Journalist Safety Practice in Hostile Environments

Journalist Safety Practice in Hostile Environments

In 2019, I was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on a Military Special Forces camp delivering a Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT). The course was delivered to a diverse and experienced cross-section of professionals, the majority being journalists and documentary filmmakers.

I knew two of the course attendees quite well, even though we hadn’t met in person until that point. The Weinert Brothers—Dennis and Patrick Weinert—are German independent filmmakers, photographers, and authors based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Doing my research months in advance of the course, I’d perused their work, watched their films and documentaries, and read their books and articles. As they would discover, research and planning would be something the brothers would be introduced to quite quickly. It was, in essence, the missing link that neither one of them had spotted but was the very thing they were searching for without really knowing it.

The Weinerts are the prototypical reason I created training that the media need whilst visiting or operating in hostile and austere environments. For that, I thank them and still hold them as friends to this day.1

Before the course, the Weinert brothers had worked in places such as The Democratic Republic of Congo, SE Asia, India, and Afghanistan. Why were they now looking for specific training that they really should have sourced years before their jaunts around some of the most dangerous places and situations on Earth?

That very question was posed to them during our first meeting. This was in a busy Burger King café inside Kuala Lumpur’s International Airport! This was my last-ditch attempt at eating something Westernised before our two-hour-long trip deep into the jungle with only local food as sustenance. I’m still not sure which option was worse. For some, that might sound strange. But believe me, changing diets without slowly introducing foods, and a new diet has its issues! And that’s made one hundred-fold worse when you’re stuck in the jungle with zero options.

Anyhow, during the meeting, it became very apparent that this type of training was something that was missing. Or merely an afterthought due to cost and a general lack of awareness and naivety. Sadly, Hostile Environment Awareness Training or HEAT, as it’s known in the business, is not delivered to the media nearly as often as it should be. For those who are constantly on the frontlines of a volatile situation, what is currently offered is not fit for purpose.

The Weinerts were no strangers to conflict and danger! Both Patrick and Dennis had been kidnapped, tortured, and beaten badly during a documentary filmmaking trip to the Congo. It is a place where radical Islamist groups such as the ADF massacre whole villages for things like an Ebola breakout (what happened in the village of Oicha, situated in the East of the DRC)! The ADF and dozens of other armed groups roam free, killing and maiming at will. After decades of problems in the region, healthcare workers and the media are usually transported by the UN or armed governmental groups for safety. The Weinert brothers, however, chose to travel alone, which was a costly and dangerous mistake. It was incidents like their kidnapping that was the catalyst to finally sourcing appropriate advice and expert HEAT training.

Whilst mainstream media outlets such as the BBC have dedicated departments, such as their High-Risk Team and other branches of its safety department, freelancers and smaller entities don’t have access to that privilege. In fact, they have very little in the way of anything remotely useful for the safety of staff going into hostile or austere environments. Most go into some very dangerous places and situations on a wing and a prayer. Sadly, most smaller agencies and freelancers don’t know there are dedicated companies and individuals out there more than willing to provide advice and training before, during, and after deployment to such areas.

What I found even more interesting during my research phase was that the advice and training given by the mainstream outlet departments were very generic and not specifically catered to the area, country, or problem the journalist was going into. The only caveat to this was the risk assessments, prior planning, if any, and basic on the ground intelligence available to them before deployment. But again, this is not covered by the majority of freelancers and smaller entities.

For instance, the BBC doesn’t offer their BBC training courses to those on short or fixed-term contracts. As freelancers, they are expected to arrange and pay for themselves any training and up-skilling required of them to perform the job competently. In short, it’s a bit of a minefield and a legal nightmare for insurance purposes.

To add to the danger is some journalist’ blasé approach to taking the Safety Department’s advice. They didn’t do any of their own planning or research. Usually, only basic risk assessments were completed, as was the case when it came to the Weinert Brothers.

“We only plan what we want to film, where we are going to film it and how we get there and back,” Dennis told me.

Dennis, being the older of the two and more experienced, was, from what I could gather, the brothers’ leading hand. This meant he had the daunting task of being a spokesman from time to time, including when it came to talking their way out of being killed at the hands of a rebel leader or armed Islamic extremist intent on beheading them. Good negotiation, and luck, had become their only weapons. And they were weapons that backfired regularly.

When I met them, the brothers were left feeling inadequate when it came to their safety. And due to the workload they had planned, they needed someone to lean on for advice. They had prudently decided not to test their luck and that they couldn’t relive another kidnapping incident.

The younger brother, Patrick, talked much more openly when he was alone and not in the company of his brother. It appeared that he didn’t like to voice his opinion often. And when he did, he looked towards his brother for acceptance. I can remember thinking this was something that I had to work on, albeit in secret, so neither would realise what I was up to. It simply had to be the way forward: he needed to take the lead should things go wrong again and do it with conviction and without the need for his brother’s approval. In a hostile situation, if the leader goes down, someone must take the reins and do it confidently and adequately.

Six months before the training week, when I first got the call, there were no specifications, no duration, no details. At that point, I was coming to the end of a contract in Northern Iraq after a long rotation of four months. I was looking forward to returning home for a rest. It was also bittersweet as I had decided not to return to the role, having nearly been killed the year previous. It was the end of an era and possibly the end of my career at that time. So, it was refreshing to know that other companies were headhunting me to deliver training. Little did I know the complexity and requirement that was ahead of me.

I accepted the job and agreed on a fee. And when it comes to fees, I do not cut corners in any way. When you deliver training that saves lives, cutting corners and chasing huge profits at the expense of the training outcome kills. Inevitably good training costs money. But most companies are only there to make money. They care very little about the end product. I am different. I never apologise for that. I know what I deliver is the best I can, and it works. I don’t cut corners in pursuit of profit, nor do I bend on this. The money always comes as an indirect benefit and result of delivering a good product and experience. I chase saving lives, not cash.

Cutting corners in the allocation of training is ultimately what cost the life of a former student. Mic, as he was known to me, was killed traveling in a European Union Police vehicle convoy when a Taliban suicide bomber detonated an explosives-packed car near Kabul International Airport.2 I have my own thoughts on why Mic was killed and, in some ways, I hold myself a little responsible for his death, which is still something I find hard to come to terms with it. This incident has become the driving force behind the way I operate and set out to deliver training.

Mic had severed with the Royal Military Police and had underwent their Close Protection training. This meant that he was automatically eligible for, what at the time was called an RPL/APL (Recognition of Prior Learning/Accreditation of Prior Learning.) Effectively, this cuts down the minimum 140 hours minimum training time (as set out by the Security Industry Authority in the UK) to around 3 days. This in itself is stupid really as the licence needed by overseas companies is only really relevant for work within the UK. Overseas companies simply use it as a convenient ‘standard’ of training and sell that to the client during the tender process. What I wasn’t able to do at that time was give Mic the benefit of my overall experience of the private sector, something which he didn’t have, and which would have benefited him or anyone going to operate in that type of environment. There’s just no way to fit it all in to such a short allocation of time. Given the way Mic lost his life, it’s quite possible that if he’d received the training which is delivered on the full course that it could have saved his life. As a result, I have vowed to never run an RPL/APL course again.

So, I had six months to come up with the training. So, I set out to find out more about who exactly the training was for. Where were they going? What do they do? Why do they need it? What had they done in the past? Was I able to deliver a product that covered the diverse needs of each individual?

After working and observing developments in training for journalists and media over several years, there are three main challenges to providing a robust training program. First, little investigation or analysis is conducted into training programs. Secondly, few independent organisations are working to standardise the training and support provided to journalists. Finally, the extent of training and support to the local correspondents, fixers, and stringers in developing countries, where most international media organisations operate, has become an unfortunate casualty of shrinking international news budgets.3

Most media training programs are either one or two days in duration. It is unfathomable that they can fit anything of substance into that, given the training hours are roughly four to six hours, give or take, including lunch and breaks. In my opinion, it is not fit for purpose and money-making scheme that ticks boxes.

In the course of the research, however, I discovered that a viable, in-depth training package was being delivered to EU staff. That was refreshing to see. Of course, it required some work to extract what was needed, discard what was not, and then to adapt to the private sector and specific location.

While the EU staff training is very in-depth, I wanted to make it better in every way. So, after some contemplation and program design, I settled on seven days. The final training course covered the following subjects, tasks, and tests:

  • Course Introduction

  • Remote Medical

  • Remote Medical Test 1 & 2

  • Security

  • Information Security

  • Threat & Risk

  • Kidnap

  • Attacks

  • Firearms

  • Orientation

  • Communication

  • 4×4 Vehicles

  • IEDs Mines UXO

  • Weapons

  • Final Exercise

  • Conduct Under Capture

  • Training Conclusion

It was the first course of its type to address the needs of the media and journalists in particular and bring realistic scenario-based training to the market. The final exercise was an epic two days covering everything they had been taught in the classroom. Route planning, land navigation, vehicle convoy applications, counter IED procedures, comms procedures, dealing with tactical situations such as attacks, medical issues, etc. The following day the participants were subjected to a forced kidnap by local rebels in a mountainous jungle area. Nothing of this level had ever been tried before. It was an intense seven days of training, but the end product spoke for itself, and attendees gave the course rave reviews.

This was way more comprehensive and beyond anything ever delivered in the private sector. It was more akin to a military-style course. It was also costly due to time, equipment needed, and staffing. Nonetheless, it was highly successful in its delivery until the plug was pulled on it in early 2020 due to Covid and associated travel restrictions.

It provided the answer and solution to the statement of Shaun Fullers Responsible Media piece and opened up a new type of training for the media world, to only be shut down by Covid 19. The course is still there, waiting to be delivered in the future, although it now has to be further adapted to the new reality. If anything, the current pandemic has opened my eyes to new possibilities and new avenues for it.

In conclusion, the need for specific Journalist safety training in hostile environments is still and will always be needed. What is changing is how and why that’s delivered. No longer can the media sit back on classroom-based training PowerPoints and lessons. They need to get their hands dirty. What became apparent over the courses that I have run was that the actual job wasn’t for everyone. Some journalists would simply falter should they get into the same or a similar real-life scenario. Most just couldn’t cope under stress. And the majority would have been killed in some circumstances. This begs the question going forward: should the media have allocated professionals to assist and escort them in such places? At the end of the day, the answer to that will always come down to budget. Sadly, it is rare that money is expended on adequate training these days. In most cases, it is very much a reactive and not proactive world when it comes to the lives of journalists. But every step in the right direction of increased awareness, training, and protection is a step forward.

 Journalist Safety Practice in Hostile EnvironmentsBy Shaun Gowland

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