Safety and Security for Journalists and Media

When most people think of executive protection, or bodyguards in general, they tend to think of VIPs, celebrities, and high net worth individuals (HNWI). Though they may not always travel to hazardous locations, their risk is enhanced by virtue of their position or status. For journalists and media crews though, travelling to hazardous locations is often part of the job, thus provision sometimes needs to be made for risk management and personal security.

In some cases the risk is very high. Anyone who has seen the movie, Whisky Tango Foxtrot or read the book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker, will have a sense of how high that risk might be. Even allowing for the artistic license that Hollywood inevitably takes, there is no doubt that journalists and media crews find themselves in risky situations. In this post, and this podcast episode, we take a look at some of those risks and how they can be mitigated.

What’s the difference between executive protection for VIPs and safety and security for journalists and media crews?

I’ve been saying for some time that security is really just a bi-product of the service that we provide and that service is essentially moving people from point A to point B. A security for journalists and media project still requires us to transport and protect so, in essence, the primary goals are the same but the planning and execution will vary considerably.

The risk profile of a journalist and their crew in a war zone or meeting with criminal figures is clearly different to the risk profile of a pop star visiting a shopping mall. And the resources will vary considerably also.

At the VIP and executive end, comfort and style will play a larger role, with 5 star hotels and stretch limos being part of the execution. With news and media projects though, budget accommodation and vehicles that blend in might be more appropriate and affordable.

In essence, journalists are all about getting into the action, whereas VIPs and high net worth individuals are all about avoiding it.

The planning for a media project will be determined by whether the location(s) to be visited might be considered hostile, which covers countries with active war zones, Syria and Afghanistan for example, or volatile, which includes countries that have an inherent safety risk, such as parts of Africa, Latin America, Papua New Guinea and so on. The war zones have risks such as roadside bombs or IEDs (improvised explosive device) while the latter carries risk of kidnapping, armed assault and the like.

Some projects, however, are in locations that are neither hostile or volatile and can be considered benign to a degree. We’ve provided security for journalists and supported television crews in Hawaii, Australia, Singapore and other ‘soft spots’ where there just happened to be an element of risk that warranted a protective presence. As is usual practice, we team up with local providers to make sure the job gets done effectively.

Boots on the ground

A typical example of a project in a volatile zone would be one where we supported a freelance journalists covering stories in Basra during the Iraq war. He outlined the goals of his trip and the locations he was hoping to visit and we provided a risk brief on those locations. The risk brief outlines the conditions he was exposing himself to. We then also provided a full orders brief, which essentially covers what to do when in the area, such as honouring the local customs, etc.

His budget stretched to an armed multi-national team, including local personnel, so we were able to provide a high level of support and threat analysis as the project unfolded.

A key part of this project, and any project in fact, is that we developed a high degree of trust with the journalist right from the start. In any situation, it’s important for the client to understand that if the protection team says it’s time to move out, then it really is time to move out. Without trust, that message just won’t get through.

An additional benefit of this trust is that it allows the journalist and their crew to focus on their work knowing that their backs are covered.

Meanwhile, an example of a project in a volatile zone was when we travelled with a journalist and production team to remote parts of Indonesia to gather material for a story exposing a slavery ring. A sophisticated criminal element was luring fishermen from other parts of Asia with the promise of high wages then enslaving them by holding their passports and preventing their return home.

This project required considerable planning and, because we had to keep a low profile and be reasonably mobile, we had to travel with a small security team. Working with trusted locals, or ‘fixers’ we embedded with the production crew and had to fit in with they wanted and what they needed and, at the same time, provide them with the right advice.

For us, it was about getting the production team as close to the story as possible but, at the same time, attempting to mitigate the risk. It even included managing to get one of them onboard one of the fishing boats without being detected, and then get them off again safely. It was a challenging but rewarding project.

Importantly, in both of these cases, the journalists got what they needed and without coming to harm. Had they not had an expert risk management team with them, it’s doubtful they would have got their story without meeting some sort of misfortune along the way.

Part of the adventure

A key part of any risk management project is to remember that it’s not our role to set the agenda. With journalists, they usually have a pretty adventurous spirit and take more risks than most people. Rather than trying to eliminate the risks, we see our role as helping them to manage it. Safety and security for journalists is about working in with them and providing expert advice.

As much as possible, we try to think of ourselves as being part of their crew, rather than being a separate crew that has a different set of goals. It’s their show, their gig, and our job is to support them in it. We are there to manage expectations rather than to spoil the show so to speak.

As often as not, this means coming up with alternative approaches to a task rather simply saying, ‘No, it can’t be done’. On the rare occasion that we do say it can’t be done, it will be with very good reason and only after all other options have been explored.

Travelling solo

With the advent of mobile phones and camcorders, it’s often the case that a journalist will travel without a production crew. This shouldn’t be used as an excuse to avoid risk management or bypass a security presence when it might still be in their best interests to do so. Just because you’re travelling solo doesn’t mean that safety and security for journalists or media goes out the window.

A single journalist recording their own video and/or audio and covering their own logistics is already doing the jobs of multiple people. To add risk management on top of that means something often has to compromise. Usually that will be the risk side of things as it’s not a core skill of the journalist.

Where possible it makes sense to travel with a security presence. Rather than slowing you down, they will actually help get the job done quicker and probably to a higher standard.

Where that’s not possible, consideration should at least be given to having a risk assessment and briefing conducted prior to departure. Even logistics such as hiring a vehicle can be fraught with risk as you can often end up with an unkempt vehicle running on bald tyres. A risk management team can help source vehicles, and local drivers if necessary, that are safer and more suitable for the job. If nothing else, a local driver can help the journalist blend in and make their presence less obvious

Travelling incognito

As a rule, journalists want to stand out on the media, but a key part of security for journalists is to keep a low profile out in the field. We often recommend travelling incognito to support this. We suggest using an assumed name and company when booking accommodation or meeting drivers so as to not draw attention.

This may not be possible when covering official functions or events and sometimes the equipment being used is a give away but, wherever possible a minimal footprint is preferable.

This is especially true in countries that have tight censorship laws or where there might be political unrest.

Kidnapping

Kidnappings have happened before to journalists and will certainly happen again and someone who prepares for it is obviously going to be in a better position than someone who doesn’t.

We actually run a ‘Surviving Captivity’ program, primarily designed to highlight what you will experience after being captured and what you can do to minimise the chances of being kidnapped. It’s also an education session on what goes on behind the scenes of a typical kidnap situation.

While it’s not practical to deliver the full content of the program here, there are some fundamental actions and principles to keep in mind if you’re ever in a kidnap situation.

  • Leave breadcrumbs before the fact. Keep family members, your workplace and your embassy appraised of your movements so that in the event that you go missing, they at least have an idea of where to start looking for you.

  • Take a deep breath. Expect that you’ll be going through an emotional roller coaster that covers fear, dread, anger, confusion and helplessness. Knowing that those emotions are coming will help you respond to them rather than react to them when they arrive.

  • Kidnappings are usually ‘business transactions’. Except in rare occasions where the captors are looking to make a political or ideological statement, expect in most cases that they are looking to make an exchange of some sort. Know that it’s likely that these negotiations are going on in the background and a good deal of resources are probably being assembled to support your release.

  • Expect to be uncomfortable. No explanation necessary.

  • Be as aware as possible of your surroundings. How many people appear to be on site? Which way does the sun seem to travel through the day? What sort of vehicles are being used? Can you hear trains, boats or planes nearby? You may not have access to all your senses and will likely lose track of time but gather whatever clues you can as they might be useful either for your own rescue or to support someone else going through the same thing later on.

Nothing is a substitute for proper training for this situation though so reach out to us if you want more information about the Surviving Captivity training. Though it’s not as intense as a military version of the program, it is run by former special forces and intelligence operatives so covers the subject in considerable detail.

3 Quick Tips to Wrap Up

1 – Even if you aren’t entering a hostile or volatile environment, any travelling journalist or production crew would be well advised to review our travel tips in episode two and three of the Wheels Up Podcast.

You can also download our Business Travel Safety and Security Check List by entering your details below prior to travel.

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2 – Before heading off, reach out to a reputable security and risk-management company. Find out if they provide hostile environment awareness training, (or HEAT training). That’s something that we also do here at Panoptic Solutions but there are various other companies out there that offer that as well. Make sure that the course covers a medical aspect within it as well because medical risk increases exponentially in some of the volatile areas you may go to and a few precautions can make all the difference.

3 – Talk to a risk-management provider about a ‘fixer’ or a trusted source in-country. Obviously the gold standard would be to have a security consultant travel with you or meet you in location but if you don’t have the means, then discuss what options you’ve got within your budget. It may just be about arranging a trusted driver or secure transportation in the locations you are going to.

Seek help, even if you think you can’t afford it

Even if it’s not an option to have a security team travel with you, establishing a relationship with a risk management or executive protection company in advance could you give you an opportunity for some ‘long-distance advice’ if needed. Security for journalists and media teams can include sound advice.

We did some prep work with a media crew heading to South America not long ago and they were going to some rather volatile regions and associating with some rather unpredictable characters. They chose not to utilise our services in the end but we continued to provide them with advice while they were in transit as we were rather concerned and worried about their safety.

Journalism is hard enough as it is but if a compromise on safety is necessary, it shouldn’t be an all or nothing deal. It costs nothing to make an enquiry and it could save a whole lot of heartache to do so.

Contact Panoptic Solutions to discuss safety and security for journalists or your media team. Our expert security conslutants have years of experince working with media. Call +61 1300 651 407 or email us info@panopticsolutions.com

2 – Before heading off, reach out to a reputable security and risk-management company. Find out if they provide hostile environment awareness training, (or HEAT training). That’s something that we also do here at Panoptic Solutions but there are various other companies out there that offer that as well. Make sure that the course covers a medical aspect within it as well because medical risk increases exponentially in some of the volatile areas you may go to and a few precautions can make all the difference.

3 – Talk to a risk-management provider about a ‘fixer’ or a trusted source in-country. Obviously the gold standard would be to have a security consultant travel with you or meet you in location but if you don’t have the means, then discuss what options you’ve got within your budget. It may just be about arranging a trusted driver or secure transportation in the locations you are going to.

Seek help, even if you think you can’t afford it

Even if it’s not an option to have a security team travel with you, establishing a relationship with a risk management or executive protection company in advance could you give you an opportunity for some ‘long-distance advice’ if needed. Security for journalists and media teams can include sound advice.

We did some prep work with a media crew heading to South America not long ago and they were going to some rather volatile regions and associating with some rather unpredictable characters. They chose not to utilise our services in the end but we continued to provide them with advice while they were in transit as we were rather concerned and worried about their safety.

Journalism is hard enough as it is but if a compromise on safety is necessary, it shouldn’t be an all or nothing deal. It costs nothing to make an enquiry and it could save a whole lot of heartache to do so.

Contact Panoptic Solutions to discuss safety and security for journalists or your media team. Our expert security conslutants have years of experince working with media. Call +61 1300 651 407 or email us info@panopticsolutions.com