BY INSI

SAFETY ADVISORY: Syria as at 05/03/13

Last week the International News Safety Institute took part in a panel debate at the Frontline Club in London, which shed light on the risks some journalists are prepared to take to get the story.

The discussion highlighted the real need for more practical advice aimed at journalists, particularly freelancers who often do not have the same level of support as media staff, going to dangerous places. As a result of this, INSI is issuing the following safety advice for journalists planning to operate in Syria - which remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a member of the news media.

General

The security situation in Syria is fluid and changes on a daily basis as battles are lost and won. It is a dangerous place to work for journalists and should be classed as a war zone.

You should consider that you may have to work on your own, so ensure that your security plan is well thought out, robust and that you are ready to deal with any emergency.

Shelling and attacks from the air are a daily occurrence and bombings and shootings are common in some areas. The risk of kidnap is high in some regions and is likely to increase as time goes on. The most likely threat to your safety is that you are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is advisable to have already worked in a hostile environment and to have attended a hostile environment course. You should be familiar with wearing body armour and helmets and it is advisable to take both pieces of equipment with you. Ensure that you have the appropriate equipment with you for living and working in a hostile environment. If you are unsure, contact INSI.

If you are working with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) be aware that they may be wary of satphones, GPS and other technical equipment for a number of reasons. Communications and data may be intercepted by the regime and have been blamed for triggering airstrikes in the past. Furthermore, the FSA could be wary of 'outsiders' who may be spies, either for the regime or for another group.

Preparation

Be physically and mentally prepared. Consider that Syria had extreme poverty before the revolution and now living conditions are considerably worse.

Do your research. Know the background of the people and clearly understand the factions and their issues.

Ensure that you have carried out a thorough risk assessment and a workable crisis management plan in case of an emergency.

Ensure you have appropriate insurance in place prior to travel and appropriate inoculations for the region. Consider carrying a basic medical kit with clean needles as hospitals are not well stocked. Ensure that you carry personal medication with you and consider carrying a dental care pack.

Consider that English is not widely spoken so you may require a fixer/translator.Your fixer/translator will be your eyes and ears while in Syria so ensure that they are trustworthy.

Travel around Syria must be planned thoroughly with all eventualities taken into consideration.

Carry emergency funds with you and have a 'giveaway' amount ready to hand over at local checkpoints or if highjacked.

Ensure that you carry your passport and a spare copy of your ID in a concealed place.

Consider carrying a satellite phone with you for safety check ins.

Keep emergency phone numbers to hand, programmed into satellites and mobile phones with a key 24/7 number on speed dial if possible.

Have a grab bag ready with enough equipment to survive for the length of time your risk assessment has identified that it will take you to get out of the country. At night ensure that your grab bag, medical kit and body armour is easily accessible and positioned by the exit. Be ready to leave the building at a moment's notice.

Take a trauma pack with you and know how to use it.

General threat assessment

The main logistics issues are lack of electricity and therefore you may find it difficult to power electrical equipment and connect to the internet.

Fuel for vehicles and generators is scarce.

Clean water should be drunk from bottles. Sanitation is basic.

One of the main threats not to be underestimated are road traffic accidents. Some drivers are fast and may appear out of control. Consider asking your driver to slow down. Vehicles tend to break down as cars are poorly maintained, spare parts are difficult to get and fuel is dirty, meaning it can clog the engine.

The main threats in Syria come from the sky – be aware of artillery, mortar and tank shelling as well as missiles from fast jets. These missiles could be intentionally aimed at vehicles and buildings, or jettisoned munitions.

Weaponry

Do your research prior to travel.

Know your weapons and be able to distinguish between the sound of fighter jets, shelling, tank fire, mortar and artillery. If you are unsure, research it or ask for advice from the people who conducted your hostile environment training.

Consider that you may only be able to hear noises, particularly at night. Ensure that you know what these sounds like at a distance and nearby so that you know when it is time to 'ignore', 'worry' or 'leave'. If you are unsure, take cover.

Consider that different areas of Syria are being bombarded with different weapons systems and it can be difficult to ascertain what weapons are being used when on the ground.

Weather

In the winter the temperature can be freezing. Consider that many of the buildings are exposed to the elements and do not have heating. Ensure that you take a winter sleeping bag and warm clothes with you.

In the summer the temperature can be scorching hot. Consider that there may be little or no air conditioning due to lack of power.

Customs

Before you enter a house, you must take off your shoes. In high risk areas, ensure that you leave your shoes to the side of the pile of shoes so that you can find them quickly in case of an emergency.

You may be offered tea and Arabic coffee when you enter a house. If you are offered food in a Muslim household, ensure that you eat with your right hand.

If you are unsure of local customs watch your hosts.

Women should take a veil with them and consider wearing it in consideration of local sensitivities and for security reasons. Wearing a veil attracts less attention.

While conducting interviews you may find that you will put your interviewees at ease, and get more information, if wearing a veil. If you are interviewing an Islamist or a religious cleric you may find that they will not speak to you unless you are veiled. If travelling via Turkey you can buy a local veil there before entering Syria.

Electricity

There is often no electricity and even if there is it often fails so be prepared for this. Take a surge protector for your laptop for if and when a generator is switched on. There is still power in some government controlled areas so make use of this if and when it is working.

Carry 2 pin European plugs and adaptors with you and consider taking a Swiss 2 pin with you as some sockets use these. Carry an inverter with you so that you can charge devices in the car – you can charge two devices of this. For example, a 150 watts inverter will charge a laptop and cell phone in a car. This is useful for emergency communications if you can not get power from anywhere else.

Consider carrying spare batteries for torches and remember that rechargeable ones may be difficult to recharge. Take a portable charger (power monkey) for whatever appliances you may have. Consider a solar charger in the summer.

Water and sanitation

Bottled water can be found but is not always in abundance in small villages.

'Puribottle' to purify water immediately is useful until clean bottled water can be found.

Baby wipes are useful when there is no water available.

Toilet paper is scarce and soft toilet tissue wipes are useful to keep yourself clean. Nappy bags can be used to collect toilet tissue, as you cannot put paper down the hole in the ground toilets. You have to dispose of this yourself.

Your luggage

Make sure you have a bag that you can carry as you may have to walk long distances. Ensure that your body armour and helmets are not on display if you are trying to keep a low profile.

Getting into Syria

If you are travelling to Damascus, it is safer to get a visa and enter legally. If you are travelling outside it may be safer to enter without letting the authorities know.

Some crossing points are known for having people watching to set up hijacks after journalists have crossed over and as they continue their journey.

Accommodation and safe houses

There are few functioning hotels in Syria so ensure you have a safe house in mind. It is not advisable to sleep in the 'media centres'.

A good fixer/translator will ensure that you stay in a safe place.

Be circumspect to whom you tell your travel plans and be vigilant when moving from your accommodation. In towns where the risk of kidnap is greater be particularly vigilant and try to keep a low profile. Women should consider wearing a veil to lower their profile.

Think about the security of your possessions. Ensure that your cars are locked when you go to do your interviews and do not leave your kit unattended.

Medical facilities

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

There may be 'kitchen clinics' in the homes of doctors however be aware that these are basic in nature for lack of equipment and drugs.

Consider that village clinics can be unhygienic so have a plan if you need to evacuate Syria for advanced medical help. It can be difficult to know the locations of medical facilities in advance, so ask around and speak to others who have been to the area already.

If there is an emergency it is advisable to take the patient to a larger hospital where there are better treatment possibilities and cleaner conditions. You may have to weigh up the safety of doing this versus the risk of aerial bombardment, but if someone is injured this may be the best thing to do.

Moving a patient from Syria to Turkey would be challenging so have a plan agreed prior to travel.

General tips for travel

1. The travel adaptor to use is the normal round 2 pin European style, but take a US 2 pin and a smaller round pin Swiss adaptor just in case.

2. Carry some Turkish Lira and US Dollars with you. You can get local Syrian pounds if you need it when there. 

3. Carry small denominations of US dollars.

4. Use high factor sunscreen if working outside.

5. Many people smoke so be prepared to passive smoke the whole time. Consider bringing cigarettes as gifts.

6. Bring wetwipes and bacterial handwash as sanitation can be poor.

7. Don’t drink the tap water. Use bottled water instead and ensure the seals of the bottles have not been tampered with.

Certain security protocols cannot be published for security reasons.

If you have any further queries or need any further advice with your planning please contact Hannah Storm - [email protected]

To sign up to INSI's mailing list please contact - [email protected]


Note: The views here are those of the author and are personal reflections and safety advice. They are not meant to be negative in nature, they are meant to assist the international traveller in being prepared to work in Syria. If they cause offence to anyone, sincerest apologies are offered in advance. INSI holds no responsibility or any ensuing problems as a result of this advice.

Photo: Anti-Syrian regime protesters hold banners and chant slogans during a demonstration in Aleppo earlier this month (AP Photo/AMC)