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'Refugee camp' in Coleraine forest used to train journalists on threat of war

Innovative Ulster University course schooling reporters in how to stay safe in a conflict zone


Simulation: Exercise in how to handle a checkpoint in hostile environments

Simulation: Exercise in how to handle a checkpoint in hostile environments

Simulation: Exercise in how to handle a checkpoint in hostile environments

A simulated refugee camp in an isolated forest in Coleraine is helping to train journalists for reporting on conflict zones around the world.

Students at Ulster University took part in the immersive training pilot in 2018 and 2019 as specialist researchers worked to develop new ways to prepare reporters for the dangers of the profession.

Hoped to be eventually rolled out in war-torn countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, the innovative curriculum teaches techniques to manage the range of threats a journalist may face.

It encompasses everything from shelter-building and first aid to managing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Two cohorts each spent a short period in the forest learning skills like bushcraft and water purification, while another held an audience with a former battlefield nurse who had experience in conflict zones.

The teaching also looks at how conflict could arise in a vareity of locations and how reporters should adapt.

One group visited Londonderry's Creggan estate just months after journalist Lyra McKee was gunned down by the Real IRA there in April 2019.

Focusing on physical and mental resilience building, risk mitigation, self-defence and digital security, the approach reflects the recent shift in the type of threats journalists are up against.

While research shows that some 1,382 reporters have been killed worldwide since 1992, the majority who lost their lives in recent years died in their home country after being targeted for assassination, a shift from the previously more common threats of natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

Here, threats have been made against reporters working for the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life and Sunday World.

It's believed loyalist paramilitaries were behind the most recent intimidation.

In an attempt to change the direction of conflict training to reflect the shift in the different threats faced by journlists, lead researcher at Ulster University Dr Colm Murphy said the study proposes a "humanitarian holistic" approach, a break in the dominant "military battlefield" used by the world's largest media organisations, such as the BBC and CNN.

"We hope to develop and test the curriculum, with its low-cost high-quality training, for use in countries with particular problems with journalist intimidation," Dr Murphy said.

"Most established courses focus on hostile environments geared towards reporting on conflict zones, such as bomb and mine awareness.

"However, our research found that most journalists were killed in their own country following intimidation."

Alongside his co-researchers Pat Deeny, Dr Nigel Taylor and Ken Barr, Dr Murphy worked on a curriculum that allows trainees to develop personal coping mechanisms for the mental and physical challenges of reporting on conflict.

Indeed, the training led to some participants successfully undertaking assignments in Syrian refugee camps, while under fire in Gaza, and covering illegal immigrants in the Mediterranean.

According to a later report on the study, as published in the British Journalism Review, the holistic approach to training was "highly effective".

"It ensured transmission of skills and knowledge to keep the trainees safe and give them a strong basis to build their resilience and their journalistic ambitions," Dr Murphy wrote.

The study currently holds the UK NCTJ award for Innovation in Journalism in Education and has been implemented in part to the existing journalism courses on offer at Ulster University.

Belfast Telegraph