Inside a bullet-worn airsoft arena in August, I led 15 journalists and activists at gunpoint through a labyrinth of graffitied walls and into a small, cramped enclave. There, they were ordered to stand with their palms against the wall; and if they didn’t comply, I was ordered to shove them with my gun. I’ll admit that I’m a small woman with negligible upper body strength. But in that moment, I was an aggressor establishing a hostile ambience; and I found myself shouting orders, cursing, grabbing their wrists, and outright threatening the journalists. “That’s a darling watch,” I sneered at one woman. “I’m sure my boss’s wife will love it.”
I dished out arbitrary punishments (“Kneel! You there: Stand with your arms in the air!”) and questioned the hostages (“You work for an education organization? That’s funny—your friend here said she writes.”). One wrong look, or even one look at all, and these people would be blindfolded and escorted to another smaller, louder room by an actual ex-army black belt. You think that’s scary? Imagine knowing that, once make-believe is over, you’ll really be in Afghanistan and the gun to your back won’t be a prop.
The journalists and activists were participants in one of Frank Smyth’s Global Journalist Security training courses. Founded in 2011, GJS integrates the “physical, digital, and emotional aspects of self-protection.” Smyth, its founder, is a seasoned journalist (and a senior adviser at the Committee to Protect Journalists) who has covered conflict in El Salvador, Guatemala, Cuba, Colombia, Rwanda, Sudan, Jordan, and Iraq, where he was imprisoned for 18 days in 1991. He also wrote the Dart Center’s and CPJ’s main security guides.
Before leaving the US to cover human rights abuses in El Salvador, Smyth
took a course on digital safety and became a certified ambulance technician in New Jersey. But when he was abroad, he felt that his training was inadequate, even irrelevant. Smyth found that, when it comes to journalist security training, there is a tendency for trainers to teach what they know instead of what journalists need. So he founded his own.
“You want to give people skills to stay in the moment and not freeze or go into panic mode,” Smyth said. “Some people will forget to yell, ‘Hey, she’s being dragged away—we have to help her!’ [The training] plants seeds, things to remember.”
GJS’s courses are not limited to typical military or first aid training. Rather, they stress the importance of cultural, digital, and, especially, emotional preparation through a sensory-immersive environment, which means that participating journalists may be squirted with blood while addressing a “bystander’s” wounds, abducted while walking “city streets,” and forcefully questioned in an attempt to break their “cover story”—all under the ubiquitous noises of a “foreign landscape,” which are conjured by Smyth’s sound engineer and paid actors, like me.
By providing a faux-hostile environment for participants, Smyth’s simulations force them to become familiar with how they react in stressful situations. One young man was prone to back-talking authority figures and was escorted to a higher security “prison.” Another woman, when dressing my “serious wound,” did not notice when I “fell out of consciousness” because she was too intent on tying a bandage. Would you drop to the ground if you heard a gunshot? GJS provides classes before hurling the participants into the simulations, where there can be no divide between theory and practice.
Other training outlets provide specialized classes, such as first-aid training or travel safety. Few are journalist-specific and even fewer teach outside a classroom. Smyth emphasizes the fact that security can no longer be compartmentalized; all aspects must be integrated in support of physical, psychological, and information “equilibrium,” a journalist’s most trusted defense in a hostile scenario. That concept is taught by Sara Salam, the “personal safety, assault avoidance, and self-care director” of GJS. Severe yet compassionate, Salam is certified as a Krav Maga Level 5 instructor by the Krav Maga Alliance, and as a rape crisis counselor. “She can teach people how to project their tone of voice, strength, and confidence,” Smyth says.
Smyth’s organization is growing fast. I was among the first group of actors participating in simulations. Smyth is also working on course customization: If he trains a group of journalists working in Pakistan or Afghanistan, he designs a simulation with resonant cultural components. His courses have hosted journalists going to Bahrain, Afghanistan, Syria, Kenya, El Salvador, Georgia, Iraq, Bangladesh, Uganda, Ethiopia, Mexico, and Russia.
But will training in a Maryland airsoft arena really transfer to life-or-death situations in foreign territory? Smyth notes, “It’s hard to train people in terms of wisdom of age and benefit of prudence.”