Safety and security considerations for High-Risk Journalism

Unfortunately, the number of journalists killed worldwide significantly increased in 2022, according to the United Nations’ culture agency (UNESCO), stated in the recently released 2021-2022 freedom of expression report. The findings highlight the grave risks and vulnerabilities that journalists continue to face in the course of their work.

What is High-Risk Journalism?

High-risk journalism means working in conditions where the likelihood of physical harm (death, injury or serious illness) is significantly higher than normal. Including:
• Hostile environments: dictatorships, zones of conflict, insurgency or high crime, and also regions of extreme climate or terrain.
• Dangerous events, such as violent demonstrations, riots, terrorist attacks, or chemical, biological or nuclear accidents, natural disasters or pandemics.
• High-risk activities such as investigations into terrorist groups, mafias or violent extremists and/or working undercover.

No safe spaces

UNESCO also noted that nearly half of the journalists killed were targeted while off duty. Some were attacked while travelling, or in parking lots or other public places where they were not on assignment – while others were in their homes at the time of their killing. The report warned that this implies that “there are no safe spaces for journalists, even in their spare time”.

Despite progress in the past five years, the rate of impunity for journalist killings remains “shockingly high” at 86 per cent. Combating impunity remains a pressing commitment on which international cooperation must be further mobilized, the organization said.

In addition to killing, journalists in 2022 also were victims of other forms of violence. This included enforced disappearance, kidnapping, arbitrary detention, legal harassment and digital violence, with women particularly being targeted.

The UNESCO study highlighted challenges for journalists, pointing out that the weaponization of defamation laws, cyber laws, and anti “fake news” legislation, are being used as a means of limiting freedom of speech and creating a toxic environment for journalists to operate in.

Deadliest countries for journalists

Latin America and the Caribbean were reported as the deadliest regions for journalists in 2022 with over half of all of those killed worldwide. Mexico, Ukraine and Haiti topped the list. While the number of journalists killed in conflict countries rose in 2022, compared with the previous year, the global increase was primarily driven by killings in non-conflict countries. Some of the reasons why the journalists were killed were due to reprisals for their reporting on organized crime, armed conflict, or the rise of extremism. Others were killed for covering sensitive topics such as corruption, environmental crime, abuse of power and protests.

What can be done to improve journalist safety?

Without effective protection mechanisms, political will and resources to effectively protect journalists – and without a change in rhetoric about how governments refer to journalists – the situation will not remedy itself.

Security teams that are well adapted to the unique geo-political, security and cultural challenges faced across South America and Latin American countries offer the best risk mitigation strategies. Look for comprehensive advice on every aspect of security from corporate operation and commercial risk, to counter-terrorism, armed close protection teams, and journey management protocols for operating within high risk zones.
Some things to consider:

1. Local Knowledge and Risk Assessments
Find out as much as you can about the place where you intend to go, such as security and social, political and health conditions, as well as the climate, media, and infrastructure. Familiarise yourself with the culture, customs and codes of dress and behaviour. This will help you better understand your surroundings and integrate more easily.

To gather as much information as possible, you should contact:
• Local news organisations and colleagues who are already there or who have recently returned. Through word of mouth you can locate fixers and drivers, as well as somewhere to stay and places to go. There are journalists’ discussion groups on social media for exchanging advice, such as the Vulture Club on Facebook.
• Diplomats from your own country and representatives from the United Nations or NGOs working in the area.
• Researchers, humanitarian workers and military personnel familiar with the area.
• More experienced journalists – ask them how they would approach the assignment.

2. Health Precautions
Only travel to a dangerous area if you are in good physical and psychological health. Plan well in advance. Some vaccinations must be carried out three weeks before departure.

Before departure you should:
• Visit you doctor for a complete health check-up. Tell your doctor if you are taking medicine or if you are pregnant or liable to become pregnant. Some medicines may be contraindicated if you are.
• See a dentist. It’s a good idea to avoid toothache while you are in a war zone.
• Update your vaccinations and note them in your international vaccination card.
• Be aware of your blood type and any allergies you may have. Note these in your identity documents.

3. Equipment and Kitbags
Keep a basic kit for reporting in high-risk areas. This basic kit should contain key items to take in high-risk areas, should be kept packed at all times and ready to be adapted and topped up according to circumstances.

According to the AFP News Agency, it should include:
• Press vest and bulletproof vest, Light helmet, Insulated blanket, Coloured glowsticks/lightsticks, Snap links, Toilet waste bags, Multi-function tool, Head lantern with white, red and blue beams, Dark rucksack with several pockets and loops for attaching accessories, Gas mask, Oxygen mask, Multiple plug adapter, Strong adhesive tape, Super glue, Padlock, Hand and ear warmers, Compressed tee-shirt, Protective eyeglasses, Pocket flashlight, Wind-up flashlight, Zip lock bags, Flat Swiss-style knife, Saline solution, Lighter, Foldable cutlery and Earplugs.

4. Appropriate Accommodation
The main criteria in choosing where to stay should be wether it will allow you to work in safety. It may be a hotel or a private house, but the point is that it should provide you with sanctuary.

Before departure you should:
• Avoid choosing a house, apartment block or hotel in a remote area, on a one-way street or in a dead end, and ensure admission to the building is controlled both day and night.
• A main road and an airport nearby will allow you to leave town quickly if need be.
• Avoid rooms at the front of the building or looking onto a car park, which could be more vulnerable to attack. Instead choose a room at the back of the building or on a courtyard and identify all possible exits.
• Once you have settled in: locate all the entrances and emergency exits. Check all locks each night and close the shutters and curtains as soon as it gets dark. Check the identity of anyone who comes to the door before opening
• Locate a safe room to which you may be able to move to escape gunfire, bomb fragments or attackers. It should have no windows – a bathroom, for example – and should contain stockpiles of water, food and energy, and a means of communication such as a telephone.

5. Secure Transportation
When choosing both drivers and cars, assurance is essential. Select vetted drivers that are highly trained with evasive and defensive driving skills. They should have up-to-date working knowledge of local areas and will assess geography and road layouts for contingencies and potential security issues. Should you require discretion the top-selling car model in the region is often a good option for blending in. Armoured vehicles are also an option, each with varying levels of effectiveness. Providers should research the area, the terrain, and the risk factors that you are travelling through and advise you on a professional verdict.

When travelling always consider:
• Don’t follow a routine as regards times, routes, and places, which could increase the likelihood of being ambushed.
• If another driver turns up unexpectedly in place of your appointed driver, do not get into the car, even if that means you have to change or give up on your reporting plans. Similarly, if your local fixer does not arrive for a pre-arranged meeting, this could mean there is a problem or imminent danger.
• Drive with the doors locked and the windows closed, keeping some distance from the vehicle ahead of you. Beware of staged accidents that are designed to force your car to stop.
• Do not put yourself entirely in the hands of your driver. Make sure that you can always figure out where you are in time and space, for example by having a map and GPS with you.

An Additional Layer of Protection

Digital Security is critical in high-risk areas. Make sure your communications are secure to reduce the risk of interception or digital surveillance. Consider personal safety apps, and incident management solutions as an added another layer of protection.

These mobile-based systems utilise secure and encrypted communication lines to provide 2-way comms and can be paired with satellite devices to ensure areas of poor signal reception do not impact communications. Not only that, but they also actively monitor travellers across the globe, providing the means to raise emergency alerts – immediately notifying responders and emergency contacts of your distress.

If you’d like further advice, please contact us for a confidential NDA signed meeting, at or please click here.



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