Safety Handbook for Journalists

1. Riots and Demonstration Awareness

Preparation and Planning

  • Establish the aim of the news gathering task.
  • Determine the location of the news gathering task.
  • Understand the reasons for the demonstration’s occurrence and catalysts.
  • Be aware of the background of the parties involved.
  • Establish the security force presence and their tactics. Types of threat, i.e. tear gas, water cannon, ballistic threat.
  • Make sure you have the permissions and documentation pertaining the right to cover the demonstration.
  • Find out whether journalists have been targeted specifically by protestors or security forces and what type of incidents have occurred.
  • Determine the expected duration of the news gathering exercise.
  • Be aware of gender and cultural safety issues.
  • Know what equipment is required, including protective equipment, first aid, maps, size of camera equipment to be used, communication and tracking equipment, logistical supplies (such as food and water).
  • Know your transport requirements and vehicle placements during the demonstration.
  • Have on hand your contact lists; news desk and emergency services, local hospitals, security force commanders, embassies (if required), local sources and contacts.
  • Keep in mind intelligence and analysis. Know what to expect and how to get assistance, especially in the case of an arrest or detainment.
  • Use social networks to locate riot locations and incidents occurring. Remember the authorities are also doing surveillance on these sites, so be aware that the security forces have the same information.
  • Time spent on research and reconnaissance is never wasted. Detailed reconnaissance of the planned demonstration area will help you.
  • Knowing safe locations and rendezvous points and areas of extraction.

Contingency Planning:

  • Procedures in the event of a casualty.
  • Getting arrested or detained.
  • Safe havens, rendezvous points if separated and areas of low threat.
  • Escape routes.
  • Procedures in the event of an arrest or detainment.
  • Being overrun by the protestors.
  • Camera/filming equipment confiscation.
  • Transport related issues, such as the loss of a vehicle.
  • Procedures in the event of a personal or sexual assault.
  • Loss of communication, GSM Signal and equipment.
  • Long term detention in a remote location or foreign country.
  • Embassy and Consulate support in the event of an incident.

Despite the many motivating factors for protests, it is possible to list the most common ones:

  • Political.
  • Religious.
  • Industrial.
  • Spontaneous.
  • Organised violence.
  • Hooliganism.
  • Racial tension.

Each of the above-mentioned protests has different motives, agendas and of course different results. It is important that a journalist keeps vigilant about their environment and be vigilant for the following:

  • Stocks of petrol bombs.
  • Piles of debris being collected and tactically placed.
  • Identify key people, for example masked rioters who wish to remain anonymous in the crowd for fear of identification and subsequent arrest.
  • Being aware of the surroundings helps the journalist to determine the time when they should step back or take a different action than previously planned. Some protests can be very volatile and can easily become violent.

There are signs that show the protest about to take a different tone and, in this regard, the journalist is required to observe:

  • The emotional state of the crowd.
  • Masked rioters and their positions.
  • Police actions and movement.
  • Casualties.
  • Media staff being targeted.
  • Security Forces Tactics.

Law enforcement containment

Containment includes a range of tactics. Police or security force tactics, such as creating barricades, lines of police presence to prevent activists getting to an area, separating activists, or keeping them contained in one small area, should be recognised by the journalist when in a public order/riot situation.

Police horses can also be used to contain or separate activists. Formations of police officers can deter and prevent activists from getting inside an area, or building, and can effectively limit movement of a protest. Also, the journalist must be aware of armoured vehicle surges, for example in Northern Ireland, where Land Rovers were routinely used to disperse violent crowds.


Police may choose to disperse a crowd rather than arrest individual members. Dispersal may be achieved by way of batons, horses or weapons. Police may opt for dispersal when they don’t have the facilities or the resources to engage in mass arrests.

Arrest and Snatch Squads

Police may use their power of arrest strategically. Arrests at demonstrations may be targeted towards people whom police have identified as leaders.

Confiscation of journalists’ equipment

Even if police do not legally have the right to confiscate cameras and equipment, they are entitled to ask for people’s names and addresses and may even go as far as subpoenaing the video tape. Although in many countries, the security forces will give no advance warning and confiscate or destroy equipment or footage.

Security Forces

There are many signs that give journalists a clear idea of how the police and security forces would react toward the crowd.

To be able to determine those signs the journalists must observe:

  • Heightening the emotional state of the crowd. If the crowd’s emotional status is escalating and if there is a rage outbreak in the crowd, most likely there will be confrontations with the security forces.
  • If a crowd is clearly armed – whether it is with petrol bombs, blades and debris – the journalists should expect a breakout of violence at any time.
  • Type of security forces present on the ground. The type of forces gives an idea if they are ready to use firepower or they are just there to ensure safety.
  • Movements and dispatching of the security forces on the ground. Force tactics of movement can announce if they are ready to attack a crowd or not.

Security Force Tactics

The front-line riot control officers often wear specialised protective equipment and carry weapons such as batons. They are then deployed to be in direct contact with these crowds. These officers subdue rioters and subsequently allow the less heavily armoured and more mobile officers to make arrests where it is deemed necessary. In the face of a greater threat, the riot police will be backed up with other officers equipped with riot guns to fire tear gas, rubber bullets, plastic bullets or “beanbag” rounds. The police may also have undercover officers on the ground acting as rioters.

Journalist preparation:

  • Establish pre-arranged contact points with the rest of the team (photographer, camera operator, producer, etc.) if separated.
  • Bring a cellular phone and preferably a satellite phone with emergency numbers preset for speed dialling. This will facilitate communication with office and colleagues on the ground as soon as the location is reached.
  • Keep a trauma dressing in trouser/coat pockets in case medical equipment is lost, in order to control bleeding in the event of an incident.
  • Bring eye protection such as swimming goggles, industrial eye protection, shatterproof glasses, face shields or a gas mask.
  • Wear loose cotton-based fabric clothing as this will not burn as readily as synthetic ones; remember there is always the possibility of gasoline bombs being exploded.
  • Wear distinctive clothing that differs from police forces and army uniforms.
  • Wear comfortable and good shoes. Functional and tightly laced shoes secured with tape are the best option.
  • Always wear open neck clothing; never wear a tie or scarfs in a riot situation.
  • Always wear gloves to protect your hands.
  • Carry a small backpack with enough food and water to last for a day if you are unable to get out of the area. Your backpack can also be used as a shield against rubber bullets, water cannons and rocks. Make sure the backpack has at least a strap around the chest and one around the waist.
  • Using a climbing strap and carabiners can help to secure individuals together during a riot surge, so that no one is separated. The same equipment can be used to secure cameras to the body.
  • Acquire a map or any of the online maps and do a study.
  • If there is a significant threat, it is always better to take still photographs or videos to film from higher ground as cameras and video equipment can attract attention in riots and public disorder situations.
  • You might need to liaise with security forces.
  • Press identification: Always wear a velcro identification holder; do not wear any sort of necktie identification.

At the scene:

  • Always remain in the team. Safety is in numbers, especially at night. Think about linking together if it gets violent.
  • Always carry press identification but conceal it if it attracts unwanted attention.
  • Take as few notes as possible as to not attract attention.
  • Do not bring items with a media logo on it (e.g. notebooks, t-shirts, baseball caps, microphone covers).
  • Always arrange interviews outside of the riot itself or to a flank outside the danger zone.
  • Walk alongside the protesters.
  • People who throw stones usually do that from the middle of the mass of protesters where they can blend back into the crowd.
  • Report or film from elevation to get a better view of the situation as it is also safer. This should be done in reconnaissance.
  • If there are policemen running towards you in riot gear, leave the area so as not to appear as one of the protesters.
  • Do not pick any objects from the riot itself as this can implicate involvement in the protest., e.g. tear gas canister, petrol bombs, bottles, rocks, etc.
  • Carry spare clothes in a plastic bag in case they’re needed, as in the case of tear gas contamination.
  • Do not resist arrest. However, it is advisable to inform the security forces of the nature of the newsgathering team’s reasons for being at that location.
  • Never run with the crowd and move off to the side immediately
  • Always look for crossroads to use as escape roads when all rioters and security forces start charging.
  • Avoid bottlenecks where the protesters might be contained in a tight space.

During the protest

  • Stay calm and focused when things get most intense. React to danger or warning signs.
  • Be prepared to run away from smoke, fire, police and flying objects in general.
  • Always be looking for an escape route.
  • If separated, go to the pre-designated area.
  • Be aware of snipers and possible sniper positions. Snipers have killed and injured journalists in recent protests. If single shots are heard and casualties are being sustained, immediately take protective ballistic measures. Please refer to the section on Sniper Countermeasures.
  • With regard to rubber bullets and baton rounds, the best procedure is to keep a distance from the armed individual of around 200 metres.
  • Water cannons can effectively knock individuals off balance and disperse large numbers of people. Consider that there is a risk of blunt trauma, especially to the head. Again, keeping a safe distance of in excess of 100 metres will minimise the effects of the cannon. Also remember that water cannon damage can affect the equipment being carried. Consider using waterproof coverings for the cameras.
  • Work with the team and keep a mental map of escape routes if the situation deteriorates.
  • Report to your news office every 40 minutes, or as the situation requires.
  • In the event of live ammunition use, immediately look for hard cover. If no hard cover is available, go immediately to ground and stay fixed until firing has ceased.
  • Please be aware small drones are now being used to release tear gas canisters from altitude as have recently been seen in Gaza, also drones can be used for crowd surveillance.

Conflict Resolution

  • Always be aware of escalating situations.
  • Try to read body language.
  • If you are told to lower your camera, it is best to do so.
  • Always use open hand gestures.
  • Always remain calm.
  • If you need to disengage, do show your willingness to cooperate at the earliest opportunity.
  • Always keep at arm’s length away from aggressors.
  • Keep eye contact with aggressors.
  • If in a group, always stay together.
  • Be prepared for potential gender issues.

Suggested Equipment:

A backpack should contain the following:

  • Baseball bump cap (head protection in style of baseball cap)
  • Specialised riot helmet
  • Standard eye shields or ballistic glasses
  • Swimming style goggles (protection against tear gas)
  • Respirator or military standard gas masks (protection against tear gas as well as general dust particles)
  • Personal first aid kit
  • Knee and elbow pads e.g. skateboard or industrial
  • Small fire extinguisher
  • Kayak/cycling helmet
  • Disposable ear plugs
  • Fire resistant blanket

Other considerations:

  • Stab resistant vest
  • Flame retardant underwear
  • Steel toe cap footwear
  • Gas mask.
  • Hand protection (consider motorcycle gloves)
  • A handkerchief with lemon juice soaked into it. The acidic content can neutralise (to an extent) the effects of the gas
  • Carry as much of water as possible
  • A map and navigation aids
  • Additional food and/or energy bars

Tear gas exposure

Tear gas is a noxious gas. It was developed to disperse soldiers on the battlefield. In many countries, over the last decade governments have used out of date gases that can cause serious medical and respiratory conditions. Therefore, protection from these substances is a major concern.

Tear gas is used to control riots, disperse crowds, and subdue individuals. It is intended to cause disorientation. The effects of the gas are usually temporary and relief from most of the symptoms comes within a couple of hours of exposure.

Symptoms of tear gas exposure:

  • Eye irritation
  • Tearing
  • Respiratory problems
  • Burns
  • Cases of Miscarriage in pregnant women
  • Internal organ damage
  • Skin irritation

Tear gas usually is delivered in the form of a grenade. Therefore, you may hear shots being fired when tear gas is dispersed. Tear gas grenades often explode in the air, a metal canister will then disperse the gas. This container will be hot, so do not touch it. Do not pick up an unexploded tear gas canister, since it could explode and cause injury.

The best defence against tear gas is to wear a gas mask, although here are some simple steps that can minimise the effect of tear gas. When tear gas is deployed: 

  • Place wet/soaked cloth around your nose and mouth and add lemon juice or cider vinegar.
  • Carry a plastic bag with a soaked bandana or scarf in lemon juice or cider vinegar. The fragrance of chopped onions underneath the nose can help mask the effect of tear gas.
  • Never rub the eyes, this will cause more discomfort.
  • Immediately walk into the wind to flush the gas off clothing.
  • Never Panic as this will only make breathing harder and the lungs will inhale more fumes that will cause discomfort.
  • Try to wear waterproof/rain clothes as a top layer to protect skin from the gas.
  • If inside a vehicle and have been exposed to tear gas, partially open a window to allow air to circulate.

First aid for tear gas exposure:

  • Only flush eyes with sterile saline or water until the stinging starts to abate.
  • Exposed skin should be washed with clean water first then washed again with basic soap and water. Never wash/rinse tear gas with hot water.
  • Breathing difficulties are treated by administering supplemental oxygen and in some cases medication that are used to treat asthma. If there are any respiratory problems seek medical advice immediately.

Advice in case of arrest

  • Know your rights: you have the right to remain silent and to be assisted by a competent and independent lawyer of your choice. You have the right not to be subjected to torture, intimidation, deceit, and other forms of coercive harassment. You have the right to be informed of these rights and to be told that anything you say may be used against you in court.
  • If you are detained, you must be treated as a human being and must be entitled to due process.
  • If you are suffering from any medical condition you must inform the security forces immediately.
  • What happens in the first five hours of arrest can affect the outcome and subsequent judicial process. There is likely to be an interrogation in these initial hours.
  • In certain countries you can be held for six days or more without any formal charge. Ensure the news desk has access to legal representation.
  • At the earliest opportunity, demand your statutory right to a phone call so that you can alert the news desk/bureau.
  • Make no statement or sign any documentation until you have legal representation.