danger. I'd say that warrants putting some effort into a decent plan. So think about your deployment in detail before you rush out the door. How will you travel? Where will you stay? What are your alternative options? What kit do you need? What contacts do you have? What contacts should you have? What are the threats? What can you do to counter those threats? If you've been there before, has anything changed? If so, what is the impact? Do you have access to the latest information? The list could go on, but I'm sure you understand what I'm getting at. Plan and plan well. Then, once you've got a good plan, think what you'll do when it all falls apart. Because things rarely go as intended in the world of high-risk coverage. Which brings us to the next tip.
  • Get help of the reliable and trusted kind: High-risk coverage is a team sport. It's not for the wannabe loner-hero types. They eventually end up in trouble with no one to call, and their story ends there. You need support to stay in dangerous places and ensure you can safely return. So deploy as part of a team. Just as importantly, have someone sitting somewhere safe, who knows your plan, and knows what to do if it fails: A person to oversee your progress, be a point of contact for regular updates, and who will raise the red flag if suddenly those check-ins stop coming.

So there you have it. Five tips we can sum up in just three words. Preparation. Planning. Support.

Toby Woodbridge is a media safety specialist with Bloomberg News. Previously employed by the BBC, he has extensive experience supporting Media, Energy and NGO organizations in high risk locations worldwide.

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