In an era of shrinking foreign bureaus, struggling news organizations are relying more and more on freelance journalists. For the go-it-alone intrepid reporter or photographer abroad, as well as journalists working for non-traditional media and less powerful outlets such as Current TV, opportunities to cover stories in hot spots overseas abound.
But many, as in the case of Shane Bauer, a freelance writer and photographer for this news outlet, are taking far more risks than those who go abroad with the backing of a major media institution. Bauer, while hiking with his two friends, reportedly has been detained by Iranian authorities.
Ian Stewart, the author of “Ambushed, A War Reporter's Life on the Line,” was a seasoned journalist working for the Associated Press (AP) when he was shot in the forehead in Sierra Leon in 1999 while in a military convoy. The bullet lodged in his brain. Stewart ran the risk of severe brain damage from the swelling in his skull, but AP arranged for a Swiss air ambulance that took him to London. If he were a freelancer, he would most likely have been dead, he said.
“When I was overseas, freelancers were basically not considered within the jurisdiction of the company's responsibility,” Stewart said. “This is extremely irresponsible, since more and more of it's the freelancers have to take the risks at the front lines, since "staffers" often aren't willing to take the chance; additionally, freelancers put themselves at greater risk to get a better shot to compete against the staffers and other freelancers.”
Jim Bettinger, director of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford, had this suggestion: “To the degree possible, freelance writers should try and have credential letters from a news organization. I know it's not always possible. But if you are working as a stringer for say, Philadelphia Inquirer, keep a letter from the editor. Make it official.”
Why? “When someone from the New York Times or even Current TV gets into trouble, there are people of substance who will make contacts on the highest level and bring some pressure to bear,” Bettinger said. “Their stories will get heard.”
For a freelance writer with no major media institutional backing, Bettinger noted, that may not happen.
One veteran reporter for a major news organization, who didn’t want to be identified, said she spent more than a week training before going into Iraq and Afghanistan. “Many reporters these days undergo hostile environment training, which are boot camps run by former military officers for aid workers and journalists who get sent to conflict zones. The training, which can last between several days to a week, is an intense crash course in everything from first aid to how to walk through a minefield to what to do if you're taken hostage. It helps get your mind focused on potential risks and danger.
“In conflict zones in particular, I think freelance writers are much more vulnerable than journalists who work for major media organizations. When you work for the AP or a major newspaper, that means that you automatically have access to the resources, manpower and security of a big organization.”
Parachuting into a hot spot is much easier to do when your company has the infrastructure and logistics on the ground to support your work, she noted. “In places like Iraq or Afghanistan, that means having fixers, interpreters, security guards, offices, accommodations available.” Freelancers, she observed, generally don’t have that luxury. In fact, she said, for those wanting to go to Iraq and Afghanistan without major backing, “I would advise against it.”
Several seasoned reporters interviewed, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, advise freelancers not to be naive about the dangers of where they are going. “Prepare for the worst-case scenarios,” said one who spent time in Afghanistan. “If you are going to freelance in a conflict zone, get a media sponsor before going in. You need to work out a plan in advance with the media company about how to handle a potential hostage situation, etc.”
Yet, not all freelancers are abandoned by the papers they write for.
“Freelancers working part-time, or on short-term assignments for news outlets, should have the same protections as full-time employees,” said Elisa Tinsley, director of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). “In recent cases involving freelance reporters and producers, news organizations such as The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor have assumed that responsibility.”
At the same time, she warned, “freelance journalists should be informed of and operate according to the news organization’s security guidelines.
“Many news organizations still do not have policies regarding security. Those that do, may not lay out those guidelines, or may not lay them out clearly for freelancers. The news organization and the freelance journalist should discuss these policies and mutually agree to act responsibly with regard to security before the start of any assignment, whether there is potential risk or not. They should sign a document that outlines these points.”
On the domestic side, the problems for freelance journalist overseas mirror what's happening in the United States, observed Bettinger. “Do they have the protection of the Shield Law? If a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle gets into trouble, there’s a team of lawyers who’ll fight for him. But in the case of [freelance journalist] Josh Wolf, he doesn’t have the weight of a major institution behind him.”
Wolf was jailed for refusing to turn over a collection of videotapes he recorded during a July 2005 demonstration in San Francisco. Wolf served 226 days in prison, longer than any other journalist in U.S. history, for protecting source materials.
Overseas, however, freelancers really get the short end of the stick, said Stewart. “I remember a buddy of mine who was a freelance stringer for the AP in Kabul in ’93 or ’94 when he was shot in the foot and was losing blood at a critical rate. [The A.P. headquarters in] New York refused to foot the bill to airlift him out, or compel the UN or other aid groups to help him. It was only because of the help of the local bureau chief in Pakistan that he got out and received care.”
Bettinger said that now more than ever, “Organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders need to step up to protect freelance journalists.”
But at the same time, “news institutions have to take responsibility and rise up to defend them as well.”
Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora."