Journalist security: An evolving field

Original story ran on the Committee to Protect Journalists blog.

The garden city between the mountains and the sea founded by Vikings in 871 cast an historic hue over the discussion. Journalists from nearly every continent gathered this past weekend to discuss journalist security issues in a hotel in Tønsberg, Norway, outside of which a replica of a Viking ship was being constructed.

Marcela Turati is a Mexican journalist who explained that she never expected to cover violence or organized crime. The founder of Mexico’s first group established by journalists to help each other, Journalists on Foot, she perhaps set the tone when she tossed aside the bravado that often accompanies such forums and frankly said, “We need help in how to handle our fear.”

The journalist security community only began to identify itself as such less than a decade ago in the wake of events since 9/11. It remains an emerging field which now seems to have at least as many questions as answers.

For years journalist security was associated with “hostile environments and emergency first-aid training” provided by private security firms led and staffed almost exclusively by former British military personnel. Such skills remain invaluable for journalists covering ongoing conflicts in nations like Yemen or Libya, or ongoing wars in nations like Afghanistan or Iraq. But one fact remains: In every single nation in conflict around the world–including in both Afghanistan and Iraq–more journalists have been murdered outright than have been killed in combat or other circumstances like suicide bombings.

“I’ve taken one of those classes,” said Kirstin Solberg, who is based in Pakistan for the Norwegian daily Aftenposten, referring to a battlefield awareness and first-aid class. “They help,” she added. “But there are many things they don’t cover.”

Take a matter like how to handle coverage of organized crime. Javier Garza, editorial director of the Mexican newspaper, El Siglo de Torreón, said that he and his colleagues are literally making it up as they go along. They have no doubt earned credibility along the way. Rotating reporters in and out of crime beats to lessen their own stress and make them less of a target, and removing bylines as needed are among the steps he and his colleagues would recommend to others.

But covering organized crime in a nation like Mexico poses another set of challenges. Don’t identify by name the groups involved in shootouts, arrests, or raids, Garza recommended. Take violent stories off the front page as much as possible. In other words, Garza explained, don’t allow yourself as journalists and news outlets to be a conduit for criminal groups seeking to use the press to pass on grisly messages as a way of flaunting their strength to one another.

Or take the issue of sexual assault against journalists. Most of the paramilitary and emergency first-aid courses offered by private security firms did not include separate training or awareness on how to avoid sexual assaults. The journalist security community took most of their cues from these military-oriented experts and courses. Yet, some relief agencies working in unpredictable, field situations have long included sexual assault avoidance and awareness as part of their security training curriculum.

Or take the issue of stress reactions by journalists covering violent or traumatic events. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma only began offering fellowships to journalists in 1999. Since then, the journalist trauma awareness community has worked to have the matter integrated into journalist security training curriculums. Another security concern for journalists that has become only more apparent in recent years is the need for digital information and communications security. How to protect notes and documents on your hard drive, like how to safely communicate with sources and editors are increasingly complex questions in an interconnected world of ever-evolving technology.

Whether it’s safe or even wise to be either on Facebook (or to be too transparent on it) was one of the last points of discussion. Afterward, I noticed that my friend and colleague, the Mexican editor Garza, posted a picture on Facebook of the Viking ship replica being built outside the hotel.

Frank Smyth is CPJ’s Washington representative and journalist security coordinator. He has reported on armed conflicts, organized crime, and human rights from nations including El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Rwanda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Iraq. Follow him on Twitter @SmythFrank.

April 7, 2011 2:10 PM ET