Of the some 9,000 journalists believed to have arrived in Ukraine to report on the war, many were under-prepared. A course in France is now training them on how to face the harsh realities of conflict and teaching them essential survival techniques.
BEAUVAIS — The ground is soaked with blood. A young man screams, struggling to make himself heard amid the gunfire. The bullet-proof vest with the word "PRESS" emblazoned on it seems insignificant in this moment of horror. Under Russian fire, his colleague has to extract him before he bleeds to death. He only has a few seconds to decide how to transport the injured man, who is weighed down by his equipment. Just a few more seconds to evaluate the severity of the wounds. Two serious injuries, a wounded eye… There are only a few minutes to save his life by applying a tourniquet and taking his pulse before calling emergency services, which will in any case only arrive two hours later.
The crackling of the bullets, the adrenaline, the fear and the silence that follows… the whole scene is utter chaos. Except this is not Ukraine, where the war is still raging. It's a shooting range about 75 kilometers north of Paris.
This simulation is the result of a course organized for journalists and technicians who work in danger zones. In May, a dozen employees of the French public broadcaster — some with experience, others without — spent a week in immersive training. This meant a few days of preparation before leaving for or returning to Ukraine.
In order to cover the war, which takes place just a few hours' flight from Paris, media organizations sent a huge amount of reporters — some 9,000 accredited journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Young freelancers also went of their own accord, sometimes without even the most basic survival knowledge.
"Ukraine has created a sort of training emergency," says Jean-Christophe Gérard, security director of media company France Médias Monde. "The 'press' vest or badge no longer offers the protection it used to.”
Yan Kadouch, an editor and participant in the course, says: "I have been on several fronts, but often behind the army. In Ukraine, I really felt unsafe. With the artillery fire, it's a lottery."
In danger zones, every decision can lead to death
In Ukraine, eight journalists have lost their lives since the start of the war and 16 have been wounded, according to numbers by RSF. The death of French journalist Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff a few weeks ago has left its mark. "He had not even taken any irresponsible risks. This tragedy reminded us how dangerous this war is," says Omar Ouahmane, a senior reporter at Radio France, who has been doing this job for years.
Patrick Chauvel, a veteran photo journalist, agrees. "Unfortunately, you don’t have to go to the front to be killed. In Ukraine, the military uses very heavy weapons, which are rarely seen elsewhere." This training was actually born out of a tragedy: the kidnapping and murder of two French journalists working in 2013 in Mali. Since 2015, this course has welcomed a total of 460 journalists and technicians from audiovisual and print media.
What war preparation involves
Participants are trained by former members of the military. The objective is not to learn how to face dangers but mainly how to avoid them. A bullet-proof vest or even a chemical suit is not enough in Ukraine. It is important to “always be vigilant,” says Michael Illouz, a security expert. “Knowing how to react in certain situation is already a good start.”
For example, in the heat of the first aid exercise, none of the trainees remembered how many shots were fired, and none thought to put on gloves before touching their colleague's wounds. A lot of the advice given is common sense: do not carry your backpack behind you in a minefield to prevent something falling out, do not step too far away from your car to relieve yourself, do not stand next to the armed forces.
To confront them with other possible situations, the journalists are placed in a messy room: an overturned table, chairs on the floor and a pack of cigarettes with a file still intact, in broad daylight. “Everything that seems incoherent should alarm you: there could be explosives,” warns Stéphane Ulhen, a former army mine expert, now a security consultant.
“In danger zones, every decision can lead to death,” he emphasizes. In 2017, three journalists working for a French television program were killed during a mine explosion in Mosul, Iraq. A big part of the training is also focused on gestures that can save a life, following the acronym MARCHE (M = Massive bleeding, A = Airway, R = Respiration, C = Circulation, H = Head & Hypothermia, E = Everything else).
“Bleeding out is the number one cause of preventable death," says Fabrice Simon-Chautemps, a former army paramedic and now a trainer. And the training is quite rigorous: the participants are, for example, capable of treating an evisceration or a thoracic wound affecting the lungs as a first aid measure.
Journalists as targets
Shortly before the terrorist attacks hit Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, a production manager had taken the course. That evening, because she lived in the neighborhood, she went to get her first aid kit and was able to save lives by applying tourniquets.
“It is essential to have first aid skills. Journalists have died because people around them did not know what to do. For example, thanks to this knowledge, I was able to compress a wound on my stomach I had gotten in Panama, with a piece of my shirt and my belt, while waiting for the paramedics that only arrived a few hours later,” says Chauvel.
Even without traveling across the world, the trainees learn how to stay safe in a large crowd. Many journalists were targeted during anti-vaccination protests in France. “A journalist has become a target in certain cases,” says Jean-Christophe Gérard. “Some media outlets assign security guards to them, but I don't think that's the solution: the job is all about going out into the field, being in contact with people, whereas the bodyguard is more likely to try to get in the way. In any case, he wouldn’t be able to do much against an angry crowd.”
But the training is also intended to make people aware of their limits. One of the participants admits never having worn a bullet-proof vest and says they are “extremely heavy” (20-26 lb). Another one is afraid of not having the physical strength to carry someone on their shoulder in case of a real injury.
“I realize that I have been lucky in the past,” says journalist Marie-Pierre Vérot, who decided to take the course. “I have already found myself in complicated situations, for example in the middle of gunfire in a house in Indonesia. My first reflex was to hide under a table, which does not really protect from bullets. I will now take further precautions and think more about possible outcomes.”
A journalist taking pictures in the village of Komyshuvakha, southern Ukraine, after it was bombarded by Russian forces
The fixer's role
Many of the journalists think that the course (marketed at $4,300) should also be followed by their managers, who do not necessarily realize the potential threats, whether those are physical or digital. "Journalists often leave with their personal phones and computers full of documents. If they are captured, there is a risk of finding their sources, for example," says Guillaume Barcelo, an expert in information systems security.
In conflict zones, teams of two or three people are usually tracked by their editors, who help them manage logistics. The journalists must then follow precise protocols with prohibitions and missions. But, in the end, they are the ones who are best able to perceive the danger on the ground, along with the fixer. The fixer is a key component in war reporting. They translate, give guidance on the ground, and bring their network of contacts. In some cases, they even drive and find witnesses. In fact, they take the same risks as their Western colleagues and even risk more reprisals. A fixer in Ukraine generally costs between 250 and 350 dollars a day, but the rate can go up depending on the danger.
Some have become addicted to the field
Some of them are journalists in their own countries, while others come from civil society organizations, “but they all have a sense of resourcefulness,” says Charles Villa, a reporter who has just made a documentary on the profession. In Ukraine, Villa was "surprised to see many fixers taking up arms... Now, with the influx of foreign journalists, some of them who had never done this before are participating.” Especially women. Given the difficulty of finding the right people, some American television stations used specialized protection companies like Chiron, with bodyguards who accompanied the journalists.
If the profession of war reporter is accompanied by a hint of heroism, these journalists are not at all reckless. "Fear is our life insurance," says Omar Ouahmane, who has covered several conflicts.
“We are not looking for adrenaline," says Charles Villa, who attended a training course organized by the army in the south of France a few years ago. "War reporters are mostly reasonable and rational. They seek to emerge in terms of their career, while living extraordinary situations. Some have become addicted to the field," adds Denis Ruellan, a researcher in information and communication sciences and an author of books on war reporters.
A cellar in Chechnya
War reporters know about anxiety. Journalists or technicians in dangerous areas have all come close to serious trouble or even death. Charles Villa has risked his own life on several occasions, in Yemen, or in the Congo when he came face to face with a local warlord. Each one of them recounts with humility the moment when everything changed. Omar Ouahmane remembers a report in Sirte (a city in Libya) where the experienced Dutch photographer, Jeroen Oerlemans, was shot in front of him while crossing a street. "What saved me was that I took some time to observe before I went to follow him."
Patrick Chauvel spent a few hours in a cellar in Chechnya, sure that he was going to stay there and managed to get out by running at the right moment. Not everyone was so lucky.
So what drives war reporters to do their jobs? “I love adventure, the physical side, meeting extraordinary people, living history," answers Patrick Chauvel.
”It is in conflict zones that humanity stands out the most," adds Omar Ouahmane. “That’s where we belong as journalists."
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