Travelling to far flung places or nipping off on a city break at the weekend? If you’re a mobile journalist the chances are you will be travelling alone with a small amount of kit. It gives you much greater freedom to explore and work in the way you want – but, inevitably, the onus for your safety falls squarely on your shoulders. So how can you keep safe?
Clare Arthurs, the independent Journalism and Training instructor and I have some really important advice. To summarise it in a word: planning.
There is one over riding rule – from which every other tip and suggestion follows. One thing that you should do no matter what the story, what the send: A Risk Assesment. It sounds boring but it isn’t. It can be summarised with a simple sentence: plan for the expected and the unexpected.
From the beginning to the end of the trip ask yourself what the hazards are and what are the risks. Crucially ask yourself what are the consequences of something happening. Crossing a road is a risk. A small one, perhaps, but a risk nevertheless. What is the hazard? A car could hit you, you could trip and fall, you could stub your toe. The consequences of a sore toe may not be much. Falling over might hurt but you’ll get better. Getting hit by a car is, obviously, a lot more serious. What would you do? Where’s the nearest hospital? Have you got medical insurance to pay for a repatriation flight? Suddenly a simple action – crossing a road – can lead to a whole world of pain. Could you plan to minimise the risk of it happening? Yes, you could remember which side of the road the cars travel. Now you’ve managed to cut the risk, cut the hazard and eliminate the potential consequences. From arriving at the airport to the moment you get home there are risks and dangers but most can be taken care of with a bit of planning.
If you are covering a potential riot then make sure you know the area. Arrive early, make a map of the area – which roads are cul-de-sacs, which roads lead to safe areas. Look out for police drawing up lines. Don’t panic.. but remember that they’re doing it for a reason. If you see a line of police it normally means that they know something you don’t. To be honest, safety in conflict zones and in areas of disturbance is a massive area – at the bottom of this page there are links to the wonderful work being done by some aid and safety organisations – it’s worth reading them through before any foreign send.. or even some domestic ones. But these are top-of-my-head tips to try and keep you safe. Have a look through – if I’ve missed any then please get in touch and let me know. If you disagree with any, likewise, get in touch.
1. Always check the Foreign and Commonwealth office website for up to date analysis of the risks involved with travelling to the country you’re off to. https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice
2. Check your travel insurance. Does it cover the country you are heading to and what restrictions are there on it. Does it cover business travel, for instance? You might find a few surprises in the detail: if you go to many holiday insurance websites you’ll see coverage is included for Tunisia. When I was sent there recently I rang my insurance company. I explained where I was going and the answer came back that because of the advice from the Foreign Office (at time of writing in May 2015 the advice was against all but essential travel) they wouldn’t cover me.
3. You might want to take out ‘gadget cover’ insurance. You can find policies that insure up to five pieces of equipment valued at under £1000 for around £30 a year. Google it.
4. If you’re off to an area of the world where social media and your personal history could have a bearing on whether or not you are admitted (I could mention names but….) then consider taking action to ensure nothing stupid is left on your phone or tablet. The most draconian method of doing this is to wipe your phone before travel. This will kid nobody. So…
5. A couple of weeks before travel you might find it useful to populate a new email address. Use it for innocuous information but ensure that it is valid and you are using it. Be aware of emailing yourself your travel plans, consider the risk of losing your phone and having no record of your flight details. Think about it – do you have ANY idea what the time of this summer’s holiday flight to Spain is? Lose your phone ‘in country’ and you’re in trouble if you don’t have print outs. There are somet things you don’t want printing out, of course. That’s why we have online cloud storage for documents.
6. Don’t store photos on your phone. Think about using a camera app that stores footage and photos in its own library and doesn’t copy to camera roll. Most casual browsers will only look at your photo roll.
7. Upload your footage off your phone as soon as possible to a cloud based store.
8. Use file upload services like WeTransfer to shift material. Delete the return emails or put in an address that’s not on your phone.
9. If you feel you have to you could delete apps while going through security and reload them once through… although you might be slightly paranoid if you do this!
10. Watch out for officials asking you to show your phone working and getting you to unlock it and then taking it away…
11. Buy local sims at the airport but be prepared to have your passport copied. This means that the government can have a pretty good idea where you are and who you’re calling. Your phone call to the head of the local opposition leader might not be as secret as you think.
12. Pack more batteries than you need.
13. Know your blood group.
14. Make photocopies of your passport. Laminate a few. Offer up a laminate rather than your original if at all possible. Be prepared for it to disappear and never be seen again.
15. When travelling carry $100 and a credit card in a body wallet or down your pants. Carefully.
16. Carry two wallets. One with out of date credit cards and some currency. Offer this up if forced to do so but, of course, be prepared to hand over your full wallet if need be. It’s only money.
17. Drink more water than you can cope with. Finding a toilet every half hour is better than dehydration.
18. Take a photo of your baggage before you put it on the plane. If you lose it you can show people a photo even if you don’t speak the language. I bet you do this on holiday this year.
19. Don’t forget to padlock your bags. No brainer.
20. Also take photos of yourself and your team every day before you leave to go working. Email the photo to someone else so they can pass it on if you are lost or get into trouble. Check that it’s been received before you set off.
21. As you leave an airport always wear sunglasses – so you don’t get spotted looking for taxi ranks. You’re immediately making yourself stand out. Most thefts on overseas trips happen within 30m of your hotel or airport.
22. Most thefts from hotels happen just before you’re due to leave.
23. Don’t engage in chit chat with people outside the airport. You wouldn’t talk to someone like that elsewhere so don’t it an airport. They’re trying to con you.
24. Have a credible back story for a boring job. I design industrial carpets or fix iPhones. I sometimes put the cones down on the motorway. Other times I pick them up. Don’t say what you really do for a living but don’t pick something stupid or too interesting: “I’m a doctor” is a dangerous one.. you could end up being asked to treat someone!
25. Don’t put pictures of your kids on social media. How stupid are you?
26. Use any geolocation apps such as Find My Friends to allow someone back at base to monitor your your real time location.
27. Make sure your family know your itinerary. If something goes wrong and you are held they may be the ones who are contacted first. They need to know if you really are being held or if your details have been stolen and they’re trying a con trick.
28. Leave a copy of your handwriting and the questions and answers of three important things in your life. Things you won’t forget. However much you are being ill treated. They could be used to prove you’re alive.
29. Thefts from hotel rooms tend to be of things that have been left out. Unfortunately the hotel safe isn’t much of an option. The master codes for them are known to lots and lots of people. Google it. My favourite answer to this question on Tripadvisor was that the master code is K-E-E-P-Y-O-U-R-S-T-U-F-F-W-I-T-H-Y-O-U-A-T-A-L-L-T-I-M-E-S.
30. Don’t pick a room above hotel reception. Most attacks on hotels involve an assault on the reception area – you don’t want to be above it.
31. Don’t pick a room higher than 3rd floor if possible. Imagine climbing down the stairs with all your kit if there was a power cut or a fire alarm.
32. In hostile areas don’t unpack your bags – live out of a suitcase in case you need to leave in a hurry. Take a bike chain and lock and padlock your suitcase to something that won’t move when you leave your room.
33. Ring in to the office every day at the beginning of a journey and when you get back. Don’t break curfews – they’re there for a reason.
34. Buy anti diarrhoea tablets. Then buy some more.
35. Pack toilet paper.
36. If you are travelling with two bags then split your clothing and kit between them – if one goes missing you’ll still have a pair of pants for the next day.
37. Don’t drink out of cans – use a straw. Cans stored outside stay warm at night. Rats like to sleep on them. They aren’t known for their toilet manners. Do the math.
38. Don’t have a drink with ice in it. Read that again. Don’t have a drink with ice in it.
39. Only drink beer with Tin foil on the bottle tops. Beer stored in warehouses attract rats who lick the tops of the bottles where dried beer has crystallised. You’re putting a rat’s tongue in your mouth.
40. Don’t take photos of people without asking. Especially on a phone… you could be breaking all sorts of cultural taboos. Especially don’t take photos of women without permission. It’s often considered really offensive and rude.
41. Don’t make eye contact with people carrying guns. Eyeballing a soldier hardly ever helps. Become grey. Blend in.
42. Carry a hat and a jacket. If you run into a tense area you can change your appearance and blend in. Don’t wear shorts and t-shirts if it goes against the cultural norms of the country you’re in. Blend in.
43. Remember most militia don’t wear uniforms and have been known to lie about who they are and who they’re fighting for.
44. Don’t get scared at checkpoints. They’re common in many countries and are run by children or teenagers. They’re often there just to check who’s on the roads. It doesn’t necessarily mean trouble. They might want paying. Don’t ask for a receipt.
45. Checkpoints are tense places. One of you should talk, the others should shut up. Don’t eyeball the soldiers through the window but keep the windows up if at all possible. If you need to wind them down, to hand over documents, then lower it as little as possible. Keep the doors locked. Try to just ‘show’ your documents through the glass rather than handing them over.
46. If you’re shooting pictures in areas with children then get a friend to take photos noisily so the youngsters gravitate towards them – leaving you to work on your own.
47. Don’t ever take pictures of military areas. It’s not going to end well. Even in the UK it could be enough to get you arrested and your material removed from your device.
48. If you’re in a car always wear a seatbelt. Most deaths of Journalists overseas are in RTAs.
49. Check the car before you get in it. Smell the drivers breath. Learn his name. Shake his hand. Examine the car to make sure it hasn’t got something in it that could get you into trouble with the authorities.
50. If you drive into a cul-de-sac then turn the car round so it points OUT of danger before you park up.
51. If you go to an area and lose phone signal momentarily then send yourself a text. It’ll ping when you are back in range so you know for sure that a signal is THERE. Mark your location when you receive it. If you go further on, and run into trouble, at least you know where a phone service is available.
52. Always keep your car doors and hotel doors locked.
53. Carry a rubber door wedge. Pop it under the hotel door at night to ensure nobody comes into your room.
54. If you are in an area where water supplies are at all at risk (earthquake zone is a good example), fill the bath.. then you’ll have enough water to fill the toilet cistern if the supply drops out. Of course, you remembered to pack a set of bath and sink plugs didn’t you?
For more advice on safety:
Got any more tips? Send them to me @nickgarnettBBC on twitter or on the comments section below.