Hostile environment training is key for journalists covering conflict. So why do newsrooms ignore it?

"They may not even understand what the issue is and how it’s relevant to them."

By Kate Mayberry
Splice Malaysia
Hostile environment training for journalists can involve all-too-real scenarios. Photo courtesy Red Batario.
Hostile environment training for journalists can involve all-too-real scenarios. Photo courtesy Red Batario.

It was the moment that drove home the importance of hostile environment training to ABS-CBN, the biggest news broadcaster in the Philippines, when one of its top reporters was snatched on the southern island of Jolo by Abu Sayyaf bandits in 2008. The channel already had protocols in place, but veteran reporter Ces Drilon was so determined to get her story she followed her leads, ignoring the advice of her editors not to go to the island.

An Abu Sayyaf stronghold and notorious for kidnappings, it was, and remains, one of the most dangerous places in the Philippines.

“This is all my fault,” were Drilon’s first words to the channel’s then-news chief, Maria Ressa, as she called to tell her what had happened; the bandits hovering in the background.

“We’ve been kidnapped and they want money.”

It took Ressa ten days, working with local officials, police and military, to rescue them.

“It’s a lesson we learned that made our management extremely security conscious,” explains Ging Reyes who is now head of news at ABS-CBN in Manila.

The Philippines is one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a journalist, notorious for the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre in which at least 32 journalists were found buried in a mass grave.

At the Philippine broadcaster, journalistsincluding camera crews—undertake regular hostile environment training and are provided with flak jackets and Kevlar helmets when heading into conflict zones. Risky deployments are discussed with an in-house security team on the basis of “assess, decide and recommend,” according to Reyes.

Lack of resources

But risks are high in the rest of the region too, and not all Southeast Asian media organisations have the resources, or the will, to provide the training and support that ABS-CBN does.

In Singapore, the Straits Times, with correspondents positioned across Southeast Asia, provides protective gear to reporters covering potentially hazardous events like the colour-coded protests in Bangkok that led to the last military coup in 2014, but there is no formal support for what is known as HEFAT—Hostile Environments & Emergency First-Aid Training. According to Foreign Editor Audrey Quek, the editor-in-chief makes the final decision on whether reporters should go to locations where they are likely to be at risk, such as the current conflict in the southern Philippine town of Marawi.

There is little research on how effective hostile environment training is, but those who have completed HEFAT courses—which usually include kidnap scenarios and other role play—have found it helpful in coping with difficult situations. Former Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste said what he learned during the training helped him focus during the 400 days he was detained in Egypt. David Yu Santos, who works with CNN Philippines in Mindanao, agrees. “The training helps me sort things out in my mind; to know how to behave in a difficult situation,” he says.

Reyes, meanwhile, believes HEFAT training helped ABS-CBN teams to survive the onslaught of Typhoon Haiyan, the most intense storm ever recorded when it swept across the southern Philippines in November 2013.

Shortly after the storm made landfall, the newsroom lost contact with their teams as communication networks collapsed. “We were worried sick,” she recalls. “It was really a severe test of what they learned. They didn’t panic and they looked out for each other.”

Filling the gaps

For many of the region’s smaller media companies, international organisations have helped fill the gaps in training. Manila-based Red Batario, executive director of the Center for Community Journalism and Development, has been leading courses in Southeast Asia for more than a decade, initially in partnership with the International News Safety Institute (INSI).

A resource squeeze prompted INSI to close its office in Southeast Asia in 2010, so Batario now relies on ad hoc funding from international donors and media support groups to run courses in hostile environments and first aid, including trauma awareness. So far he’s worked with journalists from the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, with each course tailored to the needs of the journalists, and the country where they’re working or might be deployed.

But even with regular safety training, newsrooms—and journalists—are only slowly becoming aware of the long-term impacts of covering war and disaster. Dart Center Asia Pacific managing director Cait McMahon has been working in the field for 15 years and leads courses across Southeast Asia. Like Batario, her work is largely dependent on project funding.

McMahon recalls offering a free trauma workshop on the sidelines of a conference in Myanmar. Not a single journalist showed up. “They may not even understand what the issue is and how it’s relevant to them,” she says. “Clearly there needs to be more groundwork in people even understanding what’s going on.” It took a photojournalist’s legal fight over the mental trauma she’d suffered working with The Age to wake Australia up to the issue, McMahon says.

Coping with trauma

As a correspondent with The Star newspaper in Malaysia, Shahanaaz Habib took a HEFAT course in 2003 (the only journalist in the newsroom to do so, and only after she’d covered the Iraq War). Shahanaaz was one of the first to arrive in Aceh after 2004’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, and went on to report from across the Middle East including Gaza and Yemen, convincing management to arrange HEFAT for others at the paper too.

Entirely focussed on reporting while she was on the ground, it was only after Shahanaaz returned home that what she’d seen began to weigh on her. Mostly she felt guilt, but sometimes it was anger.

At one dinner in a five-star hotel, designed to raise money for tsunami survivors, she was called on to do a presentation. “I remember feeling very angry at the extravagance,” she recalls. “Looking with disbelief at the chandeliers and expensive lunch and thinking “these people don’t get it”.

“I couldn’t stomach eating because I kept thinking of the people in Aceh who didn’t have anything to eat or very little to eat.”

Like many journalists, Shahanaaz found talking her experiences over with family, friends and colleagues helped. So did returning, and seeing how people had rebuilt their lives in the wake of the disaster. But de-briefing sessions are becoming more common.

ABS-CBN held major debriefings as teams returned from covering Typhoon Haiyan in which whole communities were destroyed and at least 6,000 people died. “It was one of the most important decisions I made,” Reyes recalls. “A lot of them would have nightmares, some didn’t want to come back because they felt they needed to “finish the job” [and] they had this affinity with people there. That kind of affinity is hard to avoid. We are only human after all. We cannot be emotionally detached from what we see.”

Journalists covering the ISIS-backed rebellion in Marawi, and President Duterte’s “Drug War” have also been given debrief sessions. Reyes says ABS-CBN sees such training as an investment in its staff. Batario hopes others in the industry may eventually follow suit.

“I always harp on this whenever I have the chance,” Batario says. “Media companies should have a ‘duty of care’ for [their] staff and workers. In this way journalist safety and security is secured, legally.”

Resources for journalists

Aside from those mentioned in this article, a number of other nonprofits and other independent media-focused organizations offer online guides or in-person safety training for journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists offers this comprehensive security guide as well as conducting research into journalist safety. International Media Support has a Safety in Journalism program while IREX’s SAFE program offers trainings. There is also support specifically aimed at freelancers, including from the ACOS Alliance and Frontline Freelance Register.

Kate Mayberry has been a print and broadcast journalist in Southeast Asia for more than 20 years, and was part of the team that launched Al Jazeera English in 2006. She currently freelances for media including Mongabay, Al Jazeera, BBC Capital and Nikkei Asian Review. Follow Kate Mayberry on Twitter.

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