Section 4.
High Risk Locations

The definition of 'Hostile Environment' is often taken to be an overseas location that presents unique challenges such as conflict and or violence. However it should be underlined that hostile environments can occur in any country. Hostile environments do not necessarily entail traditional war and conflict; filming in a 'deep state' where surveillance may be prevalent or filming a volatile and violent domestic protest or civil unrest, where tensions can run high, especially if you are in a vulnerable demographic, presents similar risks and benefits from similar planning.

To mitigate risks, a risk assessment (you will find a link to one from The Rory Peck Trust in the Resources at the end of this section) should be completed for each shoot you and your team undertake for your own reference. A key part of risk assessment is to assess the local area you will be filming in, drawing on the local knowledge of fixers, local NGOs and others connected with the project to anticipate the risks that you may face in any of your locations whether it be physical risk, risk to data or risk to others.

It's also crucial to carefully assess the current level of experience of your team (from producers to camera people, fixers, drivers and translators) noting the sensitivity of their approach to working in high risk locations ahead of time.

Remember: Just because you are working with team members who have worked on many high risk projects, does not necessarily mean that they will work as safely as newer team members who might be more cautious - and acknowledging this in advance can further help to mitigate against unnecessary risks in the field.

Suggested Team Discussion Points:

What are the risks that you and your team expect to be exposed to?
What are your mitigation strategies?
How would you rate the experience and sensitivity of your team for working in high risk locations?
Has anyone on the team already been to the high risk locations on the project? What are their insights?
How important is it for a team member to speak the local language?
How will decisions be made? By consensus? Will the group respect the reservations of more cautious team members? Will there be a "leader" of the team who makes the ultimate decisions?

4.1) Training

Ahead of embarking on filming in a high risk location, assessing your team's needs for specialist training according to the situations that could be faced is an important part of any planning - whether they are old hands or newbies. Hostile environment or high risk training should always incorporate the following elements; risk assessment of a wide variety of situations and their requisite contingency planning (be it kidnapping, accidents, terrorism or other) plus other forms of training such as first aid, planning, preparation and risk, reacting to threats from weapons, safety equipment, working in crowds, hiding your identity, abduction, hiding cameras and/ or radio mics, rushes and information, landmines, dealing with bribes and other unforeseen circumstances..

Other essential skills that are rarely taught in military style hostile environment trainings are digital security, rape prevention and resilience, emotional resilience and trauma, defensive driving, cyber security, negotiating/ setting verbal boundaries with hostile parties, civil unrest.

Training options for US or UK based team are given at the end of this section.

Suggested Team Discussion Points:

Do you and your team need to complete hostile environment training or other? If you already undertaken, would a refresher be beneficial?
Might it be advantageous for the team to be (re-)trained together?

4.2) Profile Risks

This is not about how you perceive yourself, but how others may perceive you. Be aware of your image and presence online, and consider any past affiliations, jobs, and assignments that may compromise your safety. The same questions apply to those accompanying you, including fixers, translators and drivers. If you are a female filmmaker, please review these safety tips provided by Judith Matloff for the Columbia Journalism Review.

Suggested Team Discussion Points:

Is there an increased risk for any of the team as a result of their gender, race, age, ethnicity, sexuality, religious beliefs, nationality, disability or for some other reason? What about those accompanying you, and how does your profile affect them?

Name and describe the profile risks for each team member (including fixers, translators and drivers).

How likely is each risk on this scale?

1 = only slightly more likely than hell freezing over

5 = honestly, a pretty fair chance

10 = pretty much an expected outcome

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

What measures are you taking to reduce the chance and severity?

Do you understand who might be affected if you are kidnapped and what the contingencies would be if this was to happen? (many governments do not pay ransoms).

4.3) Fixers And Locally Hired Freelancers

Remember, the people you work with may create risks to you, and you may be a risk to them. Pick your colleagues carefully and then take responsibility for their safety as part of your team.

For their own security your fixer and/or driver may not need to know all the details of your project, but they must know the risks they are taking. Discuss with them safety measures and the consequences of getting into trouble.

Suggested Team Discussion Points:

What are the film project risks related to your locally hired professional support?
What are the credentials and experience of your local fixer/driver/translator that make them suitable for this assignment?
Know the people you will be working with and relying on. Do you trust them?
What are their risks in working with you both during filming and later when the work is released? Have these been acknowledged and discussed with them?
Have you identified where you could seek help for them in case of arrest, injury or attack?
How far are you willing to go to spring them from jail, replace damaged cars or equipment or pay for medical care?
Are you going to provide them safety equipment?
Will you ask them to sign waivers and disclaimers?

4.4) Protecting Rushes And Documents

Traveling with rushes and documents is always a risk. Making sure your rushes, documents, notepads and other materials come safely out the country without being destroyed, copied or confiscated is a key priority Evaluate how you will do so and what will be a backup plan if anything is confiscated. Here, it's important to go back to Section 1 on Digital Security and reference what is needed overall vs what is needed location to location.

Suggested Team Discussion Points:

Given the risks your film project may face, what is the best way to keep your rushes secure and backed up whilst on location?
Are there risks in getting your material out of this country/location without it being confiscated, copied or incriminating you, your local team or subjects? If so, how can these be mitigated against / reduced?

4.5) Personal Protection Equipment

Assess what safety equipment you need to take with you. Scenarios can occur contingent on your location and it's important to think ahead of what you need to protect you and your team from environmental factors. Will you be in a war zone vulnerable to dust, tear gas, or even falling pieces of infrastructure? Will you be in a location prone to flooding or extreme weather? Take a step back and evaluate your body and senses (touch, taste, vision, hearing) and think about what you may need to protect yourself and your team from the conditions you'll be exposed to.

Suggested Team Discussion Points:

What safety equipment do you need for the situations that may be faced (including fixers and drivers)? E.g. flak jacket, tear gas goggles, helmet, facemasks, ear protectors etc
How will you obtain it?
What is the risk of obtaining this equipment at the location?
What is the risk of travelling with this equipment? Is it legal/ advised to bring it in?

4.6 Travel And Accommodation Risks

Travel Logistics

Think about how you are getting to your destination and any travelling inside the country. Do you need a visa to enter the country - and if so, does having a journalist visa rather than a tourist visa put you at higher risk? In general, having an official journalist visa is preferential, legitimising the use of official channels to get you and your team out of a situation if things go wrong - but it can sometimes entail more attention to a production (in the form of minders or similar) than may be desirable.

Plan your itinerary carefully and research the safest means of travel. Car accidents are of course a leading risk everywhere, not only developing countries. Make sure your car is working properly and is well equipped. With spare tyres, water, flares and oil (sometimes the most obvious thing is the most unnoticed). Do not rely on public transportation whenever possible - always try to be in control of your means of travel. Check your route carefully and find a driver that is cautious, experienced and has the language skills you need and who is not from an ethnic or political group that could put the team in danger with hostile parties. Consider as well if there are any relevant events not related with your assignment that could affect your travel (for instance a strike, public holiday or celebration).

Always have an exit plan, as on the ground situations may change, or you may not feel comfortable with your initial plan. Do not make cost a factor over safety!

If you are travelling overseas, it may be advisable to check in with your country's nearest embassy or consulate. You need to decide whether you are above or below the radar. Ask around with others working in the area before deciding - there are advantages and disadvantages with each approach. Always know how to contact diplomats in case of emergency.

Suggested Team Discussion Points:

Consider the risks involved in your travel arrangements - both air and ground transport and what measures you are taking to reduce their chance and severity.

Name and describe the transport risk for any of the team (including fixers, translators and drivers) - both air and ground transport.

How likely is each risk on this scale?

1 = only slightly more likely than hell freezing over

5 = honestly, a pretty fair chance

10 = pretty much an expected outcome

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

What measures are you taking to reduce the chance and severity?

Accommodation Planning

Securing accommodation on location - for you, your crew and your rushes - is vital, though not always easy to find or to afford. Consider not only where you stay, but the travel time and potential exposure risks of travelling from where you are staying to where you will be working. Well known hotels, small guest houses or a friend's flat all pose advantages and disadvantages in terms of risk and safety. Be aware of these risks, assess what's your best option and plan ways to mitigate danger.

Example: It can help to make friends with porters who will recognise you and your team as you come and go from a building. A door wedge can help prevent unexpected intrusions into a hotel room.

Whatever you do, do not make cost a factor over safety. Here is a checklist of considerations that are worth reflecting on regarding the safety and security of the accommodation you are staying in:

Suggested Team Discussion Points

Are there already some security measures in place where you will be staying (e.g. guards)?
What are the other guests like? (e.g. diplomats, other journalists, tourists)?
How close are you to potential terrorist targets (e.g. embassies, tourist destination, barracks, etc.)
How might your accommodation affect your profile?
How easy would access and egress be in the event of an emergency?
How able is the building to withstand attack, do you need to tape the windows, is there a basement?
Does the building, area, have a history of problems/incidents?
What are communications at the building? Can you get wifi, food, water and power 24/7?

4.7 Medical Risks

Medical risks can occur at any time and it is important to consider all potential threats, such as access to safe drinking water and extreme weather conditions as well as illnesses that could be contracted overseas or unexpected accidents and know how to respond to them.

First aid training is often included in Hostile Environment training courses, but if there are specific risks that your film team might face then it's important to ensure that you have adequately prepared for all scenarios. We recommend reading through the Committee To Protect Journalists' excellent first aid kit checklist to identify items take with you on your shoot

Physical Health

If you rely on epi-pens, inhalers, medications, have life-threatening allergies, diabetes, asthma, HIV or pre-existing conditions it is worthwhile having a medical exam to ensure the health of you and your team is of an appropriate level to travel to a hostile environment. Honestly assess whether your health or life would be endangered if you were separated from your medications.

Take into account that some assignments may be physically demanding. Have regular medical and dental check-ups. If any special medication is needed, check whether it will be locally available or if it can be taken with you (some countries have severe restrictions on the import of medical items). If necessary, bring a letter from your doctor and the medication leaflet with details of the active components.

It is also important to have a backup plan to access medication should you or your team if something happens (luggage lost, hotel burns down, room burgled etc). Potentially, it is worth considering leaving details of a prescription with a trusted colleague or staffer in an emergency project file. Additionally, we recommend that you use a medical checklist to prepare for each shoot.

Suggested Team Discussion Points

Has any member of the location team had emergency first aid training? And is it up to date?
Does any member of the team have any medical conditions that need to be taken into account and/or pose a risk? Or necessary medications that must be taken?
Will you have access to a hospital with international standards? How far and how difficult will it be for you to reach this hospital?

Mental Health

We take your mental health seriously and we want you too as well. The Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma (part of the Columbia School of Journalism) has done a lot of great work in this area. They advocate ethical and thorough reporting of trauma; compassionate, professional treatment of victims and survivors by journalists; and greater awareness by media organizations of the impact of trauma coverage on both news professionals and news consumers.

Independent documentary filmmakers are at special risk as they are often very immersed and for long periods of time.

Always consider pressure and stress when planning work activities, particularly: production schedules; rotas, shifts and working patterns; travel to and from locations; hours of work. Build in sufficient rest periods, time off duty and include contingency plans to manage overruns. Monitor schedules and make changes if necessary.

Look out for signs and symptoms in colleagues. This can include unusual mood swings & irritability, poor concentration/ memory, increased emotional reactions, fatigue, headaches, nightmares, flashbacks of past upsetting events, social withdrawal, survivors' guilt, impulsive risk taking, substance abuse, depression, panic attacks and changes in attendance. Emotional exhaustion and distress can impair sound decision-making and productivity.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is rare, but can occur when these early symptoms do not resolve and become entrenched. Symptoms usually appear within 6 months of the traumatic event and can vary. People can feel depressed, anxious, grief stricken, guilty and angry. They may have symptoms of intrusive flashbacks to the event and nightmares, avoidance and distraction from the event or become defensive in their surroundings.

Take a step back and assess where you and your team are with this project with regards safeguarding your mental health:

Suggested Team Discussion Points:

Does it help to bring in a counselor, understand prevention, training of any sort - either before or after filming to help consider any psychological implications. )? This especially applies to undercover filming undertaken over a long duration
Does your insurance cover psychological counselling? Do you know where to find a qualified therapist whilst in the field? Will having someone at the end of a phone for you or your team to speak with be helpful?
Does anyone on the team have a past history of PTSD and is there a risk that extreme emotional distress could be triggered by this assignment?
Often trauma can occur much later - do you and your team have the ability to access counselling once the project has officially wrapped?

4.8 Production Insurance

Much like how you obtain travel insurance for leisure trips, it's vital you obtain production insurance for your project before you start filming. While E&O covers what's needed to prepare the film for release, production insurance covers everything that happens during the making of the film - should anything go wrong during filming or post-production. There are various types of policies out there so be sure to read your policy carefully and be aware of the limits of your coverage and whether they speak to your project's needs. For example, medical evacuation insurance is important to consider if there is a lack of adequate facilities where you are filming. Kidnap and ransom insurance, whilst expensive can be worthwhile when filming in high risk places.

There are many options for production insurance, but it can be expensive. Independent filmmakers often forgo insurance because it will eat too much of a development budget but we believe that funders need to step up and contribute the extra needed for this vital cost.

There are also parts of the world where it is harder (or impossible) to get insurance. In these cases it is worth digging a little harder into specialist insurance options such as Insurance for Journalists, the Insurance partner of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) which covers both extreme risk areas such as Syria and Afghanistan, which some conventional insurers may not extend to. In the situation where a team decide to travel despite not being able to obtain insurance, the potential consequences and mitigation plans should be discussed with all team members travelling and their dependents made aware.

4.9 Communication Planning

It is crucial that a team in a high risk location has a nominated key contact (who has been involved in completing these checklists) back at base who is responsible for confidential and crucial information about the production and the team.

The key contact must know where the team are and how/when they can be contacted. They should also know how to get in touch with family members and funders of the film project - and understand the circumstances in which to do so.

As communications are often difficult in such locations and during filming, a clear communications plan will establish when the key contact should expect to get check-ins from the team and what they should do and who to contact if a check-in fails to occur. To learn more about creating a communications plan, please see the template and breakdown created by our friends at the Rory Peck Trust.

Similarly, ahead of leaving for a hostile location, each team member should complete a Proof of Life document that contains confidential information that can be referred to in order to confirm whether a person is still alive in case of kidnapping, abduction or detention. Even if there is a low risk of kidnapping the Rory Peck Trust advise creating a Proof of Life Document. Find out more here.

Separately, you should set up a personal contact who knows your passwords and where your last will and testament and financial documents are located. The contact should also have the serial numbers of equipment should it be stolen or seized. Additionally, there should be shared access to secure passworded sites, such as Basecamp.

Modes Of Communication

Consider here the availability and risk associated with your means of communication - internet, international mobile phone, local SIM card, landline, satellite. Think carefully how you will be communicating during your assignment, how you will be communicating with your key security contact and what your back-up mode of communication might be in an emergency.

And as outlined in the Digital Security section, please ensure that if risky, all communications are made securely using encrypted SMS e.g. Signal / WhatsApp, ideally that there is a dedicated phone being used, stripped of anything not necessary for the job in order to avoid any free apps leaking information to third parties and that there are shared encryption protocols.

Many countries demand that filming equipment crossing their borders is documented in a carnet (an international customs and temporary export-import document) and will require communications equipment such as satellite phones to be mentioned on the document. This of course can draw attention to the purpose of the trip and potentially heighten the risk of being asked for bribes, which should be anticipated.

The advice of other journalists and communications experts can be vital in assessing risk associated with communications so due your due diligence. Please also see the resources in the Digital Security section to help assess potential risks ahead of time.

An important point to stress: technology is evolving as is individual governments responses by banning or demanding access into different platforms. Safety tools and apps are only reliable until we learn that a hacker has compromised the system. Therefore, either one has to stay on top of the latest developments, both technological and political or make sure that you are taking advice from people who are.

Suggested Team Discussion Points:

How will you communicate with your safety contacts, sources, colleagues and others? (eg: email, mobile, land line phone, post, voice over internet, online, file-sharing, satellite phone etc)
Could any of these methods be compromised or compromise your safety and/or that of others? What is your contingency plan? Is a satellite phone needed or temporary phone and new sim cards?

Is encryption illegal where you are filming and / or does it send up a red flag with authorities?

e.g. it's illegal in Pakistan and is cause for detention in Turkey

Do you have the necessary carnets to take equipment into the country?

e.g. Satellite phones can be seized if you don't have a it on the carnet in Rwanda and other countries have similar regulations

Communications Plan

When determining your key contact who will remain at base, be sure to consider how they will communicate safely and securely with the film team on location (including local drivers and fixers). Whilst it makes sense to have a point person on location who can provide regular check-ins, it's important to ensure any team member can communicate with the key contact if needed.

Suggested Team Discussion Points:

How will the team members be able to communicate with your key contact while you are on location?

Who is the point person on location and how often will there be check-ins?

We recommend every 24 hours as minimum, but more often or after specific events/ travel may be needed and what is the grace period if you don't check in (standard is three hours before raising the alarm)

Is it agreed what actions they should take if you fail to check in - or check in with an urgent safety need?

E.g. Call the embassy, call a trusted source if you miss your call in by an agreed variance. 3 hours past deadline is fairly standard.

Emergency Communications Plan

It's important that your key contact knows who to reach in an emergency.

Given the risks that you have outlined above, make a plan for those eventualities. You may also want to think about having a coded message to relay that there is an emergency.

Emergency Extraction Plan

It's also important that your key contact knows what to do if you and your team contact them in an emergency, needing external help to get out of a filming situation, be that for medical or other reasons.

Ensure they have full details of the insurance cover (and any relevant coverage regarding medical evacuation, ransom payments and/or kidnap insurance), your lawyer and who to speak to on the ground, such as a local lawyer and relevant diplomatic contacts.

To work out what your extraction plan would be, work through the following scenarios and gather additional information from film crews who have recently filmed in similar scenarios:

Suggested Team Discussion Points

In what circumstances should (or should not) the team's families be contacted? Have contact details already been obtained?
In what circumstances should law enforcement and /or the embassy be contacted? Have the correct contacts been obtained?

In what circumstances should a medical evacuation be initiated?

Who should be contacted?

In what circumstances should a local lawyer be contacted? Who should be contacted?

In what circumstances should the film's funders be contacted for help?

Are the contacts and details to hand?

What is planned for the local team if there is an emergency? Who to contact if the fixer is arrested or the driver is injured?

Overview Responsibilities Of Key Contact

Emergency File

This is held by the Key Contact and should including copies of the following:

  • A copy of the Safe+Secure Funders protocol (if used)

  • A copy of this Handbook and its project-specific checklists

  • Emergency communications plan

  • Emergency extraction plan

  • Proof of life documents for the team

  • Copies of the team's Passports and Visas

  • Location of last wills and testaments

  • Blood Type and Medical Information (including allergies, medical conditions, etc)

  • Insurance Policy details (health and traveler's)

  • Flight details/ Itinerary/schedule

  • Emergency communications plan (see below)

  • Emergency contact information of a close family member or partner in case of kidnapping, detention or murder

  • Production lawyer and local lawyers contact information

4.10 High Risk Locations Resources

Hostile Environments Resources

Rory Peck Trust - Risk Assessment Forms

Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma

BBC - High Risk Guide

Rory Peck Trust - Types of Safety Training

Committee to Protect Journalists - Security Guide

The Guardian - Should Governments Pay Ransom?

News University - Online Training course (in partnership with the Dart Center): Journalism and Trauma

Travel Risk Resources

BBC Safety App for International Travel

UK Foreign Office Advice for Travellers

The US Department of Homeland Security - Travel Alerts and Warnings

Physical Health Resources

World Health Organization - International Travel and Health Overview

World Health Organization - Medical Kit List

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Interactive Destinations Guide

Medical Resources

Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma - Resources for Self Care & Peer Support

BBC - Journalism Safety Guideline to Trauma and PTSD:
Committee to Protect Journalists - Stress Reaction Guide
International Center for Journalists Journalism and Trauma Guide

Insurance Resources:

Rory Peck Trust - Insurance Resource

Committee to Protect Journalists - Recommended List of Insurance Providers

Desktop Documentaries - Video and Film Insurance

Rory Peck Trust - Types of Coverage

International News Safety Institute - List of Providers for Insurance for Freelancers

4.11 High Risk Locations Training Resources for Filmmakers

We are only putting forward training that we have heard good things about from filmmakers. We want to hear from you if you have taken any high risk location type training that you can recommend to your fellow filmmakers. Email us anytime at:

Hostile Environment Training

Judith Matloff who is a key advisor to Safe and Secure runs this excellent course at Columbia School of Journalism. It also covers First Aid, Digital Security and Sexual Assault Prevention.

Reporting Safely in Crisis Zones - Columbia School of Journalism - Four days. Rape prevention/.boundary setting, risk analysis, contingency planning, battlefield first aid (share trainers with RISC), digital security. Emphasis is on prevention rather than military-style tactics. Rory Peck provides bursaries for qualified freelancers

And there are others out there - we'd welcome feedback from filmmakers who have taken them..

The Pulitzer Center Freelancer Hostile Environment Training - with ACOS (US)

Recommendations provided by Rory Peck Trust (UK)

Rory Peck Trust international partner organisations

Recommendations provided by Committee to Protect Journalists (UK)

Sign Up to Hear About Safety Training Opportunities

ACOS (A Culture of Safety) Alliance is an unprecedented coalition of news organizations, freelance journalist associations and press freedom organizations working together to champion safe and responsible journalistic practices for freelance and local journalists worldwide.

This Standard Application Form aims at building a database of freelance journalists in need of safety training. This form should help us to reach out to individual freelancers when relevant opportunities for safety training arise, and to coordinate a response to current needs in partnership with news organizations and NGOs.

First Aid Training

National Safety Council

RISC Training is a free four-day course. HQ in NYC, trainings rotate around the world

Emotional Trauma Resilience

Dart Centre fellowships, retreats and training are in Europe, Asia, NYC and other US cities.

Bursaries/ Emergency Funds

Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma

Offers bursaries to Canadian documentary filmmakers and journalists for HE and trauma training.

Rory Peck Training Fund

Bursaries for freelancers who work internationally. You will need to have worked as a freelancer in newsgathering and/or current affairs for a minimum of 18 months. Priority is given to freelancers whose work habitually takes them into hostile environments, and to those with a forthcoming confirmed assignment.

Rory Peck Assistance Grants

Grants to freelance journalists and their families who find themselves in a critical situation. This may include freelancers who have been threatened, imprisoned, injured, forced into hiding or exile, or killed.

International Women's Media Foundation - Emergency Fund

We established the IWMF Emergency Fund in 2013 to provide women journalists with a lifeline of support in times of crisis.

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