As journalists, our work often takes us to places where our safety is not guaranteed. Even if you're not covering wars, going to a demonstration or a refugee camp or any large gathering can pose a threat to your safety. We hear from two journalists who found themselves in dangerous situations, and how they managed to keep safe.
In 2006, Iraqi journalist Suadad Salhy went out with colleagues to cover what she describes as “an ordinary story” in Baghdad. Although she cannot remember what that story was, what happened to her that day is impossible to forget.
“At the time, Al Tawhid wal Jihad (a militant Iraqi group) announced that they had controlled one of the major roads in Baghdad,” she recalls. “I was down there and out of nowhere American troops appeared from the alleyways, and the militants appeared too.”
In an instant, planes were hovering over her head and a full-on battle was underway.
“There were sounds everywhere so I couldn’t even tell where the fire was coming. Somehow, my colleagues and I managed to find a wall to take cover. So we ran there, and stood with our backs to the wall. Then, we kneeled down and covered our heads and we stayed like this a long time until the battle was finally over.”
Back then, Suadad had had no professional training in field health and safety. But today she knows that, had she been trained, she wouldn’t have gone down that road to cover an “ordinary story” in the first place. Knowing beforehand that the area was under the control of militants, Suadad would have advised her editors to postpone the story because the risk was too high. Failing that, she would have studied the map of that street very carefully to identify safe spots and emergency exists, and she definitely wouldn’t have stood in the middle of the road, no matter how calm the situation was.
“I know many Iraqi journalists who lost their lives while covering the violence in Falluja. I know what happened to them and why they died. Had they been professionally trained on health and safety, many of them would still be with us today.”
“I know many Iraqi journalists who lost their lives while covering the violence in Falluja,” she recalls. “I know what happened to them and why they died. Had they been professionally trained on health and safety, many of them would still be with us today.”
After joining the New York Times and Reuters, Suadad attended several safety courses, and here she shares a lot of the lessons she learned along the way with fellow members of The Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network. These tips are important to remember, not just when covering conflict, but also in demonstrations or large gatherings where the chances of violence or injury can be high.
“The first thing you must remember is never to take calm for granted,” she says. “Violence could erupt any time, so always make sure you know where the exits are and identify places where you can take cover.” Whether it is a wall, or an alleyway or a shop, Suadad now makes sure that wherever she goes, she locates a safe spot where she can hide or cover her back in case of violence.
This also means that, when covering demonstrations, Suadad always remains on the sidelines.
“You must never ever find yourself in a place where you are surrounded by crowds, and never become too engrossed in the story to the extent where you forget where the exits are.”
However, there are scenarios where a reporter could inadvertently find herself in the middle of a crowd, and has to think fast to avoid getting hurt. This was the experience of Najlaa Aboumerhi in the French port of Calais, where she was covering the refugee crisis in 2015 for the BBC.
“We were filming refugees as they jumped on lorries that were supposed to go on a ferry and across the channel to England,” she recalls. “Suddenly, riot police started chasing them away with baton and before we knew it the crowd ran back towards and we had to run away too. The police were effectively chasing everyone in their way, refugee or not.”
In such a frenzy, thinking and acting with the same speed and precision can be tricky. “If a refugee offers you his hand to help you run that could be a good thing. But at the same time, the police might mistake you for a refugee when they see you running with him too.”
Like Suadad, Najlaa also received professional safety training through the BBC. In addition to practical safety precautions (such as identifying exits and spots to take cover) she learned that diplomacy is always a first step to diffuse any tension with angry crowds.
During that same trip to Calais, Najlaa and her producer/cameraman wanted to interview a Syrian refugee. The only quiet spot where they could film with him without interruption was a small café; at least, that’s what she thought.
“Our interviewee wasn’t liked by many refugees because they thought he was pro-regime,” she explains. “As we began to film inside the café, five men gathered over our heads and started shouting at us. They wanted to stop the interview, and gradually the crowd around us grew.”
Najlaa wasn’t just responsible for the interviewee’s, and her own, safety but also for her cameraman who didn’t speak Arabic and didn’t understand what was going on.
“The situation was delicate because the cameraman started to panic. I had to listen and talk to the angry crowd and translate to him at the same time and ask him to calm down because his panic and stress could have worsened the situation.”
“The situation was delicate because he [the cameraman] started to panic. So I had to listen and talk to the angry crowd and translate to him at the same time and ask him to calm down because his panic and stress could have worsened the situation.”
As the crowd grew and became angrier, Najlaa realised the chance of a physical assault against her and the crew was very likely. They had only two options to diffuse this. They could either leave the café amicably, in which case it would be difficult to find another spot for the interview. Or she could diffuse the tension by offering to interview some of them as well to get the message across. She went with the second option.
“This wasn’t easy because there were many of them and they weren’t convinced with our offer. So I had to ask who their “leader” was and went out looking for him. All the time, I was worried for the safety of my cameraman as well as the interviewee.”
In the end, she managed to find the leader to whom the crowd would answer, and she was able to get her interview peacefully.
“In situations like this, you have to think and act fast,” she says.
Suadad also learned from experience that, in a crowded area, she needs to stay sharp on two tracks; getting the story, and monitoring her bearings for any signs of danger.
“In 2011 I went with a foreign crew to Anbar Province,” she recalls. “As they were busy filming an interview, I could hear two men whispering to each other nearby. While focusing on the interview, I had to focus on them too, and that’s when I realised they were plotting to kidnap us. I had to alert the crew and we quietly but swiftly left the scene.”
Suadad and Najlaa both realise how lucky they are to have had the opportunity to take professional field safety courses. While many journalists in the Arab world don’t get the opportunity to attend such courses, there is still a large selection of articles and expert videos available online . Najlaa and Suadad also share their tops tips here on how to stay safe. Whether you’re covering armed conflict, or a demonstration, or just going to an area considered to be hostile. These tips will help you stay safe.
Suadad and Najla’s safety tips
You must find a place where you could take cover and never leave yourself exposed. Before going to a hostile area, be sure to study any available maps or talk to colleagues who know the area to identify the entrances and exits.
Avoid being in the middle of the crowd, and always stay on the sidelines and close to the exits. Never allow the crowd (either deliberately or by accident) to block you in.
Always carry a sign or any visual object that identifies you as a journalist, and never carry any banners that could lead the authorities to mistake you for a demonstrator.
Keep you political beliefs to yourself and avoid agitating the crowd. Suadad says many Iraqi journalists fail to separate their journalism and politics. Some of them have sometimes provoked the crowds with unprofessional questions because they didn’t like their politics, while others have marched in the demonstrations while covering them and were ultimately targeted by the authorities because of that.
Always remain calm, but think and act fast. Do not allow the crowds to agitate you and use diplomacy, wherever possible to diffuse any tension.
When working in a group, have a team leader. Najlaa says this is especially important when only one person speaks the language of the crowd. In moments of danger, the team needs to rely on only one person to make a quick decision, and they must agree on who that person before embarking on an assignment.