In light of the recent protests in Thailand, Ukraine and Venezuela, it’s more important than ever to revisit how freelance journalists can protect themselves.
When all is calm, a freelance journalist’s mind is constantly thinking of story ideas. Evergreen features, investigations and life-long obsessions churn in your brain. You’re pitching and waiting. Waiting and then pitching. But when a big news story breaks, things can change quickly — very quickly. When protesters fill the streets, suddenly you become coveted. At this stage, there’s not much more time to think, and your impulse is to rush to the streets.
But before you do, there’s a lot to consider. Here’s what you should be thinking about before heading out and reporting from protests, conflict zones or any other chaotic situation you might face.
HOW TO PREPARE
As a freelancer, take the time to learn first aid. You never know when you’ll have to use it on someone else or yourself.
If you’re traveling for the assignment, ask a non-journalist friend to check you into a hotel room to avoid government retribution for any stories you publish.
Always keep a photocopy of your passport and other important documents (visa, ID card, press credentials, etc.) backed up in your email in case hard copies are confiscated.
Then, before heading out to the field, make sure you have a slew of emergency contact numbers saved in your phone. Tell the one person you trust the most (preferably someone who’s keeping a low profile) about your travel plans and daily itinerary, so he or she knows where to start looking if you go missing. Make sure to constantly check back in with that person and update them if plans change.
WHAT TO CARRY AND WEAR
It’s extremely important to have the following items on you: a first aid kit, copies of all important documents and a physical map of the city you’re in because the Internet connection and phone service might fail or be shut down.
Carry some cash in both the local currency and U.S. dollars. You never know when bribing someone could save your life.
Bag an onion and put it in your pocket. Seriously. If you’re hit with tear gas, putting the onion close to your face while breathing will reduce the effects from the gas.
And of course, wear a helmet or protective gear if you have it. If not, a bike helmet is better than nothing.
Shooting video? Use a backpack to store your camera and stay hands-free while moving from place to place. Be sure to bring a smaller backup camera in case your main one gets confiscated or damaged, and always pack multiple memory cards.
IN THE THICK OF IT
Never work alone, and regularly check in with any freelancer colleagues. It’s important to rely on one another and work together. In tough times, community is everything.
Don’t advance to the front lines until you know what’s in front of you. If you get to the front lines, don’t stand still. Keep moving. Listen carefully for live ammunition. You will know it when you hear it, and quickly move away from it.
It’s easy to get caught up in the situation, but don’t forget to eat and stay hydrated. Adrenaline will only get you so far.
If approached by someone in uniform asking for your ID, hold it in your hand and don’t give it up unless he or she threatens you with force. Just like in war, protests are heated, emotional events where people are not who they claim to be. Don’t assume someone is law enforcement just because they say they are.
Facts are also very difficult to come by. Remember, as a journalist it’s important to question and verify statements from activists and government spokespeople. In a period of unrest, they have a tendency and incentive to distort information. Try to befriend a few reliable and rational locals on either side to help you figure out the facts. Get their phone numbers. They may be able to vouch for you if anyone questions whether you are in fact an independent journalist.
For the video journalists and photographers: Once you’ve captured usable material, remove your memory card and hide it in a sock or undergarment. If you’re shooting video and you camera allows for it, turn the record’s “red-light feature” off, so nobody knows the camera’s rolling except you. When chaos breaks out, remember to always keep the camera rolling. You never know what you’ll record. If you’re ever attacked, don’t be afraid to put your camera between yourself and the attacker. Five pounds of metal is harder than your face.
But most importantly, trust your intuition and err on the side of caution. No story is worth your life.
Have more tips? Join in on the conversation and help our colleagues in the field by tweeting your tips using the hashtag #reportinginchaos
Carlos Cabrera (@SeeLosC) is the Community Manager at Storyhunter, a platform that connects publishers with video journalists and documentary filmmakers. Follow @Storyhunter on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.