Survival training: The hostile environments course that is saving reporters' lives

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The Independent Online

You are the foreign correspondent. You are on one side of a road, your cameraman who has just been shot is on the other side, with two other journalists and two locals. In one direction, you just heard an explosion. In the other, you can hear gunfire. What do you do?

"The point of this course is to give you the tools to handle these situations, to know what to do next," explains Andrew Kain, managing director of the AKE group, which runs hostile environment training for journalists. The training, run over five days, aims to reduce the element of luck involved in critical situations by providing the tools to react to them. It goes from learning – just after lunch – how to prevent someone from swallowing his own vomit or blood, to treating wounds and recognising when the safety catch of an AK47 gun is on.

You also pick up simple and logical tips, like walking away after witnessing an atrocity instead of running and becoming a target. "That's why you wear baggy trousers when you're a journalist, so people can't see your legs shaking," Kain explains with a smile.

After academic classes, the training continues in a field outside Hereford. The land mines don't look the same as in the classroom and neither do the AK47 guns held by the men in balaclavas who are simulating an ambush. Once you're down on your knees, with your hands on your head while you watch one of the trainees being blind-folded and carried to a car with a gun to his back you almost forget that this is not for real.

Swedish journalist Stefan Borg was the foreign correspondent in a situation almost exactly as described above. Fortunately, a few months before this happened in Congo in November 1996, he and his cameraman had taken a safety training course. "It is the most powerful endorsement, supported by film footage, we have ever had as to the effectiveness of training," Kain says.

That footage survives because the camera was left rolling throughout the whole incident. It begins with pictures of Borg, alone, keeping close to a wall on one side of the road. Scattered gunfire can be heard all around, and then Borg steps into the road, looks around and crosses to join the wounded cameraman, and applies a tourniquet to his leg. The camera also captures the moment when the men leave the scene, screaming "journalists, journalists" in the direction of the gunfire, which does not relent. The lasting impression from the clip is the way the two journalists are exceptionally calm given the situation, focusing on what they are able to deal with and doing everything to get themselves out.

After the two journalists returned home safely, the safety training was made compulsory in Stefan Borg's news organisation, the largest Swedish commercial television broadcaster, TV4. "The training gets you mentally prepared," Borg says. "I travelled a lot before doing the training, but I always felt there was something missing."

To Rodney Pinder, director of the International News Safety Institute (INSI), the training undeniably saves lives. "You would not expect a soldier to go to war without training," he says. "Journalists are the only professionals to enter dangerous situations without being prepared."

Dangerous situations are not confined to war zones. A survey conducted by the INSI between 1996 and 2006 found that among 1,000 media workers who died "at least 657 were murdered in peace time – reporting the news in their own countries". That's why much of the safety training focuses on how to handle potentially risky situations such as demonstrations that turn violent or on doing investigative reporting in dangerous parts of the world.

Brazilian journalist Camilla Menezes was looking for safety training that could prepare her for potentially violent urban environments. The biggest challenge for journalists in her country, she says, is working in the favela shanty towns. "Favelas are pretty much like war zones but without rules," she says. "There is no right and wrong side; even the police can be your enemy."

A safety course costs around £2,000 per person, but the number of journalists killed over the world continues to increase. "Media employers have a duty of care towards their staff and that must include safety training and a legal liability to ensure all reasonable steps are taken to keep them from harm," says Chris Cramer, former head of CNN International and honorary president of the INSI.

One of the main issues today concerns local journalists and fixers who are sent to dangerous areas and contribute to international news organisations but are not provided with sufficient protection. Whereas the main news agencies and broadcasters now provide safety training to all their staff, it is far from being true for newspapers – although the INSI journalists' deaths statistics show that print journalists are as exposed as broadcasters. How can you sleep at night knowing that the people you send there have not been trained properly?" asks John Owen, professor of international journalism at City University and Chairman of the Frontline Club Forum, who was able to organise a course for postgraduate students for the first time this year.

"I do not accept any justification for not getting safety training to journalists. If they cannot afford paying for training, they should not send people," he says. "If newspapers can pay columnists, in some cases more than £200,000 a year, then they can find the money to provide life-saving safety training to their journalists and their local fixers and interpreters."

For more information on AKE safety training in the UK, visit http://www.akegroup.com or write to services@akegroup.com.

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