|English | Español||February 25, 2018 | Issue #34|
Safety in Conflict Zones
Conflicting but Illuminating Advice for Authentic Journalists
By Benjamin Maurice Melançon
Photo: Noah Friedsky D.R. 2004
The counsel from four battle-tested authentic journalists rarely agreed exactly this night of strong opinions, but a common theme did emerge from the words of Jeremy Bigwood, Jennifer Whitney, Alberto Giordano, and Luis Gómez on the way to work more safely in areas of warfare: know who you are, what you are trying to do, and why you do it; know the people you are with; and know the situation you are in.
“Some lessons learned from covering armed and civil conflicts for two decades,” read the subtitle of Jeremy Bigwood’s presentation, on safety for journalists working in conflict areas of the Americas. Bigwood, a photojournalist and reporter who has worked in times of conflict in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Peru, began with the most everyday tips.
When covering civil conflicts, it is safest to clearly identify oneself as a journalist, Bigwood told the audience:
“I’ve seen so many journalists with injured feet after having to flee an area and leave their shoes behind,” Bigwood said.
Don’t wear open-toed footwear either, no matter how well attached, said Jennifer Whitney, who has reported on behalf of social movements and provided emergency care at protests. “As a first responder I’ve dealt with many people with trampled feet because they wore sandles.”
Journalists in conflict areas should also wear press passes, both Bigwood and Whitney said. If you can, have both an Indymedia pass on one string for safety and access with activists and a mainstream one for safety and access with police, said Whitney. “That’s brilliant,” said Bigwood. “And just having a press pass is very important.”
From press passes the talk passed abruptly to protection. First tip: “What not to do when shooting starts,” said Bigwood as he showed a photograph from El Salvador of people lying in a street taking photographs. He had to help get these people out of the way of rushing cars, he said.
Being behind the engine part of a parked car, on the other hand, is a good place to be when there is gunfire, Bigwood said. “Very few things will get through the motor of a car.” The topic then remained on protection, but also returned to what to wear.
“Gas masks are a very effective way to deal with tear or pepper gas or both at once,” read the first bullet point on one of Bigwood’s slide. Gas masks often don’t work well on bearded men, who should use vaseline around the seal, the full-bearded Bigwood also offered. Try gas masks on beforehand to find one that fits you, Whitney added, but the discussion quickly passed from usage tips to questioning the use of gas masks at all. And far more dramatically opposing views came later in the night.
Gas masks can antagonize police and alienate protesters, Whitney cautioned. In Washington DC and other cities, Bigwood agreed, police who intend to use tear gas target anyone, including credentialed journalists, that has a gas masks or military-style gas mask packs.
Infamous footage from Seattle shows people blockading a street with arms linked and police lifting off the gas mask of a person wearing one, spraying tear gas, and dropping the mask back over the face, said Whitney. “This can be fatal.”
“I still prefer gas-masks over anything else,” she said, but also gave as an alternatives goggles with a really tight seal, which are available in prescription for people who need glasses, combined with a respirator that will filter out most of the chemicals. “A lot of people soak a bandana in apple cider vinegar,” Whitney said, and this might help you to get out of a situation, but never to stay in one.
A last ditch tip for a protection against the worst of a tear gas attack: face against the wind, so the gas blows at your back, Bigwood and Whitney agreed. The Black Cross Health Collective, Whitney said, has good information on tear gas and other matters related to protecting yourself at protests— its only in English now, and she asked for volunteer translators. For more information on protective equipment in dangerous areas Bigwood opened a guide by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“On Assignment: A Guide to Reporting in Dangerous Situations” by the Committee to Protect Journalists (available free as a pdf document) was written by Frank Smyth, who did a pretty good job, said Bigwood, though half the guide is essentially advertisement and should be thrown away.
The guide began with a reminder of why journalists might need protective equipment in conflict zones— but writing is far more dangerous. “Between 1993 and 2002, CPJ research indicates that 366 journalists have been killed while conducting their work,” Bigwood read from page 6. Sixty, or 16 percent, died in crossfire; 277, or 76 percent, were murdered in reprisal for their reporting, mostly in places like Colombia, he added. “It’s the 16 percent we’re going to talk about.”
Training courses on safety in conflict zones were suggested by the guide, but not by Bigwood. They are expensive, favored by mainstream media, often taught by merceneries, and used in situations like Iraq to keep freelancers who can’t afford the training out, he said— but if you can get Reuters or another organization to pay (see page 14), it’s worth doing.
Body armor usually consists of vests made from Kevlar or similar fabrics, petroleum-derived products with extreme tensile strength. Under ideal circumstances, they redirect much of the impact of a bullet laterally along the strings of the fabric, and are strong enough to absorb the impact of knives, spears, arrows, and small handgun bullets up to 9 mm (the ammunition of submachine guns), Bigwood told his audience. “If you’ve been hit it really hurts, and can hurt for several days, but it can save your life,” said Bigwood. Protection from assault and sniper rifle ammunition, and larger, comes from adding ceramic or metal plates to the vest.
“I’m personally prejudiced against body armor. I can’t move fast enough when I wear it,” Bigwood said, and it’s hot for Latin America. Furthermore, since many U.S. government agents where vests, many journalists do not like to wear them for fear of being identified as an agent of the U.S. government.
“A colleague of mine was in a combat zone in El Salvador,” Bigwood said. He wore glasses, and they steamed up and he couldn’t see where he was going:
He had a great jacket, with metal plates, but there was no plate in the side— just Kevlar. The 7.62 bullet that went through the Kevlar and out his stomach – missing any vital organs – bounced back from the Kevlar back into his body. It was easy to find and take out, but they had him in the hospital and he was still hemorrhaging. They flew him to Miami because they did not know what was wrong, the bullet was out and he was still hemorrhaging.
The autopsy showed that pieces of Kevlar had gotten in, and a little piece had made its way to his heart and each time his heart beat it made a little bigger hole and he bled more. The Kevlar did not show up in the X-rays.
That said, body armor is essential in a war zone where weapons such as bombs and shrapnel are used, Bigwood concluded.
Whether to wear armor is just one reason why, as Bigwood said, “It’s important for journalists to know their weapons and what they can do.” For instance, two 7.62 mm rounds for the AK series don’t do much damage to human flesh because they go through in straight line, while the M-16 bullet does much damage to human flesh.
Targeted weapons are those aimed at targets such as spears, arrows, and rifles. These include a payload, a bullet or spearhead that is only dangerous if there is a direct hit.
Area weapons have potential lethality over wide areas, and include small grenades and nuclear bombs. Most though rely on shrapnel for their effect, with an explosive change placed within a metallic shell, which upon detonation blows apart into hundreds of small pieces which expand outwards at high velocity, like hundreds of bullets.
Even without shrapnel, if someone explodes something like dynamite, the expansive shock wave can bust your eardrums or rip a layer of skin off your body, said Bigwood. Likewise, “teargas cannisters that don’t release can explode and injure you like concussion grenades and explosives,” Bigwood said. Keeping your mouth slightly open can ameliorate the effects on your ears and lungs of such concussion shocks. Direct hits from teargas canisters, meanwhile, can injure you like bullets, said Whitney.
The best resource to learn about weapons is the Jane’s series of military books on infantry weapons, a series of very thick books available at libraries. Knowing your weapons, as well as keeping you safer, can add dimension to your journalism. For instance, the country of origin of weapons used may indicate alliances, Bigwood said in a later interview. “There’s always a story behind a weapon.”
While people in the global north are unlikely to face live rounds of real bullets, it is still very important to know your weapons because there is a wide variety of things the police can fire at you in the street, said Jennifer Whitney. “Non-lethal weapons aren’t. It’s better to use words such as less lethal.” Further, she said, credibility-damaging rumors were started by activist-reporters who misidentified sound weapons as shotguns.
In cars, it is usually best to have them well marked, most often with “TV,” said Bigwood. Helicopters meanwhile have inherent dangers. “They do get shot down a lot in combat situations, and they burn totally,” he said. “And of course if you’re riding around in a military helicopter, you’re a legitimate target.” Tanks have the same disadvantages. And, said Bigwood as he showed a photograph of a tank disabled by a small rocket launcher, “They have thick walls but there are usually counter-measures.”
Bigwood also gave some quick tips on when an how to get out of situations:
“It is also very important to take care of yourselves afterwards. Like firefighters, police, or military, journalists in conflicts also absorb a lot of trauma,” said Whitney, from her perspective as a health-care provider. The CPJ guide has information on post-traumatic stress (starting on page 50), Whitney said. One thing not mentioned: “it can easily take up to a year or longer before you process a lot of the trauma,” she said. If you are going into a conflict area, have a network of people who are not going who can provide support when you return.
“Some of us, despite what you mentioned, choose to take sides and embed ourselves with the opposition,” said Gregory Berger, a documentary filmmaker living and working in Mexico. Sometimes one can’t help taking sides, agreed Bigwood.
“There is no way anyone not motivated by greed or money could side with the Salvadorean army and oligarchy and the US government that was backing them. Just not human. But that doesn’t mean you have to participate in essentially military activities.” It’s true, Bigwood said, “if you’re a photographer or video person, you’ll get your best pictures by embedding yourself. This carries some risks. In my case I went to jail in Peru because I embedded myself with one of the guerilla movements.”
“I think embedding is fine,” he continued, so long as it is done on both sides. Whether embedded or not, Bigwood said he has a rule for neutrality in a conflict zone that he has often had to apply: “If someone is asking for information about another person to kill them, I don’t give it.”
To embed successfully, said Jennifer, “requires a lot of knowledge about the conflict, the people, why you’re there, who you serve. When I wear a gas mask, I’m on the streets of Seattle. Obviously I wouldn’t want to be the only person wearing a gas mask. I work for the movements I’m covering and the people who read me, who I want to be in support of the movements.”
“Very often, lives of journalists are saved by simply being with the people,” said Alberto Giordano. “This has always been my bullet-proof vest and gas mask. Seven years ago marks when I became a journalist again after resigning from the profession. It was in the town of Oxchuc, in Chiapas, a Tzeltal-speaking population. Maria Luis Tomasini, grandmother of the Zapatistas said some things will be happening there.”
“The people of the town had just taken over town hall because the mayor robbed $60,000 from a potable water program and the children were dying of parasites,” Giordano said:
When I got there, there was a riot going on: tear gas, 300 soldiers of the public security forces beating the men with the butts of their rifles.
There was blood everywhere.
There were woman of the community throwing themselves between the soldiers and their men as a last line of defense.
And there were no media there. A young man came up and said “¿Prensa?”, press?
I had just spent months telling people I was not a journalist anymore. But this time, I felt moved to say, “SÌ”, yes.
He started shouting: “Look soldiers, look soldiers, the press is here.”
Like a wave the people brought us to the front. The violence suddenly stopped. There was confusion on all sides. The commandante of the soldiers came storming towards us and demanded our identification.
My companion said you have no right to ask, you aren’t with immigration.
The commander gave an order to the line of soldiers, each of whom had AK-47 assault rifles, Giordano said. And in unison they aimed their guns. “Pointed at us. And behind them men with tear gas canisters threatening to throw them.”
“Never in my life have I felt so alive,” said Giordano. “I took my tape recorder and shook it like a tear gas canister, mocking them.”
“The commandante ordered a photographer to take our picture,” said Giordano. “This in Chiapas is much more dangerous than a gun. The people of Chiapas formed a belt around us to prevent our photo being taken. An hour later the commercial media arrived and that caused the situation to calm down even more.” The people then smuggled us out.
“There are situations,” concluded Giordano, “and I hope Luis Gómez will speak to this, when you cannot bring a gas mask.”
Zabeth Flores translated, as she did for everyone in whichever direction required that night.
“Everything Jeremy and Jennifer said is quite useful, but I must earnestly say to you my brothers and sisters that it is relatively useful,” said Luis Gómez, veteran of Narco News. “Last year when the Aymara insurrection began there was a riot in the south of El Alto city. Five minutes after I arrived with a friend of mine, a correspondent with the BBC, they threw gas canisters at us, we were shot at with real bullets, 7.62 bullets, semi-automatic weapons. We were on this avenue, and the cops and the army passed in front but actually over us, and when they left I was alone among the people of El Alto. I had showed them I was a journalist, but I had also shown them I was not a Chileno”— the Spanish-speakers in the room began laughing immediately. “Not being from Chile is what saved my life.”
“My friend from the BBC ended up going with the military. Some people began pushing at me because my friend was military. Yes, I said, but he’s there and I’m here.” That day almost every mainstream media and non-mainstream media journalist that was identified as a journalist was beaten up, their equipment and cars were destroyed or stolen, Gómez said, because they had appeared to be on the side of the military. “The smartest thing was not to identify yourself as just a journalist,” said Gómez. “A jacket that says press, that can be an invitation to be lynched.”
“It doesn’t matter which side you are on, you must be crystal clear with what you are doing. From the Aymara people I learned something. And I want to make this very clear because the kind of journalism I like to do is the kind you do among the people. If you are going to be in a conflict situation like the gas war, you cannot use a gas mask and you cannot use a vest.” In reference to a discussion on using water or not after tear gas, Gómez said: “Trust in the wisdom of those people who are continually being gassed.”
The Bolivian military cut the tips of some bullets in such a way that when they hit something they explode, said Gómez, demonstrating the need to know your weapons beyond even what can be found in Jane’s. “If the bullet hits vest right there, you’ll lose half of your face.” Some bullets were cut so they spin, said Gómez. “There is no Kevlar in the world to stop that.” Finally, he said, “in Bolivia there is no way to get a bullet proof vest, except from Chile. I cannot think of myself among the Aymara in a bullet-proof vest that comes from Chile.”
“It’s good to have someone with you, a partner,” said Gómez, someone you trust. But if there is any other gas war, he said, “the only thing I can recommend to Latin American people here is don’t take a gringo with you. With people so angry, they don’t care if it’s a good gringo or a bad gringo, good journalist or bad,”— they don’t trust.
“Whenever I turn around I see all the journalists covering what is going on, I see twenty assholes wearing their gas masks, taking the same picture, and I have no idea what they are doing,” Gómez said. “The commercial media pushes this: everyone looking for photo of tank getting hit in Iraq. This can make you do very stupid things. I think the smartest thing to do is to go where the others aren’t.”
“Be honest with yourself,” Gómez concluded. “Keep moving if you think you’re in danger. It is more important to risk your job than your life.”
“The rat pack of everyone trying to get the same picture is not only dangerous but doesn’t give you the whole picture of what’s going on,” Bigwood said. “My best work in combat zones has been by myself.”
“When I went into Villa Tunari,” Bigwood said, “I was the only gringo in town I saw for a long time. I saw a lot of people, and a lot of blockades with people I had never seen before. After chewing some coca with them, I was in, I had no problems. I know it’s different in different areas, but sometimes gringos can be accepted.”
“If you do get in any kind of trouble,” Jeremy Bigwood had said earlier in the talk, the people at the Committee to Protect Journalists all thought this journalism school was a really good thing and said the CPJ should be among the people you call if in trouble.
When community journalists were attacked in Venezuela, Giordano said, “I went to CPJ and begged them to help. And they did nothing. And it’s very nice and cute they think it’s wonderful we’re doing this school, but to me that committee is a bunch of useless clowns that serve only the powerful. Obviously Jeremy who was tearing out pages of their book understands this too; this isn’t a criticism of him. When Mario Menendez and I were sued we went to CPJ, they did nothing.”
“Part of the network we are all building here among ourselves is to replace these false organizations,” said Giordano.
“When Lucian Read, who was going to be here but is in a war zone now, when he was detained in Bolivia the network was put to work. Alex wrote an article, Luis pulled strings all over the country, Dan Feder stopped what he was doing to get it up at the web site right away,” Giordano said. Likewise when Alex Contreras was detained at an airport.
“We have to rely on each other,” Giordano said. “And not to beat the point too much, if any of us had been late in our tasks at that moment some of us might not be here today.”
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism