GUEST POST: Staying Safe While Reporting Abroad

Tina Susman

Tina Susman

As women in media, we often face unique threats to our well-being and safety, both in person and online. That’s why we’re hosting Stepping Up Safety: A Panel on Personal Security in the Field and Workplace on October 7. Leading up to the panel, we’ve asked industry professionals to share their stories, advice and personal experiences.

Tina Susman is a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, based in New York. She started at the Times as its Baghdad bureau chief in January 2007 and remained there until mid-2009.

Before joining the Times, Susman held positions overseas with the Associated Press and Newsday. She’s also worked in London, South Africa, Pakistan, Haiti, West Africa and Asia. In 1994, Susman was kidnapped and held captive for three weeks while on assignment in Somalia. She shared her experiences and advice for reporting in conflict zones abroad.

Rule #1: Know your technology and how to use it.

Too many times, I have been on assignment and seen journalists, both male and female, but sadly mostly female, fumbling with their satellite phones, their cell phones, their laptops, and the other gadgets that we rely upon both to file and to use if we need help. Do not go on an assignment with gadgets unless you know exactly how to use them yourself.

If you do not know the difference between a satellite phone and a cell phone, for instance, learn it. If you are going to go overseas as a journalist, particularly in remote areas or war zones, chances are you will use a satellite phone. Nowadays there really is no excuse for not learning how to use our gadgets. They are so much simpler compared to what I had when I first went overseas in the early 1990s. They are simple, compact, and they can literally save your life in a bad situation.

When I was in a very bad car crash in Pakistan, in the remote Kashmir region after 9/11, I was the one who actually had to turn on our satellite phone and use it to call the US Embassy in Islamabad to alert them to our situation. The photographer I was with was too upset to deal with it, and my Pakistani translator was not well-versed enough in using the phone to do it on his own. That was a case where my technological expertise really came in handy.

Rule #2: Keep a low profile and don’t call attention to yourself.

This obviously is far easier for some journalists than for others. If you are working with a TV crew, for instance, it is difficult to blend into a crowd. But there are ways to stay safer. For instance, before you go on an assignment to somewhere you have not visited, do some homework. Learn what the women wear. And learn what the men wear. If you are going to be working with a male photographer or TV crew, you do not want them to stick out like a sore thumb.

When I was the bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times in Baghdad, each time a staffer would come in from Washington or Los Angeles to help the bureau, I would send them a memo that included, both for men and women, advice on what not to wear. Even if your skin or hair color is different, wearing the right kind of clothing can really help you become almost invisible to the people around you. The less you stand out, I think the better kind of journalism you can do, because this enables you to blend with the crowd, to talk to people, to eavesdrop on conversations around you, or to simply observe without drawing a crowd.

One of the most dangerous things when you are on an assignment is to draw a big crowd around you. Don’t do it. Trying to do interviews when there are dozens of people around you all shouting for attention is impossible. All it takes is one person to throw a rock or make a bad comment, and an entire crowd can turn on you in a heartbeat.

If you are in a place like Baghdad, where I lived for more than two years, take time to see what the women on the street wear. And wear the same thing or something close. If you do not see anyone wearing short skirts, don’t wear your short skirts. If you do not see anyone dressed in bright colors, stick to black or gray. Try to be part of the scene, don’t make yourself the main attraction.

Rule #3: Don’t always be a part of the herd.

This rule might sound unusual, because most people assume there is safety in numbers. That depends on the situation. One of my standard rules overseas was to try not to become part of the big journalist crowd. I knew that I could work well alone, or with one or two other colleagues that I knew well. This enabled us to work on our stories, to conduct our interviews, and to travel without drawing a lot of attention.

A good example is how I worked in Pakistan just after 9/11, and obviously before the car crash mentioned in rule #1! I was up in the Northwest province, near the border with Afghanistan, and I wanted to interview Afghan refugees living in the refugee camps in Pakistan. I asked the local stringer with whom I was working to buy me the same kind of clothing that Pakistani or Afghan women wear.

After I had dressed appropriately, we got in our car and drove straight into a refugee camp, where I was able to do some wonderful interviews without drawing attention. I left with a very nice story. Other journalists went into the same refugee camp in following days in large groups, such as convoys of vehicles, and they got pelted with rocks and stones.

If I had gone into the refugee camp with a big group, I would never have found people willing to invite me into their homes and speak openly about sensitive issues like the Taliban and American foreign policy. As part of this rule of trying to work either alone or with one or two specific colleagues, I have an additional rule: always, always, always follow the advice of your local staff.

In most foreign countries, you will find yourself working at least part of the time with a local driver, a translator, or someone who is helping you organize interviews. Never question them when they tell you that something is too dangerous, or when they tell you that it is important to leave a place right away. They know the land and the locals better than you do.

Rule #4: Always have an escape route.

This goes for any event you are covering overseas or in this country as well. For instance, when the New York police were dismantling the Occupy Wall Street camp, it was very tense. There were a lot of protesters. They were an awful lot of riot police. I always made a point of standing in a place usually on a corner where I knew if teargas began to fly, I would be able to quickly run up the street to get away.

When I had to cover various protests overseas, I was always sure to stand or march somewhere on the sidelines, not smack in the middle of the crowd, where it could be impossible to escape if things went badly and where protesters might turn on me for whatever reason.

In Baghdad or elsewhere in Iraq, when covering a huge protest, I often would go onto the roof of a building to watch from above. If you are a photographer or videographer, you often have to get much closer. As a reporter, I find it preferable to have a wider vantage point so I can really get a sense of what is going on everywhere. And it is always safer.

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