American report does little to suggest attainable solutions to the industry’s financial woes

Amara McLaughlin is a third-year journalism student at Mount Royal University in Calgary. She reported in the West Bank in 2013 as part of ieiMedia’s international reporting program. Her work has appeared in the Jerusalem Post, Powder Magazine, the Common Sense Canadian, CTV and the Calgary Journal. Amara is participating in the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism fellowship program this summer through which she is slated to intern at Moment Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at @amaramclaughlin

At a time when journalism and freedom of expression are under attack throughout the world, the truly brave journalists among us are foreign correspondents. This is because few people have the capacity to withstand the dangers, realities and sacrifices that characterize war reporting.

“War reporting is the deep end of the pool,” says Matthew Fisher, Canada’s longest-serving foreign correspondent and international affairs reporter at the National Post.

Those foreign correspondents who have stood on the front lines with their notebooks, wearing protective ballistics clothing stamped with the word “PRESS” as their main source of protection, are cautioning the next generation of journalists about the nature of this profession because journalism is increasingly under attack.

Even braver are the freelance foreign correspondents, who take their safety into their own hands. Freelancers aren’t contracted by a news outlet, like a staff reporter is. These self-employed individuals don’t have the same agency of a company. This gives them the chance to write their own stories, but this freedom is traded in exchange for their security net.

This is a sacrifice that costs freelancers their lives.

“Freelancers are a strong and independent breed,” says Francis Silvaggio, a former longtime Global National correspondent who worked alongside many freelance foreign correspondents, like Amanda Lindhout, in Afghanistan and Haiti. “They are self-sufficient because they take risks on their own.”

More journalists have lost their lives covering war, politics and human rights than on any other beat, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Journalist death toll

According to CPJ’s records, 2007 was the deadliest year for journalists with 112 killed either by murder, caught in crossfire or combat, or on dangerous assignments without support. Of those, 20 per cent were freelancers.

But in 2011, 34 per cent of the 86 journalists killed were freelancers, a consistent, alarming trend (so far in 2015, according to CPJ, 32 per cent of the 22 deaths have been freelance).A woman and child at the entrance to the United Nations’ Al Am’ari Refugee Camp outside Ramallah, West Bank. The barrier separating them from the camp is similar to barriers separating freelance journalists from proper foreign safety training.

Photo by Amara McLaughlin

The CPJ report shows that the Middle East has more fatalities than any other region because of its hostile history that began with the Persian Gulf War in 2000-01, followed by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, the flare up of the Arab Spring in 2010, the start of the ongoing Syrian civil war the following year, and the Islamic State’s current inimical aggression.

In response to the proliferating risk, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia Journalism School released its single-page “Global Safety Principles and Practices” in February. By April, 47 news organizations have endorsed international protection standards for those working outside the safety net of large media organizations.

This growing coalition is comprised of prominent news organizations and advocacy groups responding to the escalating cries for help from journalists abducted and held captive, like former CBC journalist Mellissa Fung and Canadian freelancer Amanda Lindhout; those injured in the crossfire, like Canadian-born Associated Press reporter Kathy Gannon; or a response to those killed, as the Calgary Herald’s Michelle Lang, who in 2009 was the first Canadian journalist to lose her life in Afghanistan.

Clearly, the Islamic State’s public execution of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff in 2014 was a direct attack on independent journalism. And the beheadings of these journalists contributed to the formation of “Global Safety Principles and Practices.”

This document attempts to outline ways journalists can protect freedom of expression when under attack, by mitigating the risks both freelancers and news organizations take in conflict zones.

“It’s all pretty common sense,” says Hugo Rodrigues, president of Canadian Association of Journalists. “Not just for journalists themselves, but also for the news organization.”

But this manifesto is just another step in a history of perfunctory, failed global initiatives to protect foreign correspondents. Over the last nine years, the United Nations’ security and human rights councils have adopted three resolutions to improve international protection for journalists. But like the new “Global Safety Principles and Practices,” these resolutions have been unable to address the challenges of a changing media landscape.

Freelancers used as cheap labour

“There’s more freelancers today than there have been over the last decade and I think part of that is just the way the news industry is changing,” says Silvaggio. “We’ve seen that the mainstream industry has been downsizing bureaus, so there’s been an extra reliance on independent freelancers to provide coverage.”

Indeed, the National Post’s Fisher says that the industry’s demand for cheap global coverage has led to the hiring of foreign freelance journalists who sometimes lack sufficient credentials for domestic news jobs.

Rodrigues adds, “The last five to 10 years has seen a pretty dramatic change in the nature of how conflict is covered, and who’s covering conflict, and how media organizations are covering conflict.”

CBC News began this process in 1999 when the network cut back on its foreign news coverage by eliminating three of its foreign bureaus: Cape Town, South Africa; Mexico City; and Paris.

In 2012, CBC News still had Canada’s most extensive presence of foreign bureaus, with 13 at the time. However, the outlet began closing its one-person bureaus and merging its larger bureaus in America, the United Kingdom and the Middle East.

These cutbacks are not the only economic changes the new age of journalism faces. The news industry has abdicated its responsibility to provide institutional support, like baseline insurance coverage to freelance journalists.

“I think you can blame the news companies for engaging such people because they get in with visas on the strength of a letter to a freelancer which is very thin and doesn’t mean anything,” says Fisher, suggesting those letters merely indicate “interest” in the freelancers’ content.

“And that’s the basis – these people go off and risk their lives.

“The reason this is happening is because the resources for war reporting are not what they used to be.”

This puts a strain on freelancers because they are independent and their relationship with the media employer is different than the employee.

“Wire services often rely on stringers or freelancers as well for content depending on the nature of the conflict,” says Rodrigues. “At least until they can get their own people on the ground. But the first hit (breaking story) often comes from a freelancer or stringer in that part of the world.”

Independent journalists are often on the front lines of hot zone conflicts. This nature forces them to assume a significant amount of risk.

Front-line risks

Italian freelance journalist Francesca Borri wrote a pivotal article for Columbia Journalism Review in 2013, titled “Woman’s Work,” which captures the unsupported, life-threatening dangers she faced in Syria.

“Woman’s Work” is an abrasive letter to her editor where Borri presents the horrors of freelancing and openly discusses how the front lines have become her prison because she is trapped by her editor’s love of blood without responsible support or basic human safety.

This extreme case of the cliché, “If it bleeds, it leads,” pokes another hole in the “Global Safety Principles and Practices,” which doesn’t provide harsh enough solutions for a major financial blind spot in the media industry.

“People have this romantic image of the freelancer as a journalist who’s exchanged the certainty of a regular salary for the freedom to cover the stories she is most fascinated by,” Borri writes.

“But we aren’t free at all.”

As Borri points out, she is paid the same per article regardless of whether she is working in an international war zone or safely at home. This ranges from $50 to several hundred dollars per article.

Risk isn’t taken into consideration.

This self-destructive logic costs freelancers more than their income. It costs lives because many can’t afford the necessary health insurance for injuries, let alone kidnap and ransom insurance. Nor can they independently pay the fee for a good “fixer,” who averages $100 per day and whose situational knowledge can save a journalist’s life.

The international group Reporters Without Borders offers insurance coverage for its members through World Escapade Travel Insurance, but Canadian freelancers are excluded from some of the packages.

International security training

The Committee to Protect Journalists created the “Journalist Security Guide” in 2012, three years prior to The Dart Center’s “Global Safety Principles and Practices.

But while the 2012 recommendations have 10 fulsome sections that provide suggestions and resources for operating responsibly through the upheaval of the news model, the newer document is much less comprehensive. “Global Safety Principles and Practices” merely identifies a list of seven principles and practices for journalists on dangerous assignments, and seven more recommendations for news organizations that assign work in dangerous places.

Only 33 per cent of the participating signatories of “Global Safety Principles and Practices” are news organizations. Journalism associations and advocacy groups make up the other 67 per cent of supporters.

Until mid-April there were no Canadian signatories. The first to endorse the recommendation was the Ontario-based Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma.

This begs the question of what this means for future Canadian freelance foreign correspondents.

A perspective on this comes from Rebecca Collard, a Canadian independent journalist currently in Iraq stringing for CBC, TIME, Public Radio International and BBC.

“I didn’t do any safety training before I started reporting overseas, but I also didn’t intend to work in heavy conflict zones,” she says in an online interview.

Collard began reporting from the Middle East as a freelancer in 2007, and just last year received a grant from the Forum Freelance Fund and Rory Peck Trust allowing her and seven other Canadian freelancers to attend hazardous-environment training courses in the United States or Britain.

Collard filed for this grant from the front line in Northern Iraq while covering ISIS’s invasion.

This accredited hazardous-environment training course is similar to a program in Virginia Beach, Va. – run by the renowned Travel Advisory Group Inc. – to which the Canadian Press sent correspondent Bill Graveland before sending him to cover the Canadian military’s Afghanistan mission in 2006.

“They taught us about landmines and improvised explosive devices, what to look out for so you don’t step on any of them, what to do if you were captured, how to behave, and a lot of combat first-aid, ” says Graveland.

But Fisher, citing the variable quality of these safety courses, advocates instead for the value of military training and knowledge.

He recalls that it took him 10 years to properly prepare for reporting on the front lines.

“We don’t send our soldiers to war after spending 24 or 48 hours preparing,” says Fisher, who is referred to by his peers as “the godfather” of war reporting.

But even if training were extensive, war zones would still pose significant danger.

“The problem is no matter what training you have, if you’re surrounded by a dozen armed men who want to kidnap you, there’s not a whole lot that you can do,” says Linda Gradstein, Middle East bureau chief for The Media Line, the same organization Steven Sotloff was freelancing for when he was kidnapped in Syria.

But this training does provide valuable skills, and can help reporters become comrades at arms.

“You are each others’ safety net in the field, so you have to be prepared,” says Silvaggio.

But with only one Canadian news organization currently supporting the latest guidelines, the future for Canadian freelance foreign correspondents looks especially grim.

Rodrigues, who, as president of Canada’s largest organization for journalists, was not even aware of the guidelines until contacted for this report, says: “I don’t think this puts a Canadian freelancer in a unique situation compared to a freelancer from any other country going into a conflict zone. The skills and the awareness and the preparation that needs to be done aren’t unique to Canadians. This applies to anybody putting themselves in this sort of risk.”

Rodrigues says he believes that the Canadian Journalism Forum for Violence and Trauma, the organization that has signed the document, is an expert in this field. He says their work of preparing journalists for the challenges they may encounter has a significant impact on addressing these issues.

First-hand experience

My own introduction to foreign reporting came in July 2013, at the Palestinian Police Commissioner’s office in Ramallah, West Bank. I was there for an interview with Wafaa Mu’amma, the director of the Family Protection Unit. This interview took place in Arabic.Amara McLaughlin travels to Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank in July 2013. What awaited her after that bus ride required trusting her safety to strangers, a characteristic common to freelancers in foreign lands.

Photo by Mallory Moench

I had never worked with a “fixer” to keep me safe or translate before, and had never done an interview in a language other than English. I had never had the need to until my visits to the West Bank, crossing Kalandia checkpoint at the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank several times – experiences I wasn’t prepared for.

I was in the West Bank pursuing an article about how Palestinian organizations are working within the confines of Shari’a and Jordanian law to help women experiencing domestic violence. The means for arranging interviews was something I learned as I went along.

This experience became very real to me when I got off the bus in central Ramallah, flagged down a taxi, dialed my contact at one of the women’s shelters, handed my flip-phone to the taxi driver, and waited.

For almost every interview, I jumped into a cab without knowing where that cab was going.

Under any other circumstance this would be a reckless decision, but these women’s groups don’t list their addresses for safety reasons, and this was my only option to reach them. Such uncertainty is a condition of a world shaped by violence and fear, which has forced many organizations, such as the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling in Ramallah, to protect their operations from potential harm in any way they can.

When the taxi dropped me off, I’d get out and wait at an unmarked building. Eventually someone from the organization would come out to retrieve me, and then he or she would place a finger on the fingerprint reader to access the building.

This was a starkly different reporting world than I was used to.

Still in journalism school, having reported in Israel and the West Bank, and working toward being a foreign correspondent, I have not turned a blind eye to the tragedy and very real consequences of being a foreign journalist in today’s world.

There is a great need to understand the history, political, economic, religious and socio-cultural context of the area you enter – because that knowledge has the power to save your life.

When Francis Silvaggio and Bill Graveland toured Afghanistan, this was many Canadian journalists’ first opportunity to cover war. Three hundred Canadian journalists were imbedded in Afghanistan at the start of Canada’s military mission in 2006.

“For our generation of journalists, it was really our first opportunity to cover war,” says Silvaggio. “A lot of people walked in there with their eyes wide and trying to figure out what exactly you’re supposed to do.
“My first trip was very scary because there was no bar to measure it by, and you are learning it on the fly.”

But the reality of covering a war is still very different from training to cover one.

While journalism agencies and advocacy organizations have a general consensus that freelance foreign correspondents should receive the same treatment, training, insurance and safety equipment as staff reporters, news organizations are yet to put forth the financial resources to enact this change.

Without the full support of news organizations, freelance foreign correspondents will continue to take unsupported risks and continue to jeopardize their lives.

Freelance foreign correspondents need more than initiatives like the “Global Safety Principles and Practices” to properly equip them for conflict zone coverage.

But they also need the support of news organizations for training, insurance and safety equipment; they don’t need more information, and unaccountable principles and practices on paper.

amclaughlin@cjournal.ca