Reporters and photographers are invaluable to protesters.
If the protests have been peaceful, and if the regime is tyrannical, many reporters are inclined to be on the protesters side. They risk their lives for those who are protesting so it is the duty of protesters to protect them.
Reporters arriving from other countries should register with the appropriate authorities. If given the chance to report on a protest, they should register with protester groups as well. They may be treated with suspicion at first, but if they say the right things, they may gain protesters trust.
Band of brothers
Protesters should introduce themselves to reporters and be friendly when doing so. They should register reporters with their own organizations and determine which reporters are to be trusted. If called for, they should supply reporters with translators, means of transportation, and ways to communicate. Finally, and most important, reporters should be supplied guides, who can get them around safely.
Protesters who take the time to concern themselves with a reporter’s safety will find, not an adversary, but possibly a friend for life. Those who experience trying times together often develop bonds tighter than they would otherwise. The sooner newly acquired reporter allies tell their stories the sooner the people, and the outside world, will hear about them.
By becoming a band of brothers with reporters telling their story, those defying the government ensure that the story will be on their side. The goal is to make the reporter’s fondness for the protesters become completely one-sided.
The government will of course edit stories of foreign reporters for inside consumption, but that should just be a minor annoyance. The outside world will receive them in their entirety, and the outside is whom these reporters are targeting.
Stay safe – the ultimate paradox
Reporters who enter the jurisdiction of tyrants are not in Kansas anymore. To increase their chances at survival their mindset must change immediately. They must first lose all pretext that they are a protected profession simply doing their job. Their new reality is that they are now potential spies, spying not just on the dictator but on the protesters as well. They have entered a dangerous world of politics, mystery, and intrigue, where life and death decisions happen in seconds. Anything and everything can and does happen.
Nothing can prepare untrained reporters for their new assignment. Many governments shoot spies on the spot. If the government wants to declare you a spy, there is little you can do and no one to come to your rescue.
Reporters would be wise to seek out only trusted sources with local experience. Double and triple check on these sources, and follow all consistent suggestions to the letter. Only after gathering more knowledge of the area, sources proven trustworthy, and the situation at hand, should someone deviate from this path. Even then, any deviation must be with great trepidation. Never go out alone, and never let your guard down.
“How much time will it take before you know enough to be safe?” The simple and direct answer to this question is never. The more relevant question to ask might be, “What is your life worth compared to the story?” Only a reporter, following the scoop of their lifetime, can answer that question. Sadly, too often, they pay the ultimate price.
The big picture
Reporters and journalists must be able to look at the big picture. A constant reminder should be, “The first casualty of war is the truth.” As hard as it is to imagine for some people, this saying applies to the protesters as well as government officials.
In finding the truth, foreign reporters should meet with each other, compare notes, and check facts in a central place. Be aware that local and foreign reporters, who sympathize with the government, will be in these places as well. Their goal is to gather all information possible, and plant all sorts of lies. Fortunately, many or these types are easily spotted and should not be trusted thereafter. Professional infiltrators on the other hand will be nearly impossible to spot. An innocent slip about the source of a story, or the time and place of an interview, could put someone’s life in great danger.
Local reporters siding with the protesters are a great source of information. Unfortunately, they are not safe in places where international reporters meet. They should seek a meeting place of their own that is unknown to the government.
All dictators lie to hold on to their power. Foreign reporters invited by the dictator must realize that they become tools of the dictator. They must possess the integrity to decide if they will become that tool, and the brains and character to determine what is and is not acceptable.
If reporters cannot verify statements by the dictator should they report them? By reporting propaganda and unverifiable stories, a reporter plays directly into the dictator’s hands. Worse still reporters and journalists, with nothing better to do, keep echoing the propaganda and lies making them seem that much more credible. Reporters must insist on the ability to corroborate all statements made. If not allowed, then absolute skepticism must rule the stories they publish. Hard as it is to convince most reporters, often in these cases, silence is golden.
Lessons from Libya
During the February 17th Revolution against Muammar Gaddafi, reporters were sequestered at the Rixos Hotel, a five star hotel in Libya. On the surface, it appeared that it only served Gaddafi as reporters waited days, sometimes weeks, for Gaddafi’s statements and whims. In reality, Gaddafi’s tactic offered valuable opportunities for those reporters who were sharp enough to spot them.
Although not the free press that most of us would have liked, Gaddafi gave us valuable information by the nuances spotted. His not allowing follow up investigations were admissions of guilt by themselves.
Orchestrated news excursions often become a disaster by proving the exact opposite of the points Gaddafi was trying to make. Occasionally stories such as Iman al-Obeidi literally came walking through the front door.
Dictators who allow media from the outside may be hastening their own demise but in Gaddafi’s case, his ego was just too big, he could not help himself.
Dictators have been manipulating the press for so long they feel they are masters of the art. They are strong in their position because each time they ruthlessly censor or silence a story, they know they can get away with it again. What many fail to realize is that they manipulated a censored press, not a free one. What they also fail to realize is that the rest of the world is watching the uncensored versions, and these versions are trickling back into their country. Finally, and most important of all, the internet has leveled the playing field.
Reporting on protests
There must be no doubt that many reporters will be government agents. While some merely gather information on individuals and take pictures, others are much more creative. They will cozy up with foreign reporters, pretend to be protesters, or file false reports. Their goal will be to gather, ruin, or change information any way they can.
Reporters friendly to the opposition, have obligations to the people they report on. Reports can provide the dictator with invaluable information regarding the locations, strengths, weaknesses, identities, and plans of the protesters.
In some cases, innocent and naive reporters can be the best infiltrators the government has. A reporter, who reports the numbers of tanks, artillery, or guns seized by the opposition, has just verified a government investigators report, and made his job a lot easier. Some of the reporting done in Libya, by supposedly professional and caring reporters, was dangerous to the extreme. I just wish I had been insightful enough at the time to keep a record of who these reporters were. See my blog: Reporters are spies.
Casualty reports – the real conundrum
It is natural that the outside world never responds until deaths reach an unbearable level. The world has a discretionary figure they can live with, but once reached they demand a response. In a secretive repressive society rocked by violence, casualties are often impossible to verify. Dictators are keenly aware of the power they hold over casualty reports. By the time the world gets around to responding, many dictators have already gotten away with genocide.
We can hope that the reporters are serious enough about their responsibilities and that the figures they use are close to being correct. Sadly, this is not the case. Today’s reporters do not check facts, especially when there are no facts available.
Most reporters just parrot everyone else’s report on casualties. No one seems to keep their own records, or add up the casualties themselves. This leads to reports, week after week, where casualties never seem to grow any higher.
Publishing photos and taking pictures
A reporter’s obligation is to protect their sources. They must do their best to discourage protesters who insist on having their names and faces used. Reporters should protect people from themselves because it is the safe thing to do, it is the right thing to do, and these stories will be just as compelling. Reporting partial names and occupations can be just as dangerous.
It is acceptable to have names and faces revealed of known protesters, but when doing so, take great care not to divulge their location. When filming use a backdrop, or some generic area vacated when the interview is over.
Photos taken of demonstrations, and shown to the world, should also not show faces close up. It is more prudent to show only the backs of people as they are marching away. The regime will arrest, intimidate, torture, or kill anyone in photos who are protesting the government. They will surely try to identify faces they have on file. Many of these file photos come straight from the foreign media.
All protesters taking pictures should be ready to erase contents from cameras, or cell phones, should it look like they are about to be arrested. Not only do dictators wish access to these photos, but they also arrest people who take them.
Up close facial pictures can be tools used by the protesters as well as the government. Use them for spotting and rooting out government agents and infiltrators. Many will be easy to recognize. They are the ones who are not smiling and who look out of place. Known infiltrators, government agents, and their supporters, should have their faces shown to the world. Keep these photos on file for later use, and distribute them as needed.
Created: May 20, 2011
Revised March 06, 2013