How do you know if it is safe to go?

Where will the war be this month? George W Bush promises that another battle will be along in a moment. Each leaves an aftermath that needs to be reported, crowded with people who feel rather disguntled with the West and its media. The Freelance presents advice - from Ros Bayley in London, below, and from Philip Hunt in Brussels - on how to get the story out and come home in one piece.

Is any story worth a life? According to Colin Bickler, former Reuters bureau chief and now of City University, initially he and others campaigning on safety pushed the line that no story was worth a life. That was a mistake. "It implies there should be no risk but journalists should be taking risks."

What is necessary is to assess the risks before you start and take steps to minimise the risks. Despite the high profile given to the current war in Afghanistan - where journalists from western countries lost their lives before any soldiers from those countries were killed - Bickler stresses the most common dangers that freelances should prepare themselves for are demonstrations not war.

Journalists should ask themselves why they are trying to get that particular story - is it worth the risk? - and are they more likely to get the story out than to become the story. "You have to be in the position to say, if the risk is so severe, it is not worth the candle."

The key to risk awareness is to list all the possible risks from the most severe to the negligible and then plan to minimise them, Bickler recommends.

Top priority is insurance, so you can get home if you are injured or sick. "One risk freelances often make is to think that they can go on their holiday insurance." You can't. You need a policy that includes medical evacuation and, if possible, it should be paid for by the media company which is commissioning you.

Second is getting training. The Rory Peck Trust offers bursaries for freelances on courses run by and Freelances contemplating going somewhere dangerous need to remember that it is not just their safety that is at stake. A journalist who takes risks is likely to put colleagues at risk.

And they should also be wary of taking on jobs that staff would not accept. The broadcasters are getting better at protecting journalists but with honourable exceptions the papers have not followed, Bickler believes. "Editors will tell you they only send experienced journalists. Apart from the fact that they are lying through their teeth, what is an experienced journalist? Someone who survived the last battle."

Last modified: 08 December 2001 - © 2002 contributors
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