Safety first: The rare Bangladeshi seat belt

Text by Matthew Chapman

Safety for journalists in Bangladesh isn’t always about threats and angry people. It could be as simple as a working car seatbelt.

It took me a few minutes to work out what was so unusual about the car I just had climbed into. It was the very last day of my three week assignment in Bangladesh and myself and the entire team of Investigation 360 Degree had just finished a day of relaxation mixed with work at a site on the outskirts of Dhaka. We were returning to the capital in a minibus when a loud bang shook the vehicle and it came shuddering to a halt in the fast lane of a dual carriageway.

The roads can often be littered with debris and tyres on vehicles are often worn down to the minimum level and so the tyre on our minibus had burst. I climbed into the front seat of another car that had been travelling in our convoy and I could not quite believe my eyes. In the front passenger seat was an ordinary working seatbelt. With only hours left in my stay in the country I gingerly put on the first working seatbelt I had set my eyes on and at once felt able to breathe slightly more easily.

I was in Bangladesh to work with the staff of a weekly TV investigations strand called Investigation 360 which airs on the Jamuna TV station. I went out on many filming trips in minibuses and a car belonging to Jamuna TV would collect me and take me to and from work each day, but never did I ever come across a working seat belt. When I pointed this out I was usually met with a look of indifference or bemusement. What was I complaining about?

I have had many conversations with my colleague at 360 about the dangers of working as an investigative journalist in Bangladesh and for a few of them it was their number one concern. They wanted help on making their working environment safer. It can be a risky and lonely business digging out stories of corruption in Bangladesh. Quite often two or three man (and they are all men unfortunately at present) teams are sent out to fairly remote parts of the country to expose some local corruption often perpetrated by criminal gangs.

They go off on assignment often in the knowledge that were something to happen out in the field there is no one to help them. There is very little realistically that I could advise them in the way of protecting themselves in such situations apart from reminding them that no story is worth a human life.

However I was able to help them with smaller scale safety tips but which I thought might actually be of more practical use. Most people think that investigative journalists are most at risk from the endless line of bad people they end up exposing, but the real truth is fare more boring. One of the greatest threats that journalists face around world are the state of the roads. Car accidents kill off journalists with great regularity and in fact during my stay in Bangladesh several Jamuna TV staff were badly injured in a car crash while on assignment. Only travelling in cars with working seatbelts is a very simple way to increase the odds of having a longer lasting career in journalism. Even if you do have a seatbelt it will be the person who is not wearing theirs who will kill you as they fly through the car during an accident. Or it might be the lose bit of camera equipment that you failed to sufficiently stow away.

Someone, and it is quite often the producer, should take a lead on safety when teams are out filming. This can mean ensuring the car is properly packed and that all seatbelts are being worn. I think I at least managed to persuade all the cameramen never to put their cameras on their laps when travelling in the front seat of a car. I explained how even a small crash would lead to the air bags bursting out and then pushing whatever was on their laps right through their chests, as had tragically happened to one camera operator in Africa. I learnt in Bangladesh that I can do very little to alter the fundamentally risky nature of investigative journalism in the country. Statistically speaking however they are far more likely to be killed or injured in a road crash and some horror stories from me have I hope at least made that a little less likely.