When unexpected conflict strikes, journalists need to be prepared

byFabrice Le Lous
Aug 06 in Journalist safety

In 2018, some cities in Nicaragua became armed conflict zones, and without wanting to, journalists became war correspondents.

Our sources and contacts in various places said things that we never expected to hear from them: "Stay here behind this barricade, I’ll make sure there are no paramilitaries there." "Yesterday in that communication antenna there was a sniper. Let me see if he’s there today.”

At the end of June I was in León, the second largest city in the country, when its historic streets were walled off by cobblestone barricades at each block. I was reporting with a colleague from La Prensa, a photographer, and we were at a crossroads of four barricades that were protecting the neighbors from paramilitary attacks related to the government.

Suddenly the few passers-by began to run and take shelter in their houses. A woman with a baby in her arms shouted at us, "You, with the camera! There is an orange alert! They saw some men on motorcycles coming with AK47’s!"

Thanks to our local contact — a university student in León — we managed to find a safe house to protect ourselves from the danger of attack.

We never thought we would be in this situation, and therefore we were not prepared. Here are some tips that every journalist should know, whether you expect to find yourself in the midst of conflict or not.

1) Bring the right equipment

In times of war, journalists need to bring more than a voice recorder and notebook.

Cinthya Torrez, a reporter at La Prensa, was in Masaya, another city heavily attacked in recent months. She recommends that journalists wear vests with press identification, helmets, protective lenses and comfortable shoes for all types of terrain. If there is a possibility of crossfire, it is important to also consider a bulletproof vest.

It is a mistake for a journalist to report without being properly prepared. If the media organization for which you work does not have this equipment — which was the case in many newsrooms in Nicaragua when the conflict began — reporters and photographers should join together and request them as an emergency measure. This has worked in Nicaragua, and could work in other newsrooms.

2) Protect yourself

Journalists do exemplary work. We go to places that others cannot, and we share information about what is happening there. However, we are not heroes and we are not going to solve conflicts.

Ivette Munguía, a La Prensa journalist who has been involved in several fire exchanges, recommends protecting your life before securing a story. Do not seek out an extraordinary photo or video without being certain that you will take it back to the newsroom safe and sound.

"Bullets do not discriminate," Munguía says. Although a vest with press identification can make armed factions think twice before firing, it is not a garment that makes you invincible or allow you to witness everything.

In times of bullets and killings, prudence is vital to do our job as journalists well.

3) Identify security zones

It is important in confrontations to know the geography of the terrain. This is best achieved by establishing local contacts before arriving at the reporting site and requesting safety information before entering the most dangerous areas.

The local guides should know at all times the escape routes or hiding places. In my case, when I was in León, our guide provided us with a safe house through his acquaintances.

4) Mentally prepare

According to Munguía, it is also important “to avoid walking in the center of the streets or wearing brightly colored clothes, so as to avoid becoming the target of snipers."

Finally, when you enter conflict zones, you must mentally prepare yourself and be ready to make decisions for your safety, whether the work goes as planned or unexpected problems arise.

Munguía insists on memorizing telephone numbers in case you lose your cell phone or you are assaulted. This is especially useful if you lose contact with your guides or team and have to ask for help from neighbors.

Although these tips focus on conflict zones, you shouldn’t ignore them if you live somewhere safe. In Nicaragua, no one could have imagined the gruesome reality we have faced for the last three months. As journalists, it is important to always be prepared for changing social, political and cultural environments.

In our case, Nicaragua became an unexpected battleground, and we’re adapting to it.

Fabrice Le Lous is an ICFJ fellow and former editor at La Prensa in Nicaragua.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Randy Colas.