Tools for planning high-risk reporting assignments

Oct 30, 2018 in Digital and Physical Safety

Danger for journalists is at historic highs, requiring careful planning, especially for freelancers, but risk assessment resources provided by the London-based Rory Peck Trust (RPT) can be potential lifesavers.

These tools are free, easy to access online and take only a few minutes to work through. The toolkit addresses vital issues to be considered when planning assignments in high-risk zones.

There is a bonus: Once journalists fill out these forms, all information can be filed in one place. Designated contacts will have everything they need to know in case of an emergency. 

This is particularly important for freelancers who often lack the same resources and support as full-time media staff. Here is a brief overview of the toolkit. (All three templates have been translated into Arabic.)

Risk assessment plan

Filling out the risk assessment template is the first step. This includes an assignment outline, location and tentative schedule. It addresses specific risks, travel plans, health/medical issues, insurance, fixers, protective equipment and accommodations. 

A series of questions help journalists evaluate the risks:

  • Are you working on a sensitive topic? If so, what is it and why is it sensitive?
  • Are you covering a high-risk location? Describe the location, activity or event.
  • Who will you be meeting? Are they potentially under surveillance, and might they be at risk if they talk to you?
  • Is your security threatened by talking to specific people, visiting or working in specific area?                
  • Is there an increased risk as a result of your gender, age, ethnicity, religious beliefs or nationality? 
  • How about those accompanying you?

Respondents are asked to circle risks they may face. The list includes abusive state security forces, militia, gangs, electronic surveillance, roadside bombs, cultural hostility, guerrilla warfare, terrorist attacks, kidnapping, armed conflict, infectious diseases and death squads. 

RPT offers this advice: “When working on your risk assessment research, consult as many sources as possible to make sure you understand the nature of the threats facing you, and ways in which they can be minimized. Journalists, NGOs, activists and government agencies will all be able to help with this. Online reports and guides are also useful.”

Communication plan

Communication strategy is a vital part of any risk assessment, especially for those who are operating alone.

A posting on the RPT website warns that this often is “a weakness among freelancers - especially those working on self-funded trips and assignments. Who do you keep in touch with when you work alone? But it's freelancers who need a communications plan, more than most - otherwise it's all too easy to fall into a black hole if something goes wrong.”

To devise a solid plan, journalists are asked: How often do you need to be in touch with your key contact? Every 12 hours, 24 hours? Through what methods? Phone, email or SMS? Assess whether these methods will work; use pass codes in case communications are monitored or compromised. 

Who will be monitoring your journey, and who will respond to a distress call? 

Proof of life document

This contains confidential information that can be used to confirm whether a person is still alive in case of kidnapping, abduction or detention.

Journalists are advised to write down four questions known only to them or someone close to them and to designate which family member should be contacted first and by whom. There is a place on the template for special requests to family members.

You can see a list of all of RPT's resources for freelancers here

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via Mike Kniec