IWMF Spotlight: Conflict Reporting

Reporting in hostile environments and how to keep yourself safe

IWMF Adelante Fellows running during a Hostile Environment and First Aid Safety Training in 2019. Photo credit: Meghan Dhaliwal.

This month, the IWMF is highlighting the essential work of journalists covering hostile environments, including those who went above and beyond to prepare themselves and produce exceptional stories.

We spoke to Jeff Belzil, the IWMF’s security director, about the steps journalists must take to protect themselves, their sources and civilians when reporting on a crisis.

“In conflict areas, the context is important,” he said. “I’ve worked with a lot of journalists who had experience in Iraq or Afghanistan and think they should be alright. But that’s a huge mistake. You’re better off being more aware than not enough.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

IWMF: What are some of the common mistakes journalists make when reporting in a hostile environment?

Jeff Belzil: 90% of journalists are doing an amazing job, but there’s 10% of journalists that are making mistakes. They assume that nothing’s going to happen, and then when the situation goes sideways, they’re not prepared, and that’s when they’re extremely exposed.

One mistake is when journalists don’t use a burner phone. It’s a phone that isn’t your personal phone, it has another chip, and then after the investigation, you can either sell the phone or destroy it.

Another mistake is thinking that kidnapping, sexual assault and murder are the main risks. The main risk is trauma. The other important one is sexual harassment. In some places, it’s hard to mitigate it, but you need to be aware that it exists.

IWMF: What are the steps you should take before you go on assignment in a conflict zone?

Jeff: Do a risk assessment. It’s not only a piece of paper to fill out to make your editor happy. The key to a risk assessment is identifying the risk for you specifically — maybe there’s gender risks, cultural risks and other identity risks.

When you identify these risks, you start with actor mapping. Who could be doing the harm? It could be alt-right groups, criminal groups, governments, or your own sources. After that, you need to decide your mitigation measures. Maybe instead of going to that area for three weeks, I’ll go for two to minimize exposure. Maybe I’m going to work with the local fixer. I’ll have a communication protocol and a security protocol. All these things are mitigation.

The most important is the contingency plan. There’s always that 1% chance that you’re going to find yourself at the wrong place at the wrong moment, and you have to be prepared for that moment.

IWMF: What are some techniques journalists can use to stay aware while they’re on the ground?

Jeff: There are three types of awareness. You have situational awareness — you’re aware of what’s changing. You have personal awareness — awareness of your actions and movements. The most important is the third-party awareness — how people perceive you. That goes a lot with how you can blend in — clothing, equipment, how you behave, your exposure, the time of day. That feeds into how people perceive you. Do they think you’re a threat?

IWMF: Zooming out to the big picture, how have safety conditions for journalists changed in the last couple of years with the pandemic and other international events?

Jeff: It’s harder because there’s a lot of misinformation and people don’t trust mainstream media. They get their news from Facebook, which is common around the world. Second, there’s the rise of alt-right groups or governments. It’s really concerning for journalists. Journalists have to work twice as hard to convince sources of the truth.

With smartphones, journalists are more aware, more prepared and have better access to direct information and PPE than before. But it’s more difficult with digital threats such as Pegasus, hidden cameras in hotel rooms or GPS trackers on rental cars.

Safety Resources

If you are a journalist looking for resources about digital safety, visit our Online Violence Response Hub.→ Visit Resource 
Check out our open online courses covering reporting safety and online harassment. → Visit Resource
Newsrooms looking for digital or physical security support can contact the IWMF for free policy development, training and consultation. → Intake form

If you are in a crisis situation directly related to your work as a journalist, contact us about the IWMF Emergency Fund. → Visit Resource

If you are a Black journalist interested in receiving financial assistance for mental health support, contact us about the Black Journalist Therapy Relief Fund. → Visit Resource

Featured Stories

Over the Horizon: The next frontier in the war on terror

Peul herders at an encampment in Niamey. All photographs from Niger by Nicole Tung, November 2021, for Harper’s Magazine © The artist

For the December 2022 issue of Harper’s magazine, Fund for Women Journalists grantee Caitlin Chandler reported on the U.S. military’s counterterrorism operations in Niger. She toured a military base, spoke to displaced Nigeriens whose lives were disrupted by armed conflict and highlighted how existing community mediation and conflict resolution mechanisms are swallowed by international military endeavors.

Some of the measures I implemented during my reporting trip included morning and evening check-ins, varying my daily routine and rarely traveling alone. I was also lucky that Harper’s assigned Nicole Tungas a photographer for the piece. Nicole and I worked together for the latter part of the trip, including the visit to the US Special Forces base and displaced persons’ camp in Ouallam, and as an experienced conflict photographer Nicole thought about several important safety considerations for our trip.

These included sending our driver’s car to the mechanic for a check-up to make sure we didn’t break down on the road, storing extra water/snacks in the trunk, and bringing a satellite phone in case of emergency. Collaborating with Nicole after reporting on my own was a fantastic experience and significantly elevated the story. So whenever possible, I would highly recommend working together with a photographer.” —Caitlin Chandler

The ‘world’s coolest dictator’ rounded up 60,000 people in a supposed crackdown on MS-13. A shrimp farming community is fighting back.

Residents of the Bajo Lempa meet weekly at a retreat center to discuss the mass arrests. Fred Ramos for Insider.

In an investigation for Insider, freelance journalist Danielle Mackey reported on El Salvador’s crackdown on gangs and how innocent civilians have been swept up in the devastation. President Nayib Bukele is known internationally for adopting Bitcoin as a national currency and attempting to make the country a surfing destination, but for civilians, he has ushered in a new wave of mass incarceration.

“Another neighbor was arrested even though he’d obtained and was carrying around his spotless police record, believing, wrongly, that such a thing would matter to police,” Mackey wrote.

In Kashmir, Counter­insurgents’ Widows Fight to Save Their Sons

Jameela Begum, 46, says after the death of her husband, she is only left with memories, which she relives through old pictures. Credit: Aliya Bashir

With the support of the Fund for Women Journalists, freelance journalist Aliya Bashir traveled through towns in Indian-administered Kashmir to speak to the widows of counterinsurgents known as the Ikhwan. After their husbands died, the women live in isolation—stigmatized by their communities and with no government support. Speaking to survivors of tragedy for this story in The Diplomat, she took a trauma-informed approach to her reporting to prevent further harm.

As journalists, we have no control on any danger, but we can minimize the risks with proper planning. So, risk assessment during pre-reporting and reporting is a must, along with trauma awareness. But, we have to take utmost care not to reveal our location or sources with people we don’t trust. Being in touch with the editor throughout the process is crucial and there is no need to rush to publish the story, unless we are not confident of our physical safety.

One of the struggles during the project was that most of the sources were not comfortable giving their interviews in their homes, and due to the sensitivity of the issue and their safety, I had little control to choose a location. But, having a reliable local trusted source who was aware of the geography and had no conflict of interest was helpful. But, without losing some control, I didn’t hesitate to call back my other sources to confirm and verify information to ensure my own safety. In any circumstance, we don’t have to be complacent about our own safety.”—Aliya Bashir