Global Journalist Security: Training for Reporters on the Front Lines

by Laura VanVliet    /  December 9, 2011  / No comments

Global Journalist Security is a new private security firm that provides journalists, human rights advocates, non-profit groups, private news organizations, and citizen journalists with consulting and training in security and self-defense. GJS was launched in November 2011 and founded by its Executive Director Frank Smyth, a prolific foreign affairs freelance journalist and senior advisor for journalist security for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Frank Smyth - freelance journalist and Executive Director of Global Journalist Security

According to Smyth, “journalist security” is a relatively new concept that emerged only in the past two decades. At the beginning, endangered journalists were basically taught to deal with threats pertaining to a war zone and military contingencies. But such programs are only partially effective, as they don’t focus on situations where journalists face other kinds of risks; the fact is, in 2011 more journalists have been deliberately murdered than killed in armed conflicts.

Global Journalist Security was created by journalists for journalists with a curriculum that features training for covering civil unrest, preventing and reporting sexual assault, digital security, covering crime syndicates and terrorists, combat hazards, emergency first aid, personal safety, situational responses, and security management. The program aims to teach journalists how to protect themselves and each other from dangers specific to reporting in hostile environments.

Sampsonia Way interviewed GJS Executive Director Frank Smyth via email in order to better understand Global Journalist Security’s work.

How and why did this program start?

Global Journalist Security was launched in November 2011 after a long discussion involving many parties and groups about journalist security. The field of journalist security was not established until the mid- to late- 1990s, and it really only came into its own in the early 2000s. The training available to journalists through the late 1990s and the 2000s was oriented toward foreign war correspondents, and the Hostile Environments and Emergency First-Aid Training (HEFAT), as such courses were called, has been provided by a number of British-based firms staffed almost exclusively by former British Royal Marines, Commandos, and other ex-UK military personnel.

By the mid- to late-2000s, however, a number of observers, myself included, began to suggest that the military-style training remains appropriate for journalists covering armed conflicts, but that a different kind of training would be more suitable for journalists in nations – from Mexico to the Philippines, from Russia to Brazil – where journalists face other kinds of risks, and who are far more likely to be assassinated, for instance, than killed while covering armed combat.

What makes this program unique and important?

Global Journalist Security is the only outfit available to train journalists that is led and staffed primarily by journalists. Global Journalist Security was established to meet the kinds of contingencies that more journalists around the world face, including sexual assault avoidance and deterrence, threats to information and communications, and methods to safely approach hostile and potentially violent actors, including organized crime, corrupt government officials, and irregular armed and terrorist groups.

It’s been said that in 2011 more journalists have been murdered than killed in combat – How will Global Journalist Security work to lower this statistic in 2012?

Almost every year, in fact, more journalists are murdered than have been killed in combat.
Nearly three out of four journalists killed since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, have been murdered. The killers have enjoyed blanket impunity in nearly nine out of ten cases.

One can never eliminate risk. But Global Journalist Security will work toward mitigating risk. The curriculum includes methods rarely before offered to journalists, such as surveillance detection and counter-surveillance training. The surveillance methods help journalists and perhaps also their families realize that they are being followed or watched, and give them time to take preventative measures, including changing their routine or leaving an area.

The Global Journalist Security curriculum further includes methods such as how to safely use social media to report on organized crime. A number of journalists who had used social media to report on organized crime have been murdered in recent months in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico; their corpses were found with explicit warnings not to use social media to report on such matters. Global Journalist Security helps teach journalists how to use tools to help hide their identities.

Has training begun? Where are the students from?

So far Global Journalist Security has been advising World Pulse, a global action network of women contributors around the world. We are now making arrangements to train journalists in a number of locations. We are also engaged in discussions with nonprofit groups that provide professional training to journalists on how to incorporate security training into their curriculum.

How will Global Journalist Security reach out to citizen journalists, or to those in closed countries? Is there a safe way for those in closed countries to connect and correspond with GJS?

Our digital security trainers are based in Sweden, and they are experts at using a variety of methods to communicate safely with citizen journalists. We use a variety of tools from generic email accounts, to chat protocols, to hidden file transfers, among other methods.

How many trainers are there? Where are they from, and what experiences have they had?

Our training team is eclectic as well as diverse. We have trainers with experience in international reporting, computer engineering, rape crisis counseling, the U.S. Secret Service, U.K. Commandos, U.S. Army Rangers, the Israeli-based self-defense system Krav Maga, and press freedom advocacy. We have six men and two women trainers. The nationalities of our trainers include four Americans, one Pakistani-German, one Brit, one Swede and one Spaniard.

Is training based on simulation? Could you give us an example?

The training combines classroom instruction with complex simulations to challenge people to apply what they have learned. One scenario would involve a journalist who is trained to use stealth technology to hide files on their hard drive. This journalist would then face a scenario where hostile agents are trying to discover the names of sources on his or her hard drive or cell phone.

Another scenario would be to have a journalist who has been trained in sexual assault avoidance accosted by individuals at a militia roadblock. The journalist would be challenged to apply what they have learned to establish boundaries and, if necessary, respond.

What do you see in the future for Global Journalist Security?

Global Journalist Security is looking for ways to bring appropriate and effective training to journalists who need such skills but who have long been neglected – journalists mainly in less developed nations where actions from violence to surveillance are commonly used against the press. We are working to bring these skills to citizen journalists, too, as citizen journalists are increasingly on the front lines of reporting.

Contact GJS

Follow GJS on Twitter: @JournoSecurity

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