“What is safety?”
It was the first question asked of us by Abeer Saady, of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate and Reporters Sans Frontiers, at the 36th Biennial Conference of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television. Concluding the four-day long programme in Dwarka, Saady held a special training session, open only to women, to address problems unique to their gender. War correspondents, field reporters and documentary filmmakers in conflict zones are all certainly at risk, but women more so.
Saady’s career, which spans 25 years as a war and conflict journalist, as well as a political demonstrator, has exposed her to real danger enough times to prompt her to organize security trainings. The participants (representatives from news and broadcasting, citizen journalism, and non-government organizations) answered Saady’s question by raising two main security concerns: digital security of documented evidence and security from body injuries. But Saady drew the group’s attention toward psychosocial security – considerations about one’s mental health in the face of both armed conflict and mob mentality. Over the course of the training, she shared with us experiences from conflict situations, procedures of risk assessment, but the most important advice she had for the participants is this: live another day to tell the stories that matter.
Many a time, journalists in the field risk life and limb for the perfect shot, something that security trainers like Saady, who suffered an injury in 2001, strongly warn against. The important thing to remember is that all of these risks can be avoided if you keep your ears pricked, your eyes peeled, and your instincts well-oiled. Gauging the emotional state of the crowd you are in, keeping at a safe distance from the centre of action, and not arguing with demonstrators are just some of the things one can do to minimize physical risks, but Saady also recommends entering conflict zones only after obtaining protective gear. Another helpful pointer is to know when to keep your identity and equipment hidden.
These precautions can be a matter of life and death for journalists, who are at risk from state security forces, protestors, lumpen elements, and organized crime groups, but Saady made it a point to mention how women in the field are further at risk. The threat of sexual violence and intimidation from local groups cannot be easily anticipated, just as any form of violence. Anonymous violence is all too common in large crowds. Female reporters from local news channel NDTV talked about the helplessness they felt male members of the crowd discreetly groped them on live television.
During the 2012 protests that broke out in New Delhi, after a young medical student was gang-raped and left for dead, I found myself suddenly in the thick of things, at the mercy of both the mob and the police. Dragged off and detained without reason by the Delhi Police at Parliament Street, I began micro-reporting from my twitter account. The experience had two effects on me: the first was that I knew I wanted tell the world what was happening to unlawfully detained protesters, the second was that in doing so, I was putting myself at risk. And that’s why Saady’s training was very useful – stressing on discretion, safety and presence of mind.
It is necessary for reporters and documentary filmmakers to build quick response skills in the field, and have also be aware of oft ignored risks in an already high-risk occupations. The point is to enable these women to continue bringing the world stories that must be heard, because as Abeer Saady says, “A dead journalist is not a good journalist.”