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5 Tips for Journalists Working in Repressive Environments

Sometimes getting the important story as a journalist means putting your own well-being at risk. While only you can decide how far you want…
5 Tips for Journalists Working in Repressive Environments
Journalist documenting events at the Independence square. Clashes in Ukraine, Kyiv. Events of February 18, 2014. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov, Wikipedia.

Sometimes getting the important story as a journalist means putting your own well-being at risk. While only you can decide how far you want to go for a story, there are a number of resources and organizations ready to help you out if things go south. First, however, you should plan for the worst. We spoke to Maria Salazar-Ferro, the Emergencies Director at the Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ), and Gregg Leslie, the Legal Defense Director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), to get their take on how a journalist should approach a risky situation. Here are their tips:

1. Make a risk assessment and emergency plan.

Before heading out to cover a protest or enter a country with less than ideal press freedom, make a contingency plan with a friend or family member. You should have someone who can call for legal help on your behalf.

“[Protecting yourself means] risk assessment — knowing where you’re working and what you’re reporting on. It’s being aware of your surroundings and your story. [Journalists] should work on that before they start reporting. This allows you to have plan if you get in trouble.” — Maria Salazar-Ferro, CPJ

2. Know what you’re willing to risk.

Putting yourself in danger for a story should be your decision, and, as such, you need to learn how you negotiate the line between compliance and news gathering in tricky situations.

“Your decision depends on how much you’re going to listen to the commands of an officer versus how much you’ll compromise story. Your best bet is to follow orders. If officers are trying to detain you and you walk away, that shouldn’t be resisting arrest and they shouldn’t charge you for that. If you want to avoid arrest, don’t go places where officers are trying to control a situation. If you follow every officer’s direction to the letter, you will miss a story, or the perfect photo, or not see how the officers are treating those who are resisting. On the one extreme, you might not get your story. You just have to make that judgement call every step of the way. Always try to do things to look like you’re complying while getting the story.” — Gregg Leslie, RCFP

3. Know the law.

Every country’s laws differ on press freedom. Before reporting somewhere unfamiliar, try to find out what is permitted and what’s illegal. Plus, this should be a part of creating your emergency plan. Also, try to be aware of how officers may react if you try to tell them what the law permits you to do while reporting.

“Police react differently. You might incur extra wrath if you’re not following orders. In other situations, it could be opposite effect — when they see a camera on them and they start acting more professionally…[In the United States] there’s a federal law called the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, where an officer might not like the thing you’re photographing, so they ask for you to turn over the video. This law says that they cannot take that from you. If there’s evidence on it, they have to issue a subpoena. If you try to inform an officer of this, they might get angry. Police don’t like feeling threatened by a lawsuit and you can bring civil rights action against an officer for taking your film.” — Gregg Leslie, RCFP
Fusion went live with Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, just before she went to court to face riot charges for reporting on the Dakota Access pipeline protests. After the North Dakota judge rejected the charges a few hours later, Goodman said “This is a complete vindication of my right as a journalist to cover the attack on the protesters, and of the public’s right to know what is happening with the Dakota Access pipeline.”

You should also keep up to date on which countries are the worst for journalists. These can change from year to year, but some areas of the world are consistently jailing journalists.

“Over the last 3 years, the [countries with the most requests for help from journalists] were Syria, Ethiopia, and Turkey. In 2014, it was Iran, Syria, and Ethiopia; in 2015, Syria, Ethiopia, and Burundi…Ethiopia doesn’t like criticism, they’re one of the biggest jailers in the world and the world’s second worst jailer of journalists. They’re kind of a conundrum — they’re really not open to criticism, and any critical voice is suppressed. A lot of bloggers have been jailed, and people who haven’t been jailed, have had to flee country for fear of imprisonment…Turkey is really complicated now — we’ve documented over one hundred journalists in prison and a third of their judiciary is in system, too. Lawyers are really scared. It’s hard to find someone willing to represent a journalist.” — Maria Salazar-Ferro, CPJ

4. Reach out to local journalists and unions.

If you’re going to another country where you are unfamiliar with the law, or that is particularly dangerous for journalists, contact your local colleagues. They will be able to guide and inform you on the risks of certain stories.

Demonstration for press freedom in Berlin. Photo by Sebaso, Wikipedia.
“If you’re going into Egypt, for example, be in touch with a local union before you get there, so they can tell you the issues and give you guidance. If you’re a local journalist, you’re probably aware of what the issues are. Being in touch with colleagues, unions, and editors is part of prevention and awareness.” — Maria Salazar-Ferro, CPJ

5. Get help.

Here are some organizations that help journalists who have been arrested, detained, threatened, and more:

Committee to Protect Journalists

According to Maria Salazar-Ferro, the organization helps journalists find pro bono representation, gives them emergency grants for basic living expenses when dealing with legal issues, gives grants for families to visit journalists in prison, provides food and clothes for those imprisoned, picks up medical costs, and even finds doctors for journalists who’ve been abused during detention.

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

The RCFP has a dedicated 24/7 hotline for journalists in the United States to call when they need legal help from posting bail to court costs. Their Legal Defense Hotline is 1–800–336–4243.

Society of Professional Journalists

SPJ has a Legal Defense Fund that can provide journalists with legal or financial help, such as court fees.

Reporters Without Borders

Besides offering members insurance plans and lending them free bulletproof vests and helmets, they also provide financial and administrative assistance to journalists who have faced reprisals for reporting.

Rory Peck Trust

The Rory Peck Trust provides financial assistance to freelance journalists in crisis, supports the families of journalists who’ve lost their lives, and provides affordable hostile environment training to freelancers.

By D. Simone Kovacs