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Managing trauma of investigating stories, dangerous assignments

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Communications scholars, practitioners and stakeholders in the media industry, at a webinar organised by the International Press Centre (IPC) in Lagos, recently, have re-echoed the need for journalists, especially those investigating stories, to observe all safety measures in the course of carrying out their assignments.

With the theme, Safety, Security and Management of Trauma in Coverage of Dangerous Assignments, Executive Director IPC, Lanre Arogundade, observed that when the media is constantly attacked and intimidated, the entire society suffers information scarcity.

Arogundade argued that governments, businesses, civil society and individuals will all lose when the media is unable to do its job of bringing reliable information to the public.

While saying that the importance of journalists’ safety couldn’t be over emphasised, he noted that journalists face the challenge of doing their work in a new and changing, but repressive environment, despite being poorly equipped. It is absolutely important to observe precautionary measures to survive.

Safety, he said, also borders on protecting the state of mental health of journalists, as they are usually on the frontlines of difficult and overwhelming incidents, such as crime scenes, road accidents, natural disasters and wars.

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He said, “journalists also undertake the dangerous assignment of investigating corruption and other criminal activities, all of which could make them susceptible to threats, attacks, anxiety, stress and burnout.”

In his presentation, Gillo Cutrup of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) suggested that journalists must protect their mobile devices and laptops or encrypt them when embarking on investigative assignments.

“Password is a journalist’s first line of defence. If someone takes such phones or laptop, he would not have access to it because it has been encrypted. Journalists must also secure their email addresses,” he said.

Cutrup said, “if you connect to a free WIFI, don’t trust it, use the VPN. Firefox is very secure for laptops and mobile phones; it does not belong to anybody but a foundation. Journalists should also practise e-mail hygiene.”

For him, journalists must always enquire where they are going and what they are going to do, and find out if the situation can put them at a risk.

He advised that they should also do checklist on their devices before travelling for investigative journalism or functions.

Cutrup said journalists must ask the following questions: “Do they need an extra phone and laptop solely dedicated for travel? Journalists must identify a way to let family or people close to them have access to their online account in case they are out of reach.

In her presentation, lecturer, consultant and clinical psychologist at the University of Lagos, Dr. Uzo Israel, who spoke on managing stress, said as journalists, “whenever you have deadlines to meet, one of the things you can do is to calm yourself down, do some self-talk or do some counting. Don’t give yourself unnecessary tight deadlines.”

She said journalists must develop positive attitude towards their job, adding that negative attitude can have negative consequences on their productivity.

Stress, she explained, is common in life, adding, “It is a stimulus. It is our reaction to stress that makes us stressed. So if we regulate our reactions to stress, by practising relaxation therapy, then we are on our path to overcoming stress.”

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Israel said that coping with stress is a process and individual’s coping ability varies.

She added that this can depend on situations whether you are a male or female, cultural differences or personalities.

On his part, a writer and investigative journalist, Fisayo Soyombo, stated that as a journalist, you should know the kind of risk you are exposed to. “There is a popular saying that journalists say no story is worth their lives; its true but journalists should remember as well that fortune favours the brave. As a journalist, you have to be brave. If you look at journalists that have done stories that spark action and deepen conversation, these are people who exhibited bravery. I always say that if you are not doing your journalism for egoistic reasons, but for public interest, you are going to know when to be brave and when to take a step back.”

Soyombo added,” it’s not every time that as a journalist, because you are brave, you step into fire. “Be brave, but take only calculated risks. People see danger and they turn back; one should take only calculated risks. You must also do research before you embark on investigation, you must speak to professionals to assess risk level before going on an investigative work.”

A journalist, he said, must do his research and write a pitch on why the story is important to be told, as well as why he is the best person to tell the story, how he is going to tell the story in specific terms and potential impact and expectations.

On funding of an investigative story, Soyombo advised that journalists should not go for stories that require huge capital at first. “In case you are stuck, you don’t abandon your story. You can leave a story and go back even up to one year. If you need to pretend, do it. If your life is at stake and you need to leave the country, do leave. I did a story that took me two days of fieldwork, one whole day driving to Lagos and one whole day driving to Abuja and I had to sit down and write,” he said.

Speaking of his prison story, he said, “the fieldwork alone took two weeks. Coming out, I had to see my physiotherapist and doctor. From July, the story wasn’t ready until October. You can have an investigation done for four days or one year. It’s about the specific need of that story.”

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Emphasising more on the area of support, he said there are non-governmental organisation and newspapers that get funding for investigative journalism like The Cable and Premium Times. “When they see solid pitches, they give you money to do your investigative story. But if your organisation does not support you, leave such establishment. A friend of mine once said if you *don’t like where you are, leave — you are not a tree. Have an exit plan,” Soyombo said.

He also advised that persistence helps pointing out that journalists must also know the things that sources want. “Sometimes, you need to do something that ordinarily, you wouldn’t do like visiting a bar. We must be ready to pay the price,” he explained.

Arogundade said, “the activity is one of the components of a project on ‘Enhanced Safety Awareness for Nigeria Journalists’ being implemented by IPC with the support of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a global network of organisations that promote and defend the right to freedom of expression and information.

IFEX also supports the building of appropriate capacities for journalists including safety in investigative reporting, digital security and management of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“This workshop is therefore expected to enhance our capacity to manage difficult safety challenges while carrying out our work.”

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