Recent aggressions against journalists during protests — as happened earlier this year during the unrest in Mexico over gas shortages — means it’s a good time to review the risks that journalists face when covering demonstrations or repressive security forces.
Going it alone
The first risk is that journalists tend to cover these events alone and in a disorganised way. Having more colleagues in the vicinity won’t help you if all of them are going at it alone with zero coordination.
Secondly, journalists who are using cellphones to take photos or broadcast live are forced to get as close as possible to potentially violent scenes — and this includes those who might incite the violence.
Third, those who may commit violence have grown ever more hostile to journalists (a trend which is evident in but certainly not limited to Mexico). During January’s “gasolinazo” protests, as well as the 2016 highway blockades by teachers protesting certain education reforms, radical groups (or the security forces charged with controlling them) have exercised extreme violence against journalists.
This has even included murder, as in the case of Elidio Ramos Zárate, who was killed by masked individuals hours after covering a highway blockade in southern Mexico.
As in Ramos’ case, some reporters have been attacked hours or days after covering incidents of repression, especially if protesters are killed by police fire.
Journalists become more vulnerable if their editors make decisions far away from where the action is taking place, and without the necessary information to properly evaluate the level of risk. In these cases, the risk comes from editors making uninformed, out-of-context decisions, thus demanding a certain type of coverage without measuring the very real risks that their reporters will face.
Another problem is the economic issue. Many will cover protests as independent journalists, without any formal institutional tie to a media organisation that could support them. And even if they’re freelancing for a publication, in almost every case journalists will lack insurance for expensive medical care or even basic coverage.
Every situation is different, and every journalist and publication needs to make decisions based on the conditions and risks of each situation. Nevertheless, based on the experience of journalists who’ve covered unrest, violent protests or acts of police repression against crowds, these are a few basic safety measures that journalists can adopt.
Safety basics for covering protests
- Develop security protocols for every circumstance. Reporters need to go out into the field with protocols established and agreed upon with their editor and team. If an independent reporter lacks support from a newsroom, she should work with other freelance and/or staff colleagues to create a common protocol.
- When possible, plan coverage with as much detail as possible. This should ideally include pre-scouting the area they’ll be covering. When journalists are in an area for the first time, they should do a quick inspection and identify escape routes and places where they can protect themselves in case violence erupts. This inspection could also include identifying elevated areas where they can take photos or record video.
- Be aware of who the violent actors are and their political, religious, economic or cultural motivations. Journalists need to know — with as much detail as possible — which actors will respond most aggressively to journalists and what that aggression will look like.
- Decide for yourself what kinds of circumstances require wearing distinctive IDs or jackets to identify yourself as a journalist. As a general rule, it’s usually better to be plainly identified as a member of the media, but in some cases this could attract more violence. In any case, IDs should always be on hand and available so they can be used when necessary.
- Two-way communication with the newsroom needs to be constant. Journalists in the field should carry fully-powered, external batteries for their mobile phones. If possible, journalists can carry an additional small phone with them to use exclusively for making calls — it doesn’t have to be a smartphone.
- Avoid contact with groups promoting violence or security forces who are about to deploy crowd control measures. When circumstances permit, it’s recommended to maintain a distance of at least 10 to 15 meters from those threatening to use violence. If you’re able to approach these actors in a controlled way, make sure these encounters are brief and organized. At all costs, it’s indispensable to avoid getting stuck in a confrontation between rival protesters or between protesters and security forces.
- Do Facebook Live broadcasts in teams of two or more people, so that way at least one person can pay attention to what’s happening in the area while also protecting the other person’s back. If there is violence, the reporter needs to be able to interrupt the transmission if his security is at risk.
- Interviews with protestors or other actors should take place on street corners, with the interviewee up against a wall. The reporter should be able to have a complete view of what’s happening around them.
- In cross-fire situations or if protesters are being fired upon, journalists should be trained in ducking down, seeking cover, identifying whether they are really hearing gunfire, and then identifying the source and the shooter(s). Journalists should also follow these steps when encountering rubber bullet fire. These can be lethal or cause severe damage if they hit the eyes.
- Don’t use wet cloth in the event of a tear gas attack, as some tear gas substances can react negatively with water. Journalists in South Africa, for example, use condom lubricant to wipe their faces if they are tear gassed.
Some other key resources:
- Journalists also need to learn what to do when a colleague is hurt. This UNESCO document offers plenty of guidance.
- Abraji, the Brazilian investigative journalists’ association, has published a manual on how to cover violent protests (available in English, Spanish and Portuguese).
- The Committee to Protect Journalists also has published a manual on covering risky situations during protests and social unrest (available in Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and Arabic, among other languages).
By Jorge Luis Sierra, an award-winning Mexican investigative reporter, editor and an expert in digital security.
SOURCE: ICFJ Knight Fellow