Dangers of being a Journalist

Politics and motives aside, I think everyone can conclude these are very dangerous days for journalists, advocates of free speech or anyone else for that matter that voices an opinion

For the security consultant who is providing services to journalists, activists or opposition politicians these clients can give you some unique challenges as the threats can include harassment and arrest by local or state police, as well as threats from opposing parties etc…

Personal safety and security is something many take for granted especially in Europe and the US but these days there are extremists on all political sides, from all religious backgrounds, many of whom are over-medicated and all seeking attention. So, if you or your client are voicing your opinions on any form of media, especially if you know your opinions may upset or offend others you need to think about your security as well as that of your family’s and colleagues.

When you’re considering your personal security, you need to think of all threats and make plans to avoid or if necessary, deal with any issues. Now, most security consultants in Europe and the US do not consider the threat from Police or Government Agencies but, all it takes in most places these days is one of your critics to make an accusation against you and you can find the police knocking on your door. This is where you need to know your rights and have a good attorney’s phone number handy. I am not going to touch on document or computer security as the laws vary greatly from area to area, just ensure you know the laws and always cover your ass.

In many places around the world the police will actively target journalists, as it happened to a friend of mine in Somalia, Ahmed Caano-Geel, luckily, he got away with a few cuts and bruises. Last weekend we heard of the murder of a lady who was speaking out regarding the lack of Government support for police officers in Mexico. Her husband was a police officer that was recently killed, and she was making too much noise and speaking the truth. I doubt her murder will be solved if seriously looked into…

If you believe your home or office could be raided or that of your client you need to take precautions and again know your legal rights, how to get hold of a decent attorney or alert others that you have a problem and might be arrested etc. You should take a look at the overall security for home and office even if you don’t have an active threat and consider a CCTV system externally and internally, preferably with the footage uploaded to the cloud with trusted 3rd party access. There are many cases of kidnappings and assassinations where criminals will disguise themselves as police, this is a very complicated situation, you and you client need to know your right and what to do in this situation to verify police ID’s.

For me the basis of all personal security is counter surveillance and being aware of your surroundings. Before the criminals will attempt an assassination or kidnapping they will put you under some form of surveillance be it physical or electronic. The favored places for targeted attacks are at the victim’s homes, work places or vehicles, so be extra vigilant approaching or leaving these locations. If you take regular routes to work, use the same coffee shops etc. ensure you are carrying out at the least some basic counter surveillance drills.

Below I have listed some examples of recent assassinations of journalists and will high-light some similarities and some possible precautions that the victims could have taken.

17 January 2017, Honduras: Igor Padilla a presenter with Canal HCH was shot in the city San Pedro Sula where he was filming. Apparently, he received a phone call and stepped out on the street to take it where he was ambushed by four men in police uniforms. He died of multiple gunshot wounds on the way to the hospital.

In such situations counter surveillance and being aware of what’s happening on the street is your best defense. Employing trained protective surveillance personnel is also an option but finding trained and trusted security personnel is always a big problem.

March 02, 2017, Mexico: Cecilio Pineda Birto a freelance journalist for several newspapers and social media crime reporter, was shot dead in Guerrero state. He was in a hammock waiting for his car to be washed when two men on a motorcycle shot him multiple times.

Here we have the car as the location, if you know someone’s car and locate it, they should be close… He was obviously relaxed, too relaxed…

April 23, 2017, Maldives: Yameen Rasheed a prominent blogger was stabbed to death in the stairwell of his apartment building, police later blamed religious extremists for the attack. He had received multiple threats to his life and had claimed to be frustrated by the lack of police action or concern.

He knew he was under threat, he should have at least taken precautions when entering and leaving his home and office. In many places weapons for self-defense are prohibited but having a basic plan and reaction in place for an attack is essential.

24 May 2017, Russia: Dimitri Popkov the editor of a local newspaper in the Krasnodarski province was shot five times in his backyard sauna. He had stated before his assassination that his newspaper’s investigations had become “an obstacle for local officials who are now threatening and intimidating journalists.”

He knew he was upsetting people but obviously thought his high-profile would protect him, it didn’t. As I said earlier, homes are favored locations for attacks, and I take it he was very relaxed in his sauna. Some CCTV and basic counter surveillance may have helped him live a little longer…

16 October 2017, Malta: Daphne Caruana Galizia a female independent investigative journalist was killed by an explosive device planted on her car. Two weeks before the incident she had reported to the police she had been threatened.

She knew she was under threat but took no serious precautions. You should always report threats to the police, but most police departments will not take the threats seriously without solid evidence. You must keep records of threats, if possible get video or photos of those you suspect of watching or following you, all this helps to build a case. She was targeted by professionals and without professional training or security she was wide open.

29 April 2017, Turkey: Saaed Karimian the founder of the Persian-language GEM TV channel, and his business partner were shot dead in Istanbul by masked gunmen who opened fire on their vehicle. The assassination vehicle and weapons were later found burnt.

For them to be ambushed they must have been watched, followed or had a fixed routine. This was a professional hit, so once the ambush was in motion they were dead men… Counter surveillance and awareness are the essentials that can save your life…

17 January 2018, Brazil: Jefferson Pureza Lopes was shot and killed in his home by two gunmen that forced their way in. He had been receiving threats and was a critic of local government officials.

He knew he was under threat and should have at leased upped the security in his home and had procedures in place on how to greet visitors and what to do in the event of an attempted break-in or attack.

March 21, 2018, Mexico: Leobardo Vázquez Atzin a local reporter in the Veracruz state was shot and killed at a restaurant he owned. He had anonymously started a Facebook page ” Enlace Informativo Regional” and had been critical of local officials; he had been receiving threats and also offers of bribes to stop writing about the officials but he kept writing.

They knew where he worked, so he was an easy target. He knew he was under threat so he should have taken precautions… If you are going to be critical of potentially dangerous people anonymously then ensure you are 100% anonymous…

15 May 2018, Mexico: Juan Carlos Huerta a TV host and Director of a radio station was shot and killed as he left his home in Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco state.

This was a targeted assassination, I expect the gunmen were waiting for him to leave home. Again, the home was the location of the attack. Maybe some CCTV covering the street and possible surveillance location could have identified out of place people, those hanging around for no reason before he left the house.

25 February 2018, Slovak Republic: Jan Kuciak and investigative reporter and his girlfriend were found shot dead in their home. Kuciak had been working on stories with reference to fraud by government officials and prominent businessmen.

Again, the home was the location of the attack… Basic plans and procedures should have been in place for such things as answering the door to strangers and alerting others that there was a potential problem.

From these mixed examples you can see some of the basic mistakes these people made, these are just a few of the attacks on journalists from 2017 to present…

Extrajudicial Arrest, Kidnapping or Killing

The recent disappearance of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate on October 2 in Istanbul, Turkey high-lights the issues that can occur when people, who for a wide variety of reasons are targeted for extrajudicial arrest, kidnapping or assassination by government agencies. At this stage of the case with Jamal Khashoggi it will be interesting to see if his body is discovered and what if any actual evidence is ever presented…

The incident with Jamal Khashoggi was preceded in 2018 by the very murky assassination attempt of the former Russian GRU officer and double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK. The UK government claims it was a political assassination ordered by the Russian Government but there are many inconsistencies and gaps in their story, but whatever the real story is, it was still a possible political assassination attempt.

For most people when they think of kidnappers and the like, they will have visions of masked criminals snatching people from cars or off the street, they will not be thinking of police or government agencies; false or extrajudicial arrest is the same as kidnapping and happens regularly.

From a kidnapping and crisis management view point this can be the most difficult type of incident to deal with as your friend, client or associate has been abducted by an organization that has the local law and for the most part that of the country on their side. This is where the “gungho” shoot’em up approaches to dealing with kidnap and ransom situations fall further into the realm of complete fantasy, as you cannot go around the world shooting the local cops or soldiers if they decide to detain you or your clients. Chances are you would not legally be able to have a gun in the first place and any illegal firearms would give those arresting you the justification and means to put you in jail for a long time or just a reason to bullet in your head.

If you, your friends, clients or associates think they could be targeted politically for whatever reason, be it you’re exposing government corruption, calling out corrupt and incompetent local politicians or support the opposition to those currently in power you should have a crisis plan in place.

Even in supposed first world countries it’s very easy for people to be arrested for being vocal about their beliefs. In first world countries if charged and convicted activist and journalists can still get jail time and hefty fines. In non-first world countries activist or journalists can end up having major issues ranging from assaults, jail time, sexual assault or assassination.

The basis of all security or crisis plans is the threat assessment and this needs to be very thorough and cover all aspects of the personal security of those that could be targeted and include a lifestyle check to identify anything where they could be set up for an arrest. Police and government agencies planting evidence is an issue that has been around since law enforcement first evolved and must be taken into consideration, the result of such actions can lead to long prison terms for the victims if they are unable to prove they were set up.

Decent local private investigators or trusted people need to be at hand to follow-up on potential arrests or disappearances to confirm what has actually occurred. Most of time family members, friends or associates will not be in proper emotional state to do a logical follow-up investigation and could end up getting arrested themselves.

Personally, I have little time for attorneys, most are leaches but there are a few good ones out there, you need to find them and have their numbers at hand in case of any legal issues or arrests. Over the years I have seen quite a few clients have supposed high-end attorneys on retainer who done absolutely nothing for them. In one case that comes to mind the attorneys who were on a very large retainer were clearly scared to do anything, once the threat to the client was over they were happy to spend the retainer by pretending to solve non-issues they had scared the client into believing were issues. Use attorneys when required, but do not trust them!

Always have bail or payoff money available, in many countries a quick donation to the right people can solve problems, so, have the donation and know the right people. In more complicated locations know the procedures for bailing someone out of jail if they are arrested, have the money available and have a bondsman’s number ready.

Have a support network outside of your area and direct network that in the case of an arrest or political abduction can be alerted and make the relevant people aware of the situation, this could mean alerting embassy’s, politicians or journalists. Its best for this to be done through third party players as those that are directly associated with those arrested or detained could also be targeted and its best they are not seen to be antagonising the situation.

Unlike conventional kidnap for ransom situations social media can play a major part preventing someone going from being arrested to disappeared and being found dead in a ditch somewhere. Police, government agencies and their politically associated groups for the most part have a public image that they try to keep as respectable as possible. They can defend themselves for arresting and investigating activist’s etc. but, if people who were last seen in their custody turn up dead, it can result in unwanted questions and attention. Have a social media crisis response plan in place!

To me the basics of personal security is counter surveillance, always be aware of what’s going on around you, always be aware of who is watching or following you and keep your communications and computer security tight. In incidents where you must attend a meeting be very careful and try to chose neutral, public locations and have someone watching your back who is able to video and report any potential threats or hostile incidents.

In such cases as Jamal Khashoggi, where he went into the Saudi Arabian consulate, a location where he knew he was not welcome and had absolutely zero personal security but went anyway to pick up a marriage license, all I can say is look for other options and don’t put yourself in dangerous situations. Could the marriage license have been posted, could he have sent a courier or attorney, or could he have waited?

It always best to avoid any potentially hostile situations, if due to your career or beliefs you can’t avoid them, then at least have a crisis plan in place.

Dangers of being a Journalist

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