By Sandy K. Johnson
Threats, beatings, kidnappings, surveillance, arrests – these are everyday challenges if you’re a reporter in hot spots around the globe.
These stark numbers illustrate the danger: 48 journalists were killed and 259 were jailed in 2016, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Alexandra Ellerbeck, senior research associate at CPJ, said Turkey, China and Egypt have locked up the most journalists but arrests occur all over the world, as shown in this CPJ nation-by-nation interactive.
From its reporters on the ground, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty can put human faces to those statistics. Journalist Sergei Khazov-Cassia and cameraman Andrei Kostyanov were beaten by masked thugs in Russia. Saparmamed Nepeskuliev has been imprisoned in Turkmenistan for three years on trumped up charges. And Mykola Semena is on trial in Crimea for writing a story criticizing the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Tom Kent, president of RFE/RL, said reporters should think through what “reasonable risk” means to them and whether their actions could compel others to take risks to help them. For any journalist in the field, look at it this way: Will you be able to live with yourself afterward?
In a webinar for the National Press Foundation, Ellerbeck and Kent outlined ways for journalists to protect themselves and their sources:
- Take hostile environment training to learn what to do in dangerous situations. Outfit yourself with protective equipment and clothing. CPJ has a Journalist Security Guide with helpful links.
- Be aware of your surroundings and always have an exit plan. Crowds are unpredictable and can turn on you.
- Be wary of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. No interview is worth your life, as two NPR journalists learned when they ventured into Helmand province in Afghanistan.
- The conveniences of your digital devices are also open invitations to surveil you – and your communications with sources. “What device is secure for a journalist? I would say none,” Kent said.
- Use encryption on all your devices, though understand that determined bad actors can hack through any security. This NPF video describes encryption practices.
- If you are under surveillance or your phone is being tapped, don’t try to evade the protagonists or play games. They are professionals at it and you will only incite them.
- If police or others try to take your digital devices, protest and make a fuss, but realize that in the end it’s just stuff – and certainly not worth putting yourself at physical risk.
- If you are arrested or jailed, ask to speak to a lawyer (if the rule of law still applies) and try to contact colleagues or family. Whether to go public with an arrest or kidnapping is still an ongoing debate in the journalism community.
Finally, Kent and Ellerbeck encouraged journalists who emerge from a traumatic event to seek professional counseling. PTSD affects journalists, too.