Chris Booth

Former BBC Moscow and BBC Bagdad Bureau chief

Chris Booth has spent more than three decades working in multimedia content production. He was based in Moscow for more than ten of those years, working for Sky, NBC, Associated Press Television and BBC, culminating in appointment as bureau chief responsible for the former Soviet Union. After Moscow, Chris worked as the BBC’s bureau chief in Baghdad, as well as holding senior positions in the BBC World Service newsroom. In recent years, Chris has run a successful consultancy focused on media development, with a specialisation in journalists’ safety and wellbeing.

Increasingly journalists find themselves on the frontline in conflict zones. This is a comprehensive webinar, a guide on how to assess risks when you have newsroom staff working in hostile environment covering military conflicts and wars.

A risk assessment is an exercise that can help you identify and assess the range of threats and risks to you, your colleagues and contributors whilst working in hostile or dangerous environments and, in turn, can help you minimise any dangers.

It is very important to undertake a risk assessment before beginning any assignment. It’s not only relevant for conflict or crime zones – a risk assessment is also essential where dangers are sometimes less obvious or apparent, whether the location or story is familiar to you or not.  It will help to evaluate whether you are prepared – physically, mentally, and practically – to undertake a particular assignment.

To assess your risks, you can use these templates developed by the Rory Peck Trust.

Deployment notes

The greatest danger when working in hostile environments and at times of civil unrest is lack of preparation.

This is closely followed by false assumptions about factors that often change rapidly – for example, the availability of a mobile signal or police tactics. Another risk is the absence of situational awareness on the part of both editors at base and staff on the ground.

In the course of volatile events, hazards cannot be eliminated entirely. But they can be substantially mitigated by ensuring that all staff adopt a culture of methodical risk assessment, both written and dynamic, as circumstances develop.

These notes and the checklist that follows intend to promote such a process, in order to avert injury or worse, and thereby support the pursuit of sustained, high quality journalism.

— Risk Assessment

A structured, imaginative, and recorded consideration of the risks that lie ahead is the most effective protective measure you can undertake: it’s not a chore or an obstacle to success. Creating and maintaining the risk assessment must be a shared undertaking, involving both newsroom staff and journalists in the field: it must not be ‘somebody else’s problem’.

A proper risk assessment should consider all manner of hazard – from tear gas and gunfire to extreme weather and risk of infection or robbery – along with the steps you can take in your defence.

What follows are some of the categories that any such assessment should be sure to cover.

WHO is going?

To include ID and/or passport details and blood group as well as the contacts and address of next of kin in the event of arrest or casualty. Must include fixers, freelancers and drivers, too.

Don’t forget to consider how identity may affect safety. For example gender, language, race, culture, religion, perceived ‘brand’ or company affiliation, age and experience, and previous traumas. Can you put any of these factors to your advantage, while minimising those that put you at further risk?

Well-known journalists or media companies may be singled out by hostile crowds or law enforcement officers. What additional considerations may be required in such circumstances to keep you safe from harm?

WHY are you going?

What are your goals and expectations for the story? Are these set goals or are they fluid, and likely to change as action unfolds? How will you know when you have reached your editorial objectives and it is time to withdraw? Who in the team has responsibility for such decision making? Make sure to avoid ‘mission creep’ – staying on the scene longer than necessary ‘just in case’.

WHERE are you going?

What is the destination, what are the dangers you may face getting there, and when do you expect to arrive? What agreement is in place if you fail to arrive on time – what should newsroom colleagues do, and whom should they contact? For example, are there other journalists there who could be phoned in an emergency?

As far as possible, visit the likely location of events in advance. Identify escape routes or buildings where you could record the action safely from above. Agree on rendezvous locations in case your group is split up. Could you find these places in the dark? Print out a street map in case your mobile ceases to function. Identify in advance the location of emergency departments, and also detention centres in the event a member of the team is arrested.

Talk to colleagues or other journalists who may already know the location and series of events better than you do (but never assume that tomorrow will be like today).

WHAT are you doing, or taking with you, to mitigate risk?

Protective equipment and first aid kit

Choose suitable equipment for the task, be it a simple face mask for tear gas or full body armour for live fire. The key is that it fits properly and you have practised putting it on quickly. Make sure you are completely familiar with the contents of your first aid kit and know how to use them. Could you find what you need in the dark?

‘Grab bag’

Prepare a ‘grab bag’ – a rucksack packed with essentials – well in advance and keep it in the newsroom so that what you need is at hand immediately in the event of sudden deployment. This might include a spare telephone and power supply, prescription medication in the case of arrest, or hygienic items for women. A suggested list of contents for such a bag can be found below.

Clothing and footwear

Sturdy footwear that will allow you to safely run on terrain where there may be broken glass, oil or flames is absolutely essential. Like your shoes, your clothing should be appropriate to the environment rather than the camera lens. Take a hat in case of extreme temperatures. Never wear camouflage or any other clothing that could identify you as a combatant. Consider whether or not to wear ‘Press’ identification – sometimes journalists are singled out as targets, sometimes they are afforded the right of passage. It depends on the situation, and it may change quickly.

Communications plan

When will you contact the newsroom and what should be done if you fail to communicate? We take mobile phones for granted today, but ensure your communications plan covers the likelihood that the mobile network will be shut down. How would you stay in touch with each other and the newsroom without a phone signal? Identify pay phones and internet cafes. Print out key telephone numbers in case your phone is lost or runs out of charge.

Mobile phone hygiene

Given the risk of arrest and your phone being seized by law enforcement officers, consider using a second ‘clean’ mobile rather than your normal phone with all its contacts, photographs and social media accounts which may cause trouble in the event of arrest and interrogation. [See separate notes on Digital Security for more information]

Vehicles and drivers

Ensure your driver has the correct paperwork for the vehicle; that the car has a spare tyre and jack; and that it has no compromising objects or battlefield ‘souvenirs’ in it. Never transport combatants or protestors in your car. Avoid approaching checkpoints after dark. If you absolutely have to, approach slowly with the interior light on and your hands visible.


Resisting arrest can cause violence to escalate dramatically and instantly. Cover your head and curl up if you are beaten. Do not argue with police or soldiers. Show your press accreditation and ask, as calmly as possible, to speak to the senior officer. Make sure detention centres are identified as part of the risk assessment.

WHEN will you reassess the situation?

Situational awareness

‘Tunnel vision’ is a serious risk during fast-moving events. Think twice before following the crowd. Do you still know where the exits are? Would it be safer to cover the events from a balcony rather than on the ground? Are the police intentionally driving the crowd in one direction? Do not let your team be split up. Do not argue with combatants or protestors if asked to leave or to stop filming.

Keep the risk assessment updated

As events change, and your movements change with them, make sure that the risk assessment is modified as quickly as possible. This should be the responsibility not just of staff on the ground but also newsroom colleagues. An out-of-date document is a risk in itself.


At the end of every working day, gather the team together to consider what went well and what you could do differently tomorrow. Were there communications problems? Are there particularly dangerous flash points to avoid next time? What were the police tactics? Talk with the newsroom – what news do they have? Update the risk assessment.

Trauma awareness

Working in such environments brings psychological as well as physical risks. Traumatic events can have an impact that is only felt some time after the trigger, while physical exhaustion, dehydration and poor nutrition can quickly cause mental well-being to deteriorate.

Teams on the ground should be trained to recognise and speak up if they notice the signs of trauma in one another, while newsroom staff should be literate in ways of mitigating the impact of traumatic events on their colleagues. This may mean offering extra time for rest or it may mean sourcing professional help.

In all cases, managers should be encouraged to take the mental health of staff seriously and listen with genuine concern. A supportive newsroom culture is the first step towards recovery for those who have witnessed shocking events.
[See separate notes on Mental Wellbeing for more information.]

Suggested contents for a ‘grab bag’ prepared in advance of possible deployment:

  • Face mask and bottle of water in case of tear gas
  • Hat – for hot or cold weather
  • Clean mobile phone and charged power supply
  • Prescription medicines and pain killers in case of detention
  • First aid kit
  • Cash, in case ATMs stop working
  • Coins for payphones
  • Sunblock and insecticide
  • Tampons or sanitary towels
  • Head torch
  • Extra batteries
  • Multitool
  • Fabric ‘gaffer’ tape
  • Printed city map
  • Print out of key telephone numbers
  • Copy of ID documentation and accreditation
  • Energy snacks and (more) bottled water

Christopher Booth was the BBC’s bureau chief in Moscow and Baghdad. He covered war and civil unrest in Chechnya, Ukraine, Georgia, Moscow, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo and Serbia.

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