war reporter
Credit: By The U.S. Army on Flickr. Some rights reserved

When it comes to conflict reporting, journalists are now a target. Gone are the days when armed forces needed reporters to help them get their message out, as more and more militant groups take to social media to spread their own message, unmitigated.

When added to the dwindling resources assigned to foreign reporting, many freelancers rightly feel they are not getting the support they need in an increasingly dangerous situation.

Since 2011, more than 400 journalists and media workers have been killed while working, the highest since the Committee to Protect Journalists began taking records in 1992. The murder of James Foley and Steven Sotloff last summer acted as a wake-up call to the wider industry in understanding the very real danger many freelancers face in the field.

Sooner or later [freelancers] will make a decision based on the fact they can't pay for somethingJohn D McHugh, Verifeye Media
In February, a coalition of organisations launched the Call for Global Safety Principles and Practices, urging news organisations to treat freelancers working in dangerous situations like they were staff, and freelancers to better protect themselves and each other.

"[News outlets] need to look at how they work with independent journalists and fixers," said Tina Carr, director of the Rory Peck Trust, an organisation founded to look out for freelancers, as at present they are too often "asking them to do more without paying them more or looking after them more".

The "slow or low payment" of freelancers in dangerous situations is a very real threat to their safety, said John D McHugh, an experienced war photographer and founder of Verifeye Media, as it can affect their decision-making and ability to protect themselves.

"Guest houses... cost money, body armour costs money; first aid kits and the skills to use them cost money; fixers, translators, drivers all cost money," he said. "Sooner or later [freelancers] will make a decision based on the fact they can't pay for something and will take risks. And most of that comes from the fact they're not being paid properly or quickly."

McHugh, Carr and deputy director of the CPJ Rob Mahoney spoke to Journalism.co.uk on the subject for a recent podcast. The situation for freelance journalists is improving but there is a huge amount of information anyone thinking of entering the field still needs to know.

Organisations and websites worth visiting include the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, the Rory Peck Trust, The Frontline Club, The Frontline Freelance Register, Global Journalist Security, RISC, the Dart Center and no doubt many more.

This is not an exhaustive collection of resources and is not intended to be. If this article is the only one you plan to read before heading out into the field then you shouldn't be going. Do your research. Stay safe.

First aid

"A lot of journalists have died from injuries that might have been non life-threatening had someone around them been able to administer first aid," said Mahoney.

One such journalist was Tim Hetherington. While covering the siege of Misrata, in Libya in 2011, a piece of shrapnel from a mortar cut his femoral artery. He wasn't given proper first aid and he bled to death on the back of a pickup truck.

Hetherington's close friend and colleague, Sebastian Junger, founded Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC) to train journalists in first aid. The organisation runs free courses for experienced conflict journalists in New York, London, Beirut and elsewhere a few times a year.

An introductory video to RISC, by risctraining on YouTube

John D McHugh worked in and out of the Middle East for more than ten years, covering the conflict and documenting people's lives. In 2007, while embedded with American troops, he was shot in the chest.

He is in no doubt that their medical training saved his life and both before and after his injury he would spend any free time he had while in the field getting tips from medics.

"If we're sitting having coffee and you choke on a peanut I can't do much for you," he said, "but if you get a gunshot wound or a blast amputation I know what to do to save your life."


Thankfully, McHugh had insurance when he was injured so there were no issues in getting hospital treatment.

Medical insurance is the bare minimum, but other types may be relevant too. The Frontline Freelance Register suggests thinking about insurance for kidnap and ransom situations, personal accidents and equipment, with more information on their website.

Most importantly, understand what type of events a policy will cover and be absolutely crystal clear with the insurer about the situation.

The Rory Peck Trust has a good collection of resources and information around insurance, as well as a list of providers that specialise in covering conflict reporters.

Ideally, all this will be completed after proper risk assessments.

Risk assessments

James Brabazon, a freelance journalist and filmmaker, describes a risk assessment as "helping yourself in advance".

"You're looking at the potential threats that exist on location," he said in a video series for The Frontline Club. "And you're looking at how those threats might affect you, your project, your contributors and the people you work with and what it is you can do to reduce the risk of those threats."

So this needs to include any travel risks; health risks; equipment risks; anything about your gender, age, or ethnicity that may prove to be a risk; team experience; information security; accommodation. The list goes on.

Then each needs to be broken down into different scenarios, levels of risk and mitigation factors. It may seem obsessive but being faced with an unfamiliar situation and no plan could prove fatal.

Conflict reporting experts discuss risk assessments, part of a series by Frontline Club on YouTube

The Frontline Freelance Register has a detailed guide for things to include, and the Rory Peck Trust has more resources and templates.

Communication plan

Should anything dangerous happen, people will need to know. And even if nothing is going wrong, commissioning editors and family members will want to know that everything is ok.

In its simplest form, a communication plan includes a regular contact, a plan of how you will contact them and how often, and what should be done in case of emergency.

This could be with a trusted local contact, commissioning editors, other journalists in the area, or embassy contacts. The most important elements are clarity and consistency – so if you make a plan, stick to it.

As before, the Frontline Freelance Register and Rory Peck Trust have advice and templates.

Hostile environment training

Most hostile environment training courses cover the type of issues a risk assessment and first aid course will touch on, but will give an experience of precisely the situations you want to avoid, how to avoid them and what to do should the worst happen.

For instance, what should you do if coming under mortar fire? Finding cover is an obvious answer, but it is just as important to cover your ears and open your mouth. Why? The blast wave of an explosion could blow your ear drums if the air pressure isn't equalised.

Most courses will include information about kidnapping, weapons, self-sufficiency, survival, first aid and awareness but, ultimately, planning will make the biggest difference.

McHugh would often spend more time planning his trips than actually on them, he said.

There are enough good people out there that you can get the information you needRob Mahoney, Committee to Protect Journalists
"When you're going into dangerous places or hostile environments you need to have a plan, and you need to have a back-up plan and you need to have a back-up plan for your back-up plan."

This meant maps of the cities, marking guest houses and back-up guest houses, hospitals and military bases, embassies and safe houses.

"If you just turn up and say 'well, I'll just roll around and see what happens', I'll tell you what'll happen. Something bad."

Situational awareness is just as important, as demonstrated by McHugh's last visit to Afghanistan in 2013.

On location in Jalalabad, he insisted the car was parked facing out into the street, much to the joking and mocking of those with him. Within ten minutes he found himself sprinting for the car with people in pursuit.

"Just that one little instance, I don't know if it saved our lives but it certainly helped us out of a situation I wanted to be out of very quickly."

The Frontline Freelance Register has a guide for what to look out for and training providers.

Digital security

Paramilitary groups or militia are becoming more and more sophisticated in their digital war, as well as the physical. As recently as August 2013, the New York Times and Huffington Post were both hacked by supporters of the Syrian Electronic Army and Ukraine is a growing hotbed for hackers.

Any information about location, sources, personal documents or contacts that is not digitally secure can put a freelancer and those around them at risk. So digital security should be considered as important as personal security. In the end, it is the same.

Proper password security and PGP encryption are the basics, but the right security depends on the risks involved.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a useful walkthrough of digital security measures, as does the Rory Peck Trust.


Like digital security, safety equipment should depend on the situation being faced and the potential threats in the area.

Heavyweight body armour will do little good in an urban protest when the main threats are flying rocks and tear gas, just like a rubberised full-head gas mask is unlikely to help in the sweltering heat of the Libyan desert.

Experienced photojournalist Amanda Mustard always makes sure to take shooting safety glasses to protect her eyes, and many women think it wise to wear a one-piece swimming suit to deter or delay would-be sexual attackers.

Mustard posted her kit bag on The Photo Brigade when she travelled to Egypt last year, while the Frontline Freelance Register has advice, and will loan equipment in the right circumstances.

Journalists using or carrying equipment need to be mindful of the laws of the country they are visiting, however. A journalist in Thailand is currently out on bail having been arrested for carrying body armour without a license. If found guilty, he faces five years in prison (a tip of the hat to @forestmat for raising this issue).

Other journalists

The best resource when going somewhere new, like any other field in journalism, is to speak to other journalists.

Conflict reporters, while they have a reputation for being hard-bitten and grizzled, are very supportive of their colleagues because they know exactly how dangerous the job can be.

The Frontline Club is a great members club for conflict reporters, while all the other organisations mentioned here have supportive communities.

"There are enough good people out there that you can get the information you need," said Mahoney. "So talk to people who have been there and done it and they'll put you straight pretty quickly."

Check out the full podcast below, including further interviews with Mahoney, McHugh and Carr, or on the Journalism.co.uk iTunes podcast feed.

This article has been updated to highlight that conflict reporters should be wary of any legal restrictions on equipment.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).