A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Freelancers on the frontline can face greatest risk

Words by Krati Garg

JAMES Foley would have turned 41 on October 18. His family says: “Jim was passionate about supporting American journalists reporting from conflict zones.”

Foley and his American compatriot Steven Sotloff, 10 years his junior, were among the many freelance journalists who risk their lives reporting from war-torn countries. They are reminders of the human cost of bearing witness.

The London-based International News Safety Institute puts at 97 the number of journalists and media support staff who have been killed in 2014.

“Most of the international journalists who have been killed this year are freelance,” its director, Hannah Storm, told NBC News recently. “It suggests that the stakes are a lot higher for freelance journalists.”

Increasingly, the bloodshed that journalists have reported on from conflict zones has included their own. More than 500 journalists and media support staff have been killed in the past decade, according to International Federation of Journalists spokesman Ernest Sagaga, including more than 300 in Iraq alone.

“These figures testify to the prevailing safety crisis in the media,” says Sagaga, who is IFJ head of human rights and safety. “It is difficult to quantify the difference safety training may have had, but we do know of numerous cases where colleagues applied the skills learned and saved their lives in crossfire situations while reporting fighting.”

“Most of the international journalists who have been killed this year are freelance. It suggests that the stakes are a lot higher for freelance journalists.” — Hannah Storm, director International News Safety Institute 

The bottom line, according to Sagaga, is preparation: “We encourage all journalists to make their physical safety their top priority and carry out a robust risk assessment before any assignment to minimise the risks of [being kidnapped].”

Veteran correspondents say that the Bosnian War of the early 1990s probably marked a turning point in how journalists were perceived on the battlefield, dismissing the notion of their immunity and that they should be off-limits as targets.

And in that increasingly hostile environment, freelancers have become the most vulnerable: the lone wolves of journalism’s front line do not always have access to security guards, safe housing, well-paid fixers or the sort of expert logistical help that can be routine for journalists working for big media companies. In a crisis, such back-up can make a critical difference, a difference even between life and death.

Fairfax Media’s Middle East Correspondent, Ruth Pollard, says that freelancers often do not go through the same level of safety and security planning that she can access through Fairfax.

“If they are working solo then they may not have arranged for someone to be their check-in person or let anyone know their exact movements when they working on a dangerous story,” Pollard says. “News organisations have also created a situation where freelancers are at risk — cutting back on foreign bureaus and allowing freelancers who are less expensive than full-time staff and more willing to take risks with their own safety — to go into areas they would not let their own correspondents to go.”

Pollard’s colleague, South-East Asia correspondent Lindsay Murdoch, agrees: “There is a lot of financial stress on media companies. They have cut back their foreign bureaus [and rely more on] freelancers who are not insured and not resourced . . .  Fairfax, though, still has a significant foreign presence.”

Even so, says the IFJ’s Ernest Sagaga, caution and prepartion can count for very little when journalists are deliberately targeted as has been recent experience in Syria and Iraq.

 “We encourage all journalists to make their physical safety their top priority and carry out a robust risk assessment before any assignment to minimise the risks of [being kidnapped].” — Ernest Sagaga, International Federation of Journalists

Pollard says Fairfax — the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, specifically — has knocked back several contributions from freelancers to discourage unacceptable risk-taking.

“[The situation] is changing as the discussion around the safety of freelancers gets louder, but it is still a big problem — the deadly combination of media companies wanting cheaper foreign coverage and inexperienced, young journalists wanting to make their name continue to use war zones as some of their first reporting experiences.”

Since Foley’s beheading, the news agency Agence France-Presse has taken a similar stand. Having stopped sending its own correspondents into rebel-held parts of Syria a year ago, it declared in September that it was no longer taking freelance work either. “The situation there is out of control and far too dangerous,” AFP said. “A foreign reporter venturing into those lawless areas runs a serious risk of being kidnapped or killed as tragically happened to James Foley, a regular AFP contributor murdered by IS militants in August.”

For freelancers, reporting from danger zones almost certainly comes with compromised onsite safety and little-to-no post-assignment care. But a number of international organisations have been striving to put such safeguards in place.

Organisations such as Reporters Without Borders, Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC) and the IFJ hold training sessions for freelancers and sometimes citizen journalists facing hostile environments. They also campaign for freedom of expression across the globe.

The IFJ conducts safety training for members of its 180 affiliated journalist unions and associations around the globe  both freelance and contracted journalists.

“This is because we believe journalists need life-saving skills to assess for themselves the risks they may face and determine whether [those risks] are worth taking. No story is worth a journalist’s life, ” says Sagaga.

The federation urges all news organisations to ensure that the journalists and news teams they deploy, even temporarily, to dangerous situations are given basic training in safety and are provided with life insurance and safety equipment.

James Foley (right) undertook hostile environment training with RISC, which is headed by Sebastian Junger, a multi award–winning foreign correspondent. The group caters for freelance journalists who often cannot afford to pay for such training.

The IFJ is also leading a global campaign to urge governments and all warring parties to respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of journalists at all times.

Former ABC South-East Asia correspondent Zoe Daniel says: “There is a real concern about the media environment we are looking at. The environment forces the freelancers to be in situations where [employed journalists] will not [go].”

She says when working in Thailand she observed that freelancers often could not bring safety equipment into the country with them, because of the costs involved. “Instead, they would go to Jada Jada Market in Bangkok and get a crappy flak jacket and helmet.”

Daniel saw two freelance photojournalists killed in Thailand during the recent unrest. “Both of them were very brave,” she adds.

The IFJ does provide safety gear, depending on the degree of crisis and national regulations, for those who can’t afford that protection themselves. “We also have an International Safety Fund that assists journalists in danger with finances to extract and relocate them to safety. It can also pay for medical treatment in cases of injury and repatriation of killed colleagues,” says Sagaga.

While onsite safety remains a key issue for freelancers, there appear to be scant measures in place for their post-assignment care and wellbeing.

Organisations including the IFJ, RISC, Dart and the International News Safety Institute do provide trauma counselling for freelancers but the cost of such services can be prohibitive for journalists without a regular job. 

The IFJ’s safety training includes trauma counselling, including its so-called “training of trainers” or ToT program, which aims to create a pool of experts in all IFJ regions who can help educate fellow journalists.

Sagaga says: “Furthermore, our safety code requires de-briefing for colleagues who have returned from covering armed conflicts and natural disasters, with a view of identifying any counselling needs which can be met through the safety fund.”

The Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma also offers small grants to freelancers which can pay for education and counselling. Cait McMahon, Dart’s Asia Pacific Director, says: “If [freelancers] need ongoing counselling, we provide it, paid for by the grant. Education sessions include [help for] both domestic and freelance journos who have been to cover trauma and tragedy.”

Pollard, who is a Dart Ochberg Fellow, takes advantage of a network of Dart colleagues around the world with whom she can “discuss experiences and debrief”. 

“Sometimes I reach out to them, sometimes they reach out to me,” she says. “I make sure I talk about the effects of trauma with other journalists I am working with, particularly freelance journalists and fixers who mostly do not have the backing or support of a news organisation. It’s so important that we continue to raise awareness about trauma, not just for foreign correspondents but for local reporters as well.”

But resources for freelancers remain few. The journalists’ union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, is not in a position to pay for training freelance journalists, according to spokesman Mike Dobbie.   

“The MEAA encourages freelancers to seek training that would equip them to work in conflict zones,” he says. “However, this training is expensive, and freelancers may not be able to afford [it]. In which case, freelancers should seriously reconsider if they can responsibly report in a conflict zone.”

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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