For Freelancers in Conflict Zones, Help Is out There

April 4, 2017

Caution is always important in conflict zones, where last-minute protests such as this one in South Sudan can sometimes turn deadly
Caution is always important in conflict zones, where last-minute protests such as this one in South Sudan can sometimes turn deadly. Photo: Dale Willman

Freelance Files: For Freelancers in Conflict Zones, Help Is out There

By Dale Willman

The day was sunny and the roads were so dry our Land Rover was a ship leaving a wide dust cloud in its wake, a cloud spreading out over the South Sudanese landscape. My driver and I were on our way to a landing strip when, as we pulled into a small village, we noticed a small commotion and a larger than normal number of guns along the main road. Both a policeman and a military officer sternly waved us to the side, and the policeman stood at attention next to my passenger door.

Moments later a parade of sorts moved slowly through the village. Men were in a frenzy as they pushed spears skyward, while women walked among them ululating as if in a trance. In the middle of the crowd drove “technicals” — pickup trucks carrying large caliber weapons mounted in the back, along with a load of heavily armed soldiers sitting on the sides. This impromptu show of military power was just begging to be recorded.

Author Dale Willman and coworkers record a speech from former South Sudan rebel leader Riek Machar as he returned to Juba and his position as vice president.
Author Dale Willman and coworkers record a speech from former South Sudan rebel leader Riek Machar as he returned to Juba and his position as vice president. Photo courtesy Dale Willman

I turned to my driver who sat, expressionless, staring straight ahead. “Can I photograph them?” I whispered. “No,” he said sharply, with a slight tremor in his voice. “Why not?” With a slight, almost imperceptible nod toward the young man to my right while still looking out the windscreen, he said, “He will kill you.”

This may seem an extreme example, but the reality is that today, whether in a conflict zone or not, reporting overseas is fraught. And being from a privileged country no longer gives you a get-out-of-jail-free card as it once may have. In fact, being white in South Sudan probably made us a potential target.

The compound where I lived while working for Internews, the place I left just a few weeks before, was over-run by government troops last July and one friend and colleague was killed, while several others were gang-raped all night long.

Being a journalist in conflict zones has always been difficult. But journalists are facing similar challenges now around the world, as governments escalate a crackdown on the free flow of information. Even in the United States, two videographers are facing the possibility of up to 45 years in prison simply for documenting pipeline protests in North Dakota.

So how does one stay safe — especially freelancers, who operate on shoestring budgets with no back office to hire attorneys or pay for specialized training? There are resources. But it will help to first have a basic understanding of what it means to be safe in the field. There are two major types of security — physical and digital, and each have very specific requirements.

Staying in one piece

The hard truth is, in the end we are all responsible for our own safety, no matter who we’re working for. While in South Sudan I had the luxury of free security training. But once I was in the field, I was far away from anyone who could help me. My personal safety was up to me. And my rule is, when it comes to my own safety, I want to make sure I’m in charge.

Before I go anywhere, I do as much research as I can. I look up weather conditions so I can dress appropriately. I look at local customs with hopes of not making any major cultural mistakes. And I make sure I travel with whatever I think will help to keep me safe.

Here are a number of things you can do to make sure you are prepared:

Hostile environment awareness training: Perhaps the most important thing you can do as a freelancer is to take a hostile environment awareness training course, known as HEAT. British photojournalist Tim Hetherington was in Libya in 2011 covering the siege of Misrata when he was hit by shrapnel in the groin. His femoral artery was cut, but he might have been saved if those around him knew what to do. He bled out and died because no one with him knew the simplest technique — how to apply a tourniquet.

Internews provided HEAT training for all of us while I was in-country. The course is expensive, but so is flying your body home. Global Journalist Security offers courses ranging from $1,650 to $3,000. But a group called Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, or RISC, offers free training for “experienced, published freelance conflict journalists.”

First aid: Before you leave, take a first aid course. You should do it even if you never leave the United States. Shit happens, and in the field you can’t rely on a clinic down the street to bail you out. If you take a HEAT course you will learn trauma first aid. But basic first aid covers very different information. I’ve been certified in Wilderness First Aid for years. It’s generally a two-day course, and well worth the investment.

Medications: Be your own pharmacist. When I went to South Sudan I knew I would not have access to decent health care. And that means limited-to-no-access to medications as well. My doctor knows me well and understands I will use medications only in an emergency. So he gave me a script for a powerful painkiller (don’t get OxyContin or other well-known pain medications — that could make you a target of theft) and two different broad spectrum antibiotics. Even a cracked tooth three days from a dentist could turn ugly if you can’t treat the pain.

Emergency documents: There are two documents you should take care of before you leave. The first is a communication plan. Carry a list of folks you might need — a doctor, attorney, security expert, embassy officials, local police officers you can trust in case of emergency.

Second, set up a “proof of life” document. This document holds confidential information that your family can use to confirm you are still alive. It is used in case of a kidnapping or some other form of abduction.

One item I used for the first time in Africa was a Personal Locator Beacon, or PLB. In many parts of the world communication is still difficult. And if risk of kidnapping is even a possibility, having some way to send a quick SOS and to be tracked is a good idea.

I took a DeLorme InReach Explorer. The device allows you to be tracked even when you’re not in danger. You can give friends and family a website that shows where you've been and where you are. You can also send text messages, and when in trouble hit one button for an SOS. In many countries (but not South Sudan) that button can trigger a rescue. The insurance cost is nominal, and this or a similar device is worth considering if the rescue option works where you’re traveling.

Next comes the risk assessment, both before you leave and once you arrive. Download the form at this site for a good start while you’re still at home. Once on the ground, it’s important to do your own local risk assessment. Walk the area where you will be living and working. Look for potential security issues. And look for possible escape routes so you’re prepared in case something does happen. I lived in a compound with two escape routes. I found a third known only to myself.


What sounds paranoid to many people

is simply caution when reporting overseas.


Don't let your digital footprint put you in harm's way

There are many resources available now to help, but the digital world changes often enough that it is better that you do your own research (use the links at the end of this column).

It’s important to take this seriously. Digital security is very broad. It includes your social media presence while reporting, how you use your devices in the field, what data you collect while there and the apps you use to communicate. At Internews, we assumed the government read our emails, or at least those written by our top officials.

NGO workers were periodically ejected from South Sudan because of something they said online. One woman was thrown out simply for saying on Facebook that she saw starving children. While it’s true that thousands of children are starving there, the country monitors social media feeds to make sure it’s not talked about.

Data storage is also important. I made sure the data on my computer and my mobile phone was encrypted, as well as password-protected. And the hard drive I used as a backup was also secured.

How you use your equipment can also put you at risk. Governments have used messaging services to identify anonymous tipsters and reporters. Use messaging services that are encrypted, such as Signal.

And stay away from WhatsApp, the most popular mobile communications tool in the world, for any sensitive uses. While it claims to be encrypted, it has a major potential security flaw right now.

And be careful how you use your phones in general. Marie Colvin, an incredible journalist who worked for The Sunday Times in London, was killed in Syria in 2012 after the government identified her location in part by tracking the signal of her satellite phone.

Sadly, what sounds paranoid to many people is simply caution when reporting overseas. Pay attention. Keep your eyes open. Respect that tingle on the back of your neck.

Online resources for physical security

For digital security

Dale Willman is an award-winning editor, reporter, trainer and photographer with decades of experience working on and reporting from five continents. During more than 15 years in Washington, D.C., he worked for NPR, CBS and CNN. As a trainer he spent a year recently in South Sudan working with the staff of a local radio station. During the first Gulf War he reported from London for NPR, providing coverage for an IRA bombing campaign. He also founded and ran an online newspaper. After two years he had thousands of readers and not one cent to show for all the effort.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 14. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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