BY Andrew Green

Advisory: good advice and instinct keeps journalist safe when covering elections

Though the political stump speeches all tend to sound the same, elections in East Africa are wildly different affairs. 

I’ve now covered three of them – Kenya’s 2013 presidential election, Burundi’s parliamentary vote last year and Uganda’s recent presidential ballot – and each offered different lessons for remaining safe, while reporting as thoroughly as possible.

Tips on safer election reporting

There have been some consistencies: Get accredited. Ensure you have all of your paperwork in order and are carrying copies of your passport and visa (though never the actual passport, which aggressive security officers can take and use as a cudgel). At the very least, save some contacts – high-ranking security officials, staff from your embassy – who might be able to assist in an emergency. Alert your editors where you’ll be going. Set up a WhatsApp group with other journalists and regularly check in with each other. Carry water and lots of it.

What else you bring depends very much on your own preparation and perceptions of possible danger. In Burundi, where protestors were hurling rocks at police and there was a constant threat of violence erupting, I carried a flak jacket and helmet. When I set out on the Ugandan campaign trail, knowing security forces would be quick to fire teargas canisters, I brought scarves to cover my mouth and nose and extra water if I needed to wash out my eyes. Other journalists had their own gas masks. In Kenya, where the sun posed the greatest hazard, I took sunscreen.

Be prepared before setting out

What is critical here is to be as prepared as you possibly can before setting out – doing your research, talking to people on the ground and, potentially, sourcing safety gear. As a freelancer, a flak jacket or a gas mask are unaffordable luxuries. But I knew I couldn’t safely cover Burundi’s elections without some form of protection, so I reached out to the United Nations, which allowed me to borrow a jacket and helmet.

Now fully packed and out on the trail, a mixture of instinct and guidance from people who know better will largely determine any additional precautions.

Take advice from people you trust

In the run up to Burundi’s elections, there were constant allegations from the opposition that security forces were entering their strongholds at night, raiding homes and killing people. If true, the situation needed to be verified and documented. Even if false, it was an important component of the election story, because it generated a climate of fear. People were fleeing the country or vowing to skip the upcoming vote.

A photographer, translator and I set out one morning to investigate a neighborhood were there had been reports of heavy gunfire the night before. Half an hour into interviews with community members, a burly police officer approached and started jotting down the license plate number of our vehicle. This done, he then told us to leave and threatened that if he saw our car in the neighborhood again, we would be arrested or worse.

We huddled quickly to decide what to do. Our accreditation was in order and there was no justification for our expulsion. But our translator, who knew the impunity with which Burundi’s security forces operated, insisted that it was better that we go and report the incident to authorities, which is ultimately what we did. With their permission – and phone numbers on speed dial – we were later able to finish our work. The lesson to me, a journalist who had parachuted in to cover the vote, was to seek out people whose advice I trusted and then heed it when offered.

This mixture of advice and instinct has come into play repeatedly, helping guide where I stand in a face off between police and demonstrators, deciding which rallies are best avoided, even in considering, with my editors, what headlines might be too inflammatory.

Regimes distort reality

Because the other threat – and one that is extremely difficult to prepare for or to avoid – is of how your work or your actions will be manipulated. In Uganda, as security forces arrested the main opposition leader, an official unexpectedly pepper sprayed a photographer working for an international agency. Two other photographers on the scene, after ensuring their colleague was all right, began lambasting the officer in charge for not reacting to the incident.

Since then, a context-less video has been released that just shows the two foreign journalists shouting at the security officer, with no mention of the pepper spray. It’s being spread across social media as an example of how international journalists mistreat officials and has prompted an investigation by the police. The worry is that it will be used as an excuse to restrict access.

This manipulation is something my local colleagues in Uganda are very aware of. During election season, their content is scoured much more closely than the international press’s, because it’s their stories that reach and influence potential voters. Sadly, there is little advice they – or I – can offer to avoid this manipulation when faced with a regime intent on distorting the reality we are working to document, except to keep reporting what you see.

Read INSI's advice on covering elections here.

Andrew Green, a foreign correspondent based in sub-Saharan Africa, has reported extensively on South Sudan's ongoing conflict, regional elections and from health centres and hospitals across east and southern Africa.

Image by AFP