Freelance cameraman and riot police. Risks occur not just in war or crisis zones, but in most reporting settings. (Photo: RPT)

One of the ways Rory Peck Trust (RPT), a media partner of our NGO Global Geneva Group, has been funding freelance journalists around the world is to provide Hostile Environment and First Aid Training (HEFAT). These courses train reporters in how to cope with the various challenges they may face while working in conflict zones. I remember going on the very first HEFAT course that was held in 1995, and run by some former British Royal Marines.  They enjoyed setting off very loud explosions when we were least expecting them, and kidnapped and interrogated us in extreme fashion.  The course covered much more besides, not least first aid on the frontline.  

I was sent by the BBC on this first course, because I had recently returned from a year and a half as the BBC Afghanistan correspondent, during which about half the Afghan capital was literally flattened by internecine fighting between two sides of warring mujahid (holy warrior) factions. Completing the course helped me considerably to deal with traumatic events and to make more effective decisions during future postings as a correspondent in conflict zones. 

Hostile environment training: from psychological support to first aid

The coronavirus pandemic put a halt on HEFAT training, so RPT launched  a series of online events with a webinar on psychological first aid for freelance journalists working in hostile environments.  Joining the event, which covered a broad overview of issues, were freelance journalists from around the world.  In feedback, they said they were pleased that this aspect of a freelancer’s career is being addressed.  As one commented, “It’s a very important project to proceed with for the benefit of a wide range of those working in the media all around the world.”  Another added: “It was an amazing experience on how to deal with mental health, especially after covering disaster stories.”  

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Participants were keen to make a series of requests following this first event. These included an opportunity to discuss case studies, with the permission of those involved. Several asked for a psychiatrist to attend future events, which in turn could be less of an overview occasion and more topic specific.  Others wanted to know more about the actual coverage of traumatic stories. The list went on, and all this feedback is informing future events. (The next takes place on Tuesday, 17 November 2020). It will feature an interview with renowned psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein, who first studied the psychological impact of conflict reporting among journalists in his landmark paper A Hazardous Profession.  

One of those attending the event was Sahar Zand, a freelance journalist based in London, but born in Tehran.  While still a child she had fled Iran with her family, living in refugee camps across Europe until settling in the UK when a teenager.  Sahar has reported for the BBC, Channel 4 in the UK and other international broadcasters from some of the world’s most hostile trouble spots, not least Afghanistan where two years ago she produced a television documentary on the vast extent of how 40 years of conflict has affected the country’s mental health. (See Global Geneva article on former London Times correspondent Ed Gorman’s book “Death of a Translator” on his experience with PTSD)

Sahar has also suffered from trauma she witnessed while putting together documentaries in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and she sought professional help to deal with this. When other support had reached its limit, a year ago, RPT helped with a grant towards treatment.  “As a freelancer, when Covid hit, this help was a life saver,” she said.   (See article by Kelly O’Donnell, a psychologist, in Global Geneva on humanitarian stress and trauma)

Much if not most reporting today is provided by freelance journalists. And for many, particularly in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America, there are no safety nets in terms of health care and benefits that are available in most countries of Europe.(Photo: Étienne Godiard)

The Rory Peck Trust: Helping journalists to continue their work

Over 60 per cent of grants given by RPT in 2019 were for medical treatment to allow journalists to continue with their work.  For many freelancers in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America, there are no safety nets in terms of health care and benefits that are available in most countries of Europe.  Even in countries where state resources exist, there is often no support for mental health care.  RPT provides a safety net for as many freelancers as funds permit.  During this year the pandemic has meant there also have been other special needs for so many freelance journalists, who suddenly found they had no commissions and thus no income.  (See Global Geneva piece on the need to support quality journalism as a basic support for credible information, democracy and accountability)

Ana Darganis is a Russian freelance journalist, mainly covering challenges faced by people with disabilities, and is in a wheelchair herself. In June, her home was searched by law enforcement officials in connection with a criminal case of dissemination of fake news on Instagram, without any evidence that she was involved. All her equipment was seized and searched and, without it, she was unable to continue her work. As she lost all her journalistic income and lives with a disability, a grant from RPT allowed Ana to pay essential bills. “The grant helped me a lot. I managed to solve the main problem – to pay off mortgage arrears and utility bills,” she said. “But it has also been a psychological support; it is very important to know that you are not left alone in a difficult situation.”

Liberian Broadcasting System journalist Jerry Beypu films an ICRC/Red Cross humanitarian operation in Liberia. Freelancers are crucial to ensuring that wars and humanitarian crises are reported in the public interest. But journalism coverage has changed. Many reporters, particularly in war zones, are barely able to make a living in the current media climate. (Photo: ICRC)

According to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, Mexico is the most dangerous country for journalists in the western hemisphere. Gildo Garza is a Mexican investigative journalist, who has been abducted, received death threats and had to relocate due to his work. The pandemic hit him especially hard, since the media outlets he worked for stopped paying contributors.  He was thus forced to stop working and has been struggling to support his family. RPT provided him with a grant to help cover basic subsistence costs.  “Thanks to the support provided, I was able to buy food for my family and pay for internet services to continue my work. I was able to provide for my children with that support in the face of this crisis, and that’s what matters.”

Each year RPT holds an Awards Ceremony showcasing freelance reporters, filmmakers and camera operators who play such a vital role in international newsgathering. The awards serve to highlight the dedication, bravery and deep sense of commitment shared by freelance journalists everywhere. It also underlines how RPT strives to help freelance journalists all around the world.  For this, funding is always in need, and requested especially this year as the coronavirus pandemic continues to compromise the work of freelancers wherever they may be. (See Tira Shubart’s article “Reporting from the Frontlines and Beyond on the 2019 RPT Awards)

For the first time, this year’s Awards will be unveiled online on 24 November 2020.  Details of the finalists in each of the four categories as well as access to the awards presentation are available on the Trust’s website: www.rorypecktrust.org

William Reeve

London-based award-winning journalist William Reeve is a recently appointed Trustee of the Rory Peck Trust. For 24 years, he served as a foreign correspondent, editor and reporter with the BBC World Service. Over several years before 9/11 he was the BBC Afghanistan Correspondent based in Kabul. In February 2002, he set up and managed the first training course for the Afghan media, subsequently graduating nearly 300 Afghan journalists.  Since then, he has designed and managed strategic communications projects for the Afghan Government and helped with other programmes in the country.   

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