Staying safe while covering violent protests

Safety basics for covering protests

  • Develop security protocols for every circumstance. Reporters need to go out into the field with protocols established and agreed upon with their editor and team. If an independent reporter lacks support from a newsroom, she should work with other freelance and/or staff colleagues to create a common protocol.
  • When possible, plan coverage with as much detail as possible. This should ideally include pre-scouting the area they’ll be covering. When journalists are in an area for the first time, they should do a quick inspection and identify escape routes and places where they can protect themselves in case violence erupts. This inspection could also include identifying elevated areas where they can take photos or record video.
  • Be aware of who the violent actors are and their political, religious, economic or cultural motivations. Journalists need to know — with as much detail as possible — which actors will respond most aggressively to journalists and what that aggression will look like.
  • Decide for yourself what kinds of circumstances require wearing distinctive IDs or jackets to identify yourself as a journalist. As a general rule, it’s usually better to be plainly identified as a member of the media, but in some cases this could attract more violence. In any case, IDs should always be on hand and available so they can be used when necessary.
  • Two-way communication with the newsroom needs to be constant. Journalists in the field should carry fully-powered, external batteries for their mobile phones. If possible, journalists can carry an additional small phone with them to use exclusively for making calls — it doesn’t have to be a smartphone.
  • Avoid contact with groups promoting violence or security forces who are about to deploy crowd control measures. When circumstances permit, it’s recommended to maintain a distance of at least 10 to 15 meters from those threatening to use violence. If you’re able to approach these actors in a controlled way, make sure these encounters are brief and organized. At all costs, it’s indispensable to avoid getting stuck in a confrontation between rival protesters or between protesters and security forces. 
  • Do Facebook Live broadcasts in teams of two or more people, so that way at least one person can pay attention to what’s happening in the area while also protecting the other person’s back. If there is violence, the reporter needs to be able to interrupt the transmission if his security is at risk.
  • Interviews with protestors or other actors should take place on street corners, with the interviewee up against a wall. The reporter should be able to have a complete view of what’s happening around them.
  • In cross-fire situations or if protesters are being fired upon, journalists should be trained in ducking down, seeking cover, identifying whether they are really hearing gunfire, and then identifying the source and the shooter(s). Journalists should also follow these steps when encountering rubber bullet fire. These can be lethal or cause severe damage if they hit the eyes.
  • Don’t use wet cloth in the event of a tear gas attack, as some tear gas substances can react negatively with water. Journalists in South Africa, for example, use condom lubricant to wipe their faces if they are tear gassed.
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