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Journalists on trying to stay safe in dangerous places


However much support journalists are given in conflict zones, they are still the ones who come face-to-face with danger on a daily basis. A freelancer and a bureau chief tell The Correspondent how they live with risk.

Rebel fighters attempt to identify the dead near the frontline between Ajdabiya and Marsa Brega, Libya, on April 1, 2011.
Rebel fighters attempt to identify the dead near the frontline between Ajdabiya and Marsa Brega, Libya, on April 1, 2011.

If anybody has had first-hand experience of the risks involved in working in danger zones it is Hong Kong-born Nicole Tung, the recipient of this year’s James Foley Award for Conflict Reporting.

Her first experience of conflict reporting was during the 2011 Libyan revolution that overthrew President Muammar Gaddafi. “I just ran in with a camera and a pen, and I think that is what a lot of freelancers did,” she told The
Correspondent
.

She was in the Libyan town of Misrata when photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed in a mortar strike and “it was from that that people realised we really needed to be better at training journalists with first aid”.

Nicole Tung is a freelance photojournalist born and raised in Hong Kong.
Nicole Tung is a freelance photojournalist born and raised in Hong Kong.

The result was the creation of Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, a non-profit that offers free medical training to freelance journalists.

After Libya, Tung focused on the civil war in Syria, where she went on around a dozen reporting missions with James Foley in 2012. She missed his last, fateful trip into Syria in November of that year because she stayed back to get her cameras repaired.

Foley went into Syria with British photographer James Cantlie and they were kidnapped on the road back to the Turkish border after filing from an internet café. Foley was murdered by ISIS two years later, and Cantlie’s fate is still not known.

Like so many things, safety comes down to money, and for Tung, their kidnapping could partly be blamed on a lack of resources.

“If they had had the appropriate financial means they would have had a trusted driver, you don’t know who the taxi driver is or if you can trust them.”

As a freelance, she said, “we are so at the mercy of these publications who don’t pay or pay late”.

She lists three essentials for freelancers in danger zones:

  • Insurance for accidental death or injury;
  • Advance payments for expenses – freelancers often get paid late and are out of pocket;
  • A security consultant who can check in with you at least once a day.

News organisations that use a particular freelance on a regular basis should provide gear and training, she said.

“Having a trusted and knowledgeable fixer/translator is one of the most key aspects of working safely,” Tung said.

“Secondary to that is having a good system of communication with people keeping an eye out for your whereabouts and ensuring you do check-ins regularly, and on time. I’ve also made sure that I have the essentials in order, including a flak jacket and helmet if needed, and first aid kit which I take on all assignments whether I expect violence or not.

“As a freelancer, the support system I have is certainly not comparable to those who work on staff with big organisations behind them, including security consultants and larger budgets. I create my own system of reporting back when I’m in the field, usually to fellow journalists who are going to be in one place with reliable communications for the duration of my trip and who I give all necessary contacts to.

“They also are connected with the editors for whom I’m working on the story in any given country. Most outlets do take work from freelancers, although some have decided to not take work at all from areas of high risk as they do not want to be held accountable in the event something goes wrong.

“I’ve had many different experiences that have all changed the way I work, not necessarily near misses (though yes, I have had too many of those, too). I’d say the increased targeting of journalists around the world makes this profession much more difficult, and I have either had to stop working in one place or go about it in a different way – Syria was one example of that.”

For details on free medical training for freelance journalists, go to risctraining.org/

Nicole Tung is a freelance photojournalist born and raised in Hong Kong. She graduated from New York University in 2009 and freelances for international publications and NGOs, primarily covering the Middle East. Her work often explores those most affected by conflict and war. She is based in Istanbul, Turkey.

‘If the threat level is high, staff are told to stay at home’

Allison Jackson is Afghanistan bureau chief for AFP. She lost her chief photographer and office driver in bomb blasts this year. Here she describes how her staff cope with the dangers of living in Kabul.

After our chief photographer Shah Marai and eight other journalists were killed in a twin bomb attack in Kabul on April 30 that appeared to deliberately target the media, AFP took the decision to stop sending photo and video journalists to the scenes of suicide bombings. For other types of security incidents, we make an assessment on a case-by-case basis.

AFP's Kabul Bureau Chief, Allison Jackson.
AFP’s Kabul Bureau Chief, Allison Jackson.

While coordinated double-bomb attacks have not been a feature of the Afghan conflict, they do happen. We saw it again on September 5 when a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a wrestling club in Kabul. After journalists and first responders rushed to the scene, a car bomb exploded. A total of 26 people were killed in the twin blasts, including two Afghan journalists.

Kabul is a dangerous city and the constant challenge for us is to minimise the risks we face on a daily basis. We do that by taking precautions, such as not going out at certain times of the day; avoiding locations that are considered high risk; ensuring colleagues know exactly where we are going, who we are planning to see and what time we expect to be back at the office; not creating patterns in our movements; and staying in contact with colleagues on the office WhatsApp group.

If we believe the threat level in the city is particularly high, staff are told to stay home.

The deaths of Marai and Mohammad Akhtar, our office driver, have been devastating for the bureau. Fortunately, the team has managed to pull together and support one another. It is a sad fact that my Afghan colleagues have experienced painful loss many times in their lives and they have developed a resilience that enables them to carry on. Mental health professionals are scarce in Afghanistan and most people have never consulted one. While AFP has given everyone in the bureau the opportunity to talk to a psychologist, people here are more familiar with faith, family and friends to help them cope with loss.

Allison Jackson joined AFP in 2009 as economics correspondent in China. An Australian who speaks Mandarin, she spent nearly three years in Beijing then left the Agency in 2012 to spend time in Mexico. She rejoined AFP in 2016 as an editor in Hong Kong and became Kabul bureau chief in July 2017.

Rebel fighters attempt to identify the dead near the frontline between Ajdabiya and Marsa Brega, Libya, on April 1, 2011.