COVERING DANGEROUS BEATS: DOMESTIC JOURNALISM

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While foreign journalists face significant logistical and security challenges, domestic journalists face more severe threats to their lives and freedom. Nearly nine in 10 work-related fatalities since 1992 have involved local journalists covering news in their home countries, CPJ research shows. And more than 95 percept of journalists jailed worldwide are local reporters, photojournalists, bloggers, and editors, according to CPJ research. The need for thorough preparation and security planning is especially acute for domestic reporters.

If you are new to the profession, a beat, or a particular type of assignment, you may wish to seek out experienced colleagues for advice and potential mentoring. With permission, accompany a seasoned colleague for a time as he or she works; you can gain valuable hands-on knowledge by watching a veteran at work. You should research all applicable press laws, including statutes governing access to public information, access to private property, libel and slander, and the restrictions on content that many repressive countries seek to impose. Countries such as Ethiopia, for example, consider the mere coverage of opposition groups to be an antistate crime. China imprisons writers who are critical of the central government or the Communist Party. Dozens of journalists each year are jailed worldwide on such antistate charges. Even if you choose to push content boundaries, you need to know the restrictions and the potentially significant implications of going beyond them.

Beat reporters covering politics, corruption, crime, and conflict are at particularly high risk of attack or imprisonment, CPJ research shows. If you are covering a beat, you should invest time in understanding the security implications of your topic; identifying the major actors and learning their motivations; and understanding the ramifications of going beyond red lines that are enforced through statute or violent, extralegal means. Editors should allow journalists who are new to a beat enough preparatory time for them to meet sources, talk to experienced colleagues, and learn practices and terminology relevant to the topic. A crime beat, in particular, demands an understanding of law enforcement procedures. (See Chapter 5 Organized Crime and Corruption, and Chapter 6 Civil Matters and Disturbances.) On crime and other high-risk assignments, you should develop a security assessment in consultation with editors.

Freelancers should understand the potential risk of an assignment, along with the news organization’s ability to provide support. Don’t hesitate to turn down a risky assignment.

If you are a freelancer considering an assignment for a domestic or international news outlet, you should have a clear understanding of the potential risk and the news organization’s ability and willingness to provide support if you encounter trouble. You should always develop a security assessment prior to a potentially dangerous assignment, enlist reliable security contacts, and establish a precise procedure for regular check-ins. (See Chapter 2 Assessing and Responding to Risk.) Freelancers should not hesitate to turn down a risky assignment. In some highly repressive countries, you may be forbidden by law from working as a journalist for an international news organization. Know the law and the implications of working for foreign news media. In a number of other countries, you may not wish to be identified in a byline or credit line. You should understand the implications of having your name appear on a story produced by a news organization based in a country seen as an adversary. Clearly convey to the assigning outlet your wishes about being identified.

All local reporters should learn what professional support is available. A number of countries have effective professional organizations that can provide guidance about laws concerning the press, along with practical advice on certain assignments. If you encounter trouble, some national organizations are also able to intervene on your behalf or publicize your case. You should also be aware that international groups such as CPJ and Reporters Without Borders can generate global attention and advocacy in case of harassment or threats. (For a listing of local and international groups, see Appendix E Journalism Organizations. The International Freedom of Expression Exchange maintains a comprehensive list of groups.)

If you are asked to work as an interpreter or fixer for an international journalist, get a clear understanding of the risk inherent in the assignment. Make sure you understand in advance whom you are seeing and where you are going. Evaluate the international journalist with whom you may work, assessing their experience, track record, and tolerance for risk. Consider the perception of appearing in a hostile area with a reporter from a country that is seen as an adversary. Understand that you can turn down an assignment, and understand what level of support the assigning journalist or news outlet can provide if you encounter trouble. Get a clear understanding of your role in an assignment. Are you being asked to interpret and provide logistics? Or are you also doing reporting? The latter has additional security implications that you should understand.

For all types of local reporters and fixers, news outlets and their editors should clearly explain the role that the individual is expected to play and the legal and security support the organization is able to provide if a problem occurs. Editors should understand that a local journalist may turn down a risky assignment, and accept that judgment without penalty to the individual. News outlets must consider their ethical obligation in assigning a local freelance reporter to a dangerous task.

Independent bloggers, videographers, and citizen journalists have emerged as important providers of news, particularly during the Arab uprisings that began in 2011. In Libya and Syria, where authorities blocked international media access, local citizens came forward as independent journalists. Some filmed government crackdowns and posted footage online, while others disseminated breaking news through independent blogs, micro-blogs, and social media. In heavily restricted areas, their work opened a window through which the rest of the world could view the conflicts. Several of these journalists paid with their lives. In Syria, independent videographers Ferzat Jarban and Basil al-Sayed died in apparent targeted killings; in Libya, the founder of an independent website, Mohammed al-Nabbous, was shot while streaming live audio from a battle in Benghazi.

Independent bloggers and videographers should develop a network of professional and family contacts that can be mobilized in an emergency. The London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting has helped citizen journalists organize local networks in the Balkans and the Middle East. In many nations, such networks must be created in a manner that protects the identities of their members. (See Chapter 3 Information Security for detailed information on how to communicate securely.) Prepare a security assessment as described in Chapter 2. Independent bloggers, videographers, and other citizens taking up journalistic work in times of crisis should understand the acute dangers of working without institutional support and operating largely on one’s own. Rigorous security planning, including the use of safe communication and the practice of making regular contact with colleagues and relatives, is vital.

Source: Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

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