Safety Handbook for Journalists

2. Personal Security

A professional mistake that journalists make is that personal security sometimes comes second to the editorial task. To avoid being victims, journalists deployed to conflict zones must adhere to personal safety protocol, and make the necessary adjustments to their editorial plan to secure their safety.

Current risks that journalists encounter:

Conflict State level Individual aggression Macro level
Field exposure to risk Political groups Physiological problems  Climatic conditions
Riots and public disorder Governments  Kidnapping Environmental
Terrorist attack Imprisonment / Detention Harassment Legal
Small arms ballistic attack Cyber crime Intelligence agency; physical and electronic Door stepping Poor access to medical treatment
Criminal organisations/Mafia Police Sporting events Medical problems
Cyber crime

The five basic principles of personal safety:


  • Situational Awareness. In conflict zones you must accept the risk you are taking and always be aware of threats that already exist. Always be vigilant in your daily newsgathering and back at your accommodation or when you are at a restaurant. Always be cautious and suspicious
  • Avoid routine at all times. Avoid setting patterns in movement and timings. Every couple of days and think to yourself “am I setting a pattern of any sort?”
  • Follow security procedure and protocol. Set a standard policy and standard operating procedure and stick to it. Make sure the procedures fit with your editorial task as they have to be realistic
  • Exercise common sense and common knowledge Know your surroundings and safe havens. Gain knowledge of the present threat whether it is terrorist or criminal or even disease.
  • Remain anonymous and always show confidence as though you belong there. Show any potential attacker you have the ability to fight back. Your presence in a country should be on a need to know basis. Always show alertness when in public places. 

Make sure you study all macro indicators prior to your deployment. Try to recognise signs of activity that are going on around you.

Personal Preparation

A journalist must make time and be methodical in their personal preparations:

Passport / Visa / ID Cards

Check that the passport is valid for the period of visit (and a minimum of 6 months). Check visa dates and whether you need a multi-entry visa. Photocopy your visa and appropriate pages of your passport and keep these with you at all times in a different place from the originals. Alternatively, scan relevant pages and send to an email account that you can access while abroad. Take additional passport photographs with you. If possible, also bring along your national and international driving licences and copies.


  • Before you leave for the airport, confirm that flight times have not changed.
  • Dress casually – do not attract attention to yourself.
  • Examine your ticket to ensure that your baggage receipt bears your correct destination, particularly if making connecting flights. Check that additional coupons have not been removed.
  • During departure screening procedures, keep your laptop in view. Place your wallet, mobile phone, money etc. in a zip lock clear plastic wallet for screening purposes.
  • Move to the departure lounge as soon as possible (greater security measures in place).
  • Avoid detailed discussions with strangers, and do not reveal information about yourself, your company or journey.
  • Do not photograph the airport, even from the plane.

Communications / Contact Numbers

It is of utmost importance for the journalist to keep the communication channels open with their HQ and with their crew. The moment there is a cut off in communication, the journalist is isolated in that environment.

The journalist must:

  • Double-check the working condition of communications devices (cell and satellite telephones).
  • Double check that the power will be adequate for the journey.
  • Set agreed-upon reporting times. Think of using Veiled Speech protocols.

Examples of veiled speech:

  • “Obvious” – refers to a known, or base location.
  • “Complete” – indicates you are returning to the vehicle or location.
  • “Foxtrot” – lets the receiver know you are now walking on foot.
  • “Green army” – refers to a conventional military force.
  • “The Away Team” – refers to unconventional forces, e.g. rebels/militia.
  • “Intending” – indicating you are likely to change direction of travel.
  • “Mobile” – you are now travelling by vehicle.
  • “Shorts” and “Longs” – generic terms for pistols and rifles.
  • “Flashlight” – refers to an emergency situation.
  • “Standby” – notifying of an event or alert.
  • “Wait out” – informs the receiver to stand by for further communication.
  • “VCP” – refers to a Vehicle checkpoint.

Medical/ First Aid Equipment

Ensure there is personal medical equipment. If prescribed medication is required, ensure that there are relevant prescription notes.


  • Travel light if possible and do not take unnecessary valuables.
  • Once packed, keep your bag in sight at all times. Inconspicuous luggage and briefcases are less likely to attract attention.
  • Pack important or confidential documents and a change of clothes in hand luggage.
  • Make sure you use TSA locks for you luggage
  • Label luggage correctly, but avoid using company names or ‘frequent flyer’ tags.
  • Do not allow airport employees to walk away with baggage. Supervise the loading of luggage into buses or taxis – do not leave it to the driver. Keep important items with you.

Travel security

  • Restrict knowledge of visit.
  • Control your own travel & hotel arrangements and seek advice on secure accommodation.
  • Meeting arrangements (need to know basis) inform fixers of intended meets when you get there not before.
  • Place hard camera boxes (Pelican) inside normal suitcases it will help limit your exposure at the airport and hotel.

Airports, seaports, train stations and taxis

  • Journalists should be very vigilant on arrival, as airports, train stations and ports are often considered to be high-crime areas, especially in unstable areas or developing countries. It is preferable to be met at the destination by someone the journalist or agency knows. If it is not possible to have someone known on the ground to receive the journalist, additional measures have to be taken.
  • If drivers waiting at the destination, have the driver’s name, licence plate number and phone numbers in advance; on the spot ask for an identification photo ID of the driver to compare the information.
  • If it is not possible then try to get an officially registered taxi.
  • On deployment, sometimes it is preferable to use taxis rather than having agency vehicles. Yet it is of utmost importance to use reliable taxi operators, if it is not available try to get a list of trusted taxi drivers used previously by other peers or agencies.
  • Do not use the same non-agency driver repetitively and do not give any personal or journey details to the driver.

On arrival

  • Be alert
  • Keep calm when confronted by awkward officials asking why you are there.
  • Be aware of extortion attempts (Bag carriers).
  • Have stringent meet and greet procedures. Do not have your name or company displayed on a placard and use a code if you are going to do that.
  • Do not display large amounts of money at the airport terminal
  • Always keep a close eye on your baggage especially if you are travelling with camera hard cases etc. as they draw attention

Hotel security

  • Show evidence of room occupation (e.g. turn on the TV, radio, and lights and leave out the “do not disturb” sign)
  • Do not keep valuables in the room safe as hotel staff can access it. Only use the safe deposit system in reception as it may be insured.
  • Do not display a numbered key by leaving it on the table when eating in restaurants or having coffee in the lobby and never carry the cover for a key fob. Keep them separate. If you lose both they will know your exact room number.
  • Avoid handing in keys (pass cards); you can live with an untidy room.
  • Know fire escape routes, exits and emergency procedures
  • Is the front desk a 24 hour service?
  • Are there security guards at the reception/front gate?
  • Check that the door locks and windows locks work.
  • If there is a chain lock on the main door, use it.
  • Consider using a door wedge if in the shower or in bed.
  • Do not check into a hotel where rooms are easily accessible from windows or balconies.
  • Always check your room for tampering.
  • If possible, try to book a room between the 2nd and 6th floor, as the ground floor is vulnerable and fire ladders used by emergency services do not generally reach higher than the 6th floor of any major building.

Situational Awareness

Make sure you study all macro indicators prior to your deployment. Try to recognise signs of activity that are going on around you. Assess the situation and make safety decisions based on your personal judgement, not your fixer or anybody else. Always avoid confrontation and being drawn into any type of threatening position.

If you do get into problems, remain calm and try to defuse the situation before it escalates. If this does not work, disengage and make your way to a safe location ASAP.

On the field

  • Firstly, identify areas of concern, establish no go areas and certain fluctuating risks.
  • Has there been any specific incident in the last 24 hours that could affect your task?
  • Are there any external events, which could interfere with your newsgathering, e.g. holy days or political events?
  • Make sure you have a full situational brief from your local team fixer, driver etc.
  • Learn to recognise risk indicators; e.g. Are you under hostile surveillance? Is there an increase in security forces? Are the security forces on edge?
  • Recognise patterns of behaviour in the local population; e.g. Are the streets empty? Is there a noticeable reduction in road traffic? 

Keeping a low profile

Keeping a low profile as a journalist is far easier for print press than television crews. Every day, think about where you are going and how you can blend in and think of the environment you are going into.

  • Always play the “Grey Person”; keep your voice low in public places and when on your mobile phone.
  • Think about the clothing you wear and, if wearing body armour, how are you going to conceal it from view by wearing it in a low-profile capacity, possibly putting a large shirt over the top of it.
  • Think about where you are accommodated and do not use the same hotel as other journalists. Think about the hotel’s image to the local population.
  • Avoid openly carrying camera equipment in dangerous locations as it can draw immediate attention to you.
  • Choose vehicles with a low-key profile; never use signature vehicles like black Mercedes or Toyota 4×4.

Everyday threat

  • Street crime is present in every country of the world.
  • Harassment
  • Scams country specific
  • Cyber Crime
  • Carjacking
  • Kidnapping is more prevalent in poorer countries.
  • Terrorism has directly targeted the media.

Personal security is not rocket science, it is mostly common sense and common knowledge. There needs to be an amount of personal effort, having the ability to think ahead, and planning your task accurately. All these systems build layers of protection between you and the risk factors out there!

Personal security principles

Deterring potential threat or risk is about being confident (but not aggressive); you have a right to be there, know your contingency plan, geographical awareness, preparation and planning.

  • Detect a threat at the earliest opportunity: have I seen him/her before?;Do those people fit the picture?
  • Delay the incident from becoming worse by knowing exactly where your safe havens are, and;
  • Respond to an incident in a professional manner by using your contingency plans.

Unpredictable routines

  • Vary arrival/departure times on a daily basis.
  • Use different vehicles and transport when possible.
  • Consider changing accommodation frequently.
  • Use different routes.
  • Vary places where you socialise and eat.

Layers of protection

Be methodical to ensure the protective measures applied become a mental discipline and apply them to all activities. Maintain procedures and remember that you are:

  • Most secure – in a guarded area
  • Less secure – out on the ground
  • Even less secure – travelling
  • Least secure – travelling at night

More layers = more protection

Human threat analysis

Human threat analysis is the likelihood of confronting threats. Most journalists conduct some form of risk analysis before deploying to areas of conflict. From this analysis they then decide what security measures they adopt.

Human threat analysis studies the following:

  • Human Behaviour
  • Cultural Awareness
  • Human Threat
  • Human skills to pick at target before an event
  • Envisage where incident might happen

Concept and principles

  • What are your vulnerabilities to threats?
  • Are you exposed to accidents and health risks?
  • Effectiveness
  • Efficiency

Information that will affect the security and countermeasures you have adopted:

  • Type of threats;
  • The pattern of the threats;
  • Causes of the threat;
  • In country threat levels;
  • Potential changes in threat level patterns.

Threat analysis techniques

Due diligence to provide basic information especially if you are new to the region this can provide you with a basic baseline of potential in country threat. You must focus on the geographical location of the threats, types of threat (e.g. kidnap) and the likely threat factors. Remember that as a journalist you would have different associated risk factors than a businessman would have, especially during newsgathering tasks.

Identification of specific risk patterns and most common type of attack: 

Firstly identify the most common threat in your geographical location, gather data on past, present and future threats, at what time the threat happened. Example: suicide bombers have a trend of detonating after prayer times. You must look at the type of threat and the outcomes of the threat.

Identification of threat level analyse the threat patterns for severity and regularity: 

Previous threats may not be consistent with more recent activity. Do not just use high to medium and low threat levels as these levels may not accurately identify imminent threats. Also, in volatile regions threat levels can go from low to high risk in a matter of minutes.

Look for threat indicators in your environment that the threat is going to change: 

Situational awareness is one of the most important factors when you are on the ground. Always be vigilant looking for changes in risk patterns. At the end of each day ask yourself whether the situation has become more volatile and what you are going to do about your own security. Are there risk indicators to suggest the situation in your environment may be political?

Imminent threat warnings may come from the local population: 

Some examples include a warning from a local employee (fixer) telling you that you may visit a location, e.g. a market place, that is usually populated but today there is nobody there! The military in that region may also give you security warnings.