WASHINGTON — Journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Theo Curtis all had one thing in common when they were captured by Islamic militants in Syria, the title “freelance journalist.”
The role of freelancers, who make a living by selling individual stories, photos and video to multiple outlets, has expanded across conflict zones in recent years with the spread of technology and social media, which provides a ready canvas for their work. Some are cautious and well-trained; Others take major risks. And they often lack the institutional support staff journalists receive if they get into trouble in a conflict zone.
“There is no question that people with less experience and less support are venturing out into conflict zones and seeking to make their name as journalists,” said Joel Simon, the executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
While freelance journalists make important contributions, those who go into danger without a contract and the support of an established organization can face immense challenges, said Simon, who worked as a freelancer himself in Latin America. If freelancers are injured or detained, for example, it can take longer for word to get out because no one is monitoring their whereabouts — and early intervention can be crucial to their survival, he said.
According to the committee’s data, just under half of the 70 journalists killed in Syria since the conflict began in 2011 have been freelancers. Foley, who was beheaded by Islamic militants in a grisly video released last week, is one of them, and militants threatened to make Sotloff their next victim. Other militants freed Curtis on Sunday.
Ellen Shearer, the Co-Director of Northwestern University’s National Security Journalism Initiative and one of Foley’s former professors said that when Foley went missing in 2012, the Boston-based media company GlobalPost, one of the organizations he freelanced for, went “above and beyond” in supporting him and working behind the scenes to try to get him freed. But other freelancers may not get that kind of backing or have access to the infrastructure that a staff journalist would, she said. For major news organizations, that might mean a risk assessment team determining whether a place is safe, hostile environment training, health insurance, life insurance, kidnap and ransom insurance and expensive protective equipment including helmets and fitted body armor.
Reporters Without Borders tries to fill the gap by loaning freelancers protective gear and GPS personal distress beacons, and providing safety training sessions and insurance, said Delphine Halgand, the U.S. director of the Paris-based group.
Francesca Borri, an Italian journalist who left her job as a human rights worker to become a freelancer in Syria two years ago, said low pay can also put freelancers in more danger. Borri, 34, said many freelancers go without protective gear, “the first thing they save money on,” and rely on less experienced guides instead of people like the driver and “fixer” she used in Syria, who cost her $1,000 per day. Writing a piece on freelancing for the Columbia Journalism Review last year she called freelancers “second-class journalists,” but she said Tuesday in a telephone interview from Gaza that it’s more honest to call freelancers “exploited journalists.”
Some organizations try to discourage risk-taking by refusing to take non-commissioned work from particularly dangerous places — or from journalists without insurance — even though it might be compelling. In 2013, the British newspaper The Sunday Times made news when it rejected pictures from a British freelancer who went to Syria.
But there is no standard policy. When border crossings in northern Syria fell to the rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad in early 2012, many journalists went in because they could get in without a visa. When a surge in militant groups and a wave of kidnappings made it increasingly dangerous, many news organizations suspended reporting trips to opposition-held northern and eastern Syria.
Some media organizations still bought material from freelancers in the danger zone, however, creating an incentive for some to still make trips to the area. Many relied on “fixers” they barely knew, local Syrians who arranged for their transportation and acted as translators and escorts within the country. Several freed hostages reported being sold out or betrayed by their “fixers.”
James Brabazon, a British documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist who has reported from conflict zones including Liberia, cautioned against thinking of all freelancers as young, inexperienced and untrained. Brabazon, a trustee at the Rory Peck Trust, a London-based organization helping freelancers and their families, acknowledged that when he was younger he “broke every single rule that I urge people to adhere to now” including thinking about their motivations before going into a conflict zone. But Brabazon, 42, said it’s true that journalists starting out can make a name for themselves with “spectacular and unique coverage” and that some young journalists may see conflict journalism as “a shortcut” to getting a good job in the profession.
New York City-based freelancer Michael Luongo, 46, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan and some 80 other countries, though not from the front lines, said even when media organizations say no to a story because of the danger, that may not be the last word. Luongo said once when he was in Iraq he was told: “We want work from you but we won’t officially commission it” because we don’t want to be connected with you if something happens. The editor knew he’d go anyway, he said.