How to Stay Safe While Reporting from Hostile (and Not So Hostile) Environments

    by Michael Clarke
    May 14, 2014
    Photo of cameraman by Flickr user José Goulão and used here via the Creative Commons license.

    Click on the image for the full series.
    Photo by blackdenimgumb on Flickr.

    On my first trip to Iraq in 2005, I remember being very aware of my security situation. At the time, I had not been to hostile environment training, and when I arrived, the hulking South African ex-special forces Personal Protection Officer who was lucky enough to have been assigned to babysitting me for the next week, turned around to me in our B6 armored suburban and asked me, “Do you know the number one thing you can do today to get home safely?”

    "The lesson is: Often when we get out of our comfort zone we forget to do the most basic safety customs like fastening your seatbelt or looking both ways to cross the street."

    Looking awkwardly at the weapon sitting next to me while fiddling with the Velcro on my body armor I responded timidly, “No. What?”


    “Fasten your seatbelt,” he said with a laugh.

    The lesson is: Often when we get out of our comfort zone we forget to do the most basic safety customs like fastening your seatbelt or looking both ways to cross the street.

    Below are some tips and tricks I learned while living and working abroad over the past 15 years. My mantra is not to forget the small stuff; more than likely you are going to be injured in a vehicle accident, a natural event such as an earthquake, or a random act like a hotel fire rather than the spectacular events we see every day on TV.


    Personal Security

    When it comes to personal security, my favorite tip for anyone traveling is to wear sunglasses. This can be tough because in journalism school, we were taught not to wear sunglasses because it will affect what you are seeing through the viewfinder. To get around this, I tend to look over or under my sunglasses, but there is a reason every security personnel I have ever met wears shades: You can be aware of your surroundings without having to make eye contact or otherwise engage with those around you. Not making direct eye contact is the same advice park rangers give hikers in Glacier National Park when they encounter a grizzly bear. Ironically, the same advice works well for humans too.

    Below are some basic items I take with me when I travel:

    • My Med Kit/Go Kit that includes extra meds, basic first aid supplies, a flashlight, a lighter, and $500 USD.
    • My smartphone with these emergency apps installed:
      • A Flashlight App that can signal SOS in Morse code.
      • Red Cross First Aid App, which is very useful if you need to brush up on your emergency A, B, C’s.
      • ubAlert — Disaster Alert Network. The app gives you all the information you need when it comes to disasters happening across the world. It provides you with alerts that contain basic event details, impact statistics, maps, images, videos and more. What I like is that you can instantly share alerts with co-workers, family members and friends to get them out of harm’s way via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.
      • !Emergency!: If you travel a lot, but do not always have time to find out the important numbers of the country you are in, then this app is for you. This app will show a map of hospitals and clinics in the vicinity of the current location, and one that will show the nearest embassy of the nationality that is entered, which is very useful.
      • wikiHow – How to and DIY Survival Guide: This free wikiHow app has an excellent set of articles to help you in just about any situation, from helping someone who is choking to handling vehicle emergencies, to natural disasters.
      • ICE Standard – Emergency Standard Card: The emergency standard card has not only your basic information, such as name and birthdate, but areas to list your emergency contacts, any medications you are taking, allergies, conditions and medical devices and your blood type. You can also include your insurance information as well as any other information you think might be helpful to those treating you. Even if you aren’t incapacitated, it’s good to have all this information all together in one place.
      • Google Maps: I can’t tell you how many times Google Maps has gotten me back on track, especially with dishonest cab drivers. Whether walking, driving or taking public transport, Google Maps has you covered when you don’t know where you are going.
      • A “dumbphone” for basic local phone calls and text messages with extra phone cards to recharge my line. I ensure all my local and international numbers are programed in with nicknames to protect my sources.
      • Back-up batteries and/or “lip-stick” chargers with a universal USB battery charger to recharge all your devices whether you are in the car or at office.
      • A MoJo Kit, or mobile journalism kit, that I can write, shoot, edit, and distribute photos and video from one device without attracting too much attention.

    Communication Security

    Along with personal security these days, journalists need to have a robust communications security plan. This includes securing your phone(s), email, SMS, chats, and passwords. Below are some of my favorite resources for securing my communications:

    • Phone: Smartphones and even dumbphones have a unique identity. Unless you obtain an anonymous phone, nothing you say is private. To communicate privately, make calls only between anonymous phones. When I’m abroad I try to use unregistered pre-paid SIM cards in my dumbphone whenever possible. I also try to avoid paying for a phone or SIM cards using a credit card, which creates a connection between my phone or SIM card and my bank account. Before going abroad, I would recommend every journalist read Tactical Tech’s “How to use smartphones as securely as possible.”
    • Email: Your email is not secure either. Recently secure, encrypted email services Lavabit and Secret Circle voluntarily shut down, but there are still some for-pay email providers (largely based outside the U.S.) that use powerful security like OpenPGP and public-key encryption, and swear they won’t let prying eyes see your data. I am very excited to see Lavabit founder Ladar Levison and Silent Circle recently concluded a successful Kickstarter initiative to help fund the development and rollout of the first Dark Mail clients. (“Dark Mail can guarantee that when a third party does gain access, or demands access, the privacy users rightfully deserve is maintained without fail.”) Until launched, I would recommend checking out RiseUp, a collective organization dedicated to providing private and secure email and hosting services.
    • SMS: I do not recommend using SMS to communicate any sensitive information. SMS is searchable and indexable. If you have to use SMS, consider using software such as CryptoSMS or SMS007 that are commercial SMS encryption tools that can be installed on your phone. If this is not realistic, one of my favorite organizations, Small World News, advises “to create a simple system to avoid security breaches by creating a coded communication system with trusted colleagues.” It is simple to build up a collection of “codes” to relay basic information. For example, “D” could mean you’re in danger, and “S” could mean you’re safe. I also try to delete all received and sent messages.
    • Chat/VoIP: Instant messaging is often more secure than email. For encrypted chat I use Cryptocat. Cryptocat uses modern web technologies to provide easy-to-use, accessible encrypted chat with your friends, right in your browser. Everything is encrypted before it leaves your computer — even the Cryptocat network itself can’t read your messages. Regardless of the software, I recommend everyone utilize Off The Record Messaging (OTR). OTR was set up to provide deniability for metadata, which means that unlike with many less-secure kinds of email, even if somehow someone got their hands on a transcript, there’s no way to prove exactly who was communicating.
    • Passwords: I recommend any journalist should change their password every month, but how do you keep coming up with good passwords? My favorite tip I learned recently for creating a long and robust password is to use a formula like your best friend’s home address. For example: 1600PennsylvaniaAve.WashingtonDC20500. If that doesn’t work for you, try KeePass, an easy-to-use, powerful tool that helps you store and manage all your passwords in a highly secure database.

    Transportation Security

    Bad choices are the most common risk we all face. I have adapted these rules from Small World News’ “Guide to Safely and Securely Producing Media” to help me avoid bad choices when I’m traveling:

    • I always tell someone where I’m going and when I’ll will be back.
    • When filming, I like to travel in pairs, or groups of three if possible. I like to shoot with a cameraperson, a lighting/sound person, and a director/producer (me) who is ultimately responsible for ensuring the safety and security of the team.
    • I try to know all the routes in and out of where we will be filming.
    • If possible I try to conduct a “recce” before filming.
    • I trust my local friends, but never trust anyone I don’t know.
    • I always try to have a backup plan. If things go wrong, everyone in your team should know what the plan is and a secure location to meet up after if you get separated.
    • I always have a local contact that has access to a car that I know I can trust in an emergency if I have to evacuate. In Iraq I always insisted on working with a local driver who knew the “unwritten rules” of the road, spoke the local language along with English, understood the risks, and knew the back routes in and out of the city.
    • I recommend performing a basic vehicle inspection if you are planning on traveling long distances. If possible, arrange for a car that has seatbelts, airbags, good tires including a spare, a jack, extra gasoline, food, and clean water if there is a scarcity.
    • Finally, I always do a walkthrough of my hotel when I arrive and the emergency exits to ensure they are not locked or blocked. I also request a room on the backside of the hotel near the emergency exit, not just because it is safer, but also it is often quieter.

    Over the years, the tips and recommendations above have been handed down to me or been learned the hard way. I’ve found they work regardless if you are in Paris or Paktia. I would like to thank Tactical Tech and Small World News for all of their hard work ensuring this information is shared. If you have any other tips or recommendations, please let me know, and remember, don’t forget the small stuff.

    Michael Clarke (@MediaMikeDC) is the owner of International Media Solutions LLC (IMS) and creator of the MoJo Kit®. Michael has over fifteen years of experience in the international development field, with a particular focus on traditional and new media development in conflict and post-conflict countries. He began his career in 1998 serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan. Since then he has worked on projects throughout the Balkans, Central Asia, East Africa and the Middle East. Prior to founding IMS, Michael managed a portfolio of media development projects in Iraq including the U.S. Department of State funded Media and Technology for Community Development (MTCD) program and the Media and Civil Society for Transparent Governance (MCSTG) program in an effort to advance Iraq’s media professionalism, sustainability, media regulation, and local institutions that support independent media and journalists. 

    journosecJournoSec is a column aimed at helping journalists better under the security, privacy and anonymity challenges they currently face, and steps they can take to protect themselves. Managed by OpenITP Outreach Manager Sandra Ordonez, it brings together leading voices from the community behind open-source technologies that circumvent censorship and surveillance. For more information, follow @OpenITP. To become more involved, contact sandraordonez AT OpenITP DOT org.

    Tagged: digisec digital security emails journosec openitp security tips SMS war zones

    2 responses to “How to Stay Safe While Reporting from Hostile (and Not So Hostile) Environments”

    1. Sandra ordonez says:

      OpenITP is hosting an event on May 19 that may be of interest to those in NYC: Dataveillance and Everyday Consciousness in the ‘Smart’ City

    2. Fascinating article! Some good tips even for tourists, especially when visiting certain countries.

      Torsten @ http://www.mightytravels.com

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