INSI: Safety Tips for Journalists Working in Mali

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Handy tips from the International News Safety Institute for journalists working in Mali and other conflict zones.

Mali is a poverty stricken West African state, which used to be a former French colony. Al-Qaeda (AQ) has been a lingering problem for a long time with international players trying to “ignore” the problem until now. Mali has been asking for assistance for quite a while and it is only now that the region has responded with military assistance.

The French, with UN backing, have now decided to support the Mali government in their fight against AQ. Mali is fast turning into a violent conflict, with a risk of kidnap that is likely to increase as the conflict progresses. It has the potential to soon be a war zone and should be treated as such, if going there to report on the events. Moving around conflict zones is dangerous, so make sure you understand the risks and do everything you can to avoid becoming a target yourself.

It is your responsibility to be adequately prepared.

INSI’s advice is as follows:

Background research

Know the background to the conflict and really understand what makes the country and its factions tick, as it is not just a case of the “Islamists against the West”.

Remember the unrest has been going on for years among the country’s Tuaregs. Mixed in to this rebellion are mercenary forces from Gaddafi’s era who have returned to northern Mali. Local Islamist militia and some remanents of a 1990’s Islamist rebellion in Algeria, claiming to be regional units of AQ, have also taken up residence in northern Mali.

Remember who the French are essentially fighting against and think about predicting the tactics they will use. Islamist fundamentalists have been known to use suicide bombs, either vest borne or vehicle.

Be conscious that Bamako is a small town/city and journalists are an easy target. Remain aware of your surroundings and do not become complacent just because there is an international military force there.

Covering the Mali story

Preparation

Be physically and mentally prepared. Mali is poor, difficult to get around, hot, and basic amenities are scant. Just living there will sap your energy if you are not used to it.

Make sure you have assessed the risks, have a realistic risk assessment in place and a workable crisis management plan for if it all goes wrong.

Make sure you have the appropriate insurances in place prior to travel for your personal situation.

Make sure you have the appropriate inoculations for the region and carry basic medical kit with clean needles. Consider taking a dental care pack and ensure you have malaria prophylaxis with emergency treatment if you are going to be a long way from medical care.

Make sure you know where the medical clinics are and how to get there in an emergency. Make sure your drivers know where they are as well.

It is advisable to have already worked in a hostile environment or at least in Africa, if you are going to cover this story and to have attended a hostile environment course.

Make sure you have the appropriate equipment with you for living and working in a hostile environment. It is a fast moving conflict and it is very dangerous to be outside Bamako in the north. If unsure contact INSI.

Know the background of the people and clearly understand the factions and their issues. If you speak French it will be a bonus, as this is the first language after the local languages. English is not widely spoken.

Wear lightweight civilian clothes unless you are embedded and required to wear special dress. Avoid paramilitary-type clothing.

Take your body armour and helmet with you, even if you don’t use it is better to have it with you just in case.

Carry emergency funds and a spare copy of your ID in a concealed place such as a money belt. Have a giveaway amount ready to hand over at local checkpoints.

Consider taking a satellite phone with you, as coverage out of Bamako up country may be unreliable.

Keep emergency phone numbers to hand, programmed into satellite and mobile phones, with a key 24/7 number on speed dial if possible. Know the location of hospitals and their capabilities.

Moving around Mali

Ensure you check in with the French military or African military and ensure they know where you are staying. Consider registering your arrival in country with your own Embassy or Consulate, so they have you on file as being in the country.

Make sure you understand where the military offensive is moving to next and what their intentions and objectives are. This will assist you in staying safer and avoiding the areas being bombed.

If travelling by road, use a safe and responsible driver with knowledge of the terrain and trouble spots.

Identify your vehicle as media unless that would attract undue attention; speak to local sources about the pros and cons of this.

Consider travelling in convoy with other journalists as this may give a certain level of protection and there is often a certain confidence in numbers. Be aware that it may not make it any safer for you.

Make sure your vehicle is well prepared if going out of Bamako, with plenty of fuel. In hot conditions check tyre pressures regularly as a blow-out can be disastrous. Know how to change a tyre and ensure the spare tyre is roadworthy. Make sure your vehicle has a spare and a jack and equipment to change a tyre.

Seek the advice of local authorities and residents about possible dangers before travelling.

Inform your Editor/Base location of where you are going, your intended time of departure and expected return.

Check in frequently. Beware of carrying maps with markings that might be construed as military if going to interview the “rebel forces”.

Do not be tempted to carry a weapon or travel with journalists who do.

Working with the French military

Make friends with the media liaison officer and get all contact details for use in emergencies. Ask them how much assistance they can give and be realistic about what they will do for you.

U
nderstand the nature of the combat and what the French military and other African forces are trying to achieve. If you don’t understand what they are trying to do, then find someone who does and get them to explain. Warfare is complicated and journalists often get caught in the middle.

Do not move around the disputed areas/conflict areas “hoping for the best” and believing that journalists are neutral so nobody will hurt you. The French forces will bomb when and where they want and it is not their responsibility to check where you are. They are now using drones, which may not be able to identify you as media from long distance. Consider putting media markings on the roof of your vehicles, which may be seen from a distance. Check they can actually be seen.

Never draw maps of military positions or establishments in your notebook.

Seek the agreement of soldiers before using your cameras. Know local sensitivities about picture-taking.

Working with AQ/”rebel forces”

If you are going to interview AQ and your story will take you to what the French and Western forces are considering as “rebel forces” and “terrorists”, be very clear of the dangers.

If you are going to work and follow AQ, then be conscious that you will be a target for the western forces and they will not be able to distinguish you from the AQ forces, when they start bombing or fighting.

Ensure you have a good, trusted and reliable fixer who knows the leaders of the people being interviewed can who can interpret/translate for you. Try to get guarantees for your safety. Set time frames and travel times. Be aware that if crossing the French lines, you may then be considered as enemy forces.

Be aware that French hostages are still being held by AQ and it is very likely they will try to take more to use as leverage against the French government. French journalists should consider whether this is the best idea and media organizations should consider whether it is better to use other nationals for this task.

Be conscious that your government will not be able to do very much to help if you are taken, so have realistic expectations and a robust crisis management plan in place.

General advice

Carry picture identification and have accreditation in Mali.

Identify yourself clearly if challenged. If working on both sides of the front line never give information to one side about the other.

Familiarise yourself with weapons commonly used by the military and AQ. Know their ranges and penetrating power so you can seek out the most effective cover. Do not handle abandoned weapons or spent munitions.

Soldiers of either side will often shoot first if they feel threatened. Do not assume they know who you are, where you are and what you are doing in the thick of fighting.

Do not assume they can see you clearly, especially through their sights. The camera you raise to your shoulder could be seen as an anti-tank weapon at a distance. Hold the camera low when filming approaching tanks and twitchy soldiers.

Health and hygiene

Mali has inadequate sanitation and hygiene and you are likely to get sick if you do not take adequate precautions. The result of this sanitation problem is that water-related diseases, including cholera, diarrhea and guinea worm disease, account for more than 80 percent of all illnesses in Mali.

Your inoculations will cover you for some diseases, but others are transmitted via the food and water chain.

Consider water as undrinkable and unsafe to drink. Take water purification with you in case you can’t get bottled water. Check the seals on the bottom of bottled water, that is has not just been refilled with tap water.

Consider not eating anything unless it is cooked, boiled or peeled. Salads are washed in unclean water and handled by hands, which may not have been washed. Meat is often left out for flies to land on it.

Consider taking muesli bars (or something like this) as an emergency food supply.

Be strict about your hands. Take a scrub brush and clean under your nails each evening. Use hand sanitiser and wetwipes to keep you hands clean. This will help prevent you getting sick from filth to mouth diseases.

Do not be embarrassed to seek counseling once you have returned home, if you find your experiences in Mali distressing.

Do pass on your advice and experience in Mali to your colleagues; use the INSI website to post timely information that might help save a life.

Between the Lines