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Homs is subjected to constant shelling, and war reporters are not always well prepared. Credit: Tiny.cc/SyriaFreedom

Freelancing On The Battlefield: What Price Are We Paying For Our News

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How much should a photograph cost? How much should a photographer cost? And what if the photographer was injured trying to take the photo? Or died. How much would it cost then?

Olivier Voisin was a 38-year-old French freelance photojournalist, who died on February 24, 2013. Voisin was covering the Syrian crisis near the city of Idlib, when he was injured by shrapnel from a nearby explosion and died. Before the explosion he had written to his friend expressing the danger of the situation. He explained that although he knew he might get hurt, he would continue to work. ‘The economic pressure tormented him’, fellow journalist Antoine Vitkine later commented.

Freelance journalism is becoming increasingly prominent in conflict news reporting. According to CPJ (The Committee to Protect Journalists), only 4 percent of journalists who were killed in the year 2000 were freelancers, while the number dramatically rose to 27 percent by 2012. There are two main reasons for the increase. Firstly, the introduction of cheap modern technologies and social media has tempted journalists to work independently, freeing themselves from any imposed requirements. Secondly, news organizations are encouraging freelancing because they are deemed to be more convenient and cheaper alternatives to staffers. News sources don’t have the same responsibilities towards freelancers as they do to staffers: you can’t order your reporter to risk their life for a story, but freelancers can make that choice first and pitch the story second.

The Free Syrian Army in Idlib, where freelance reporter Olivier Voisin died.

The Free Syrian Army in Idlib, where freelance reporter Olivier Voisin died.

The shift is not without its problems, and the issue is being given increasing attention in Lebanon, which has become a jumping off point for journalists making their way over the Syrian border. The fact that the procedure by which staffers could legally enter the war zones is complicated means that freelancers, who can sneak in illegally, become the fundamental information source. According to El Mundo reporter Javier Espinosa, 80 percent of journalists covering Syria are freelancers.

This was a focal point in the ‘Conflict Reporting and Social Media’ conference held at The Lebanese American University in March of this year. The argument was taken back and forth between Ayman Mhanna, from Lebanese think tank SKeyes, and Sami Ketz, a former war correspondent. Mhanna claimed that many freelancers, due to their young age and amateur experience, are getting killed in war because they lack a proper understanding of its severity. These freelancers are looking for adventure and fame but they are not professional journalists; they are “war tourists” he believes. Mhanna held a firm line, insisting that it is the ethical duty of news organizations to discourage these so called heroic acts by taking the extreme step of boycotting freelancers.

Ketz disagreed. He noted that young freelancers who risk their lives in search of the truth, (even if they do so in pursuit of glory,) should be appreciated and maintained within the field. He argued that some of these enthusiastic young spirits would likely become vital reporters in the future, pointing out that, ‘many professional journalists start their journey with touring.’

Celebrated reporter Marie Colvin died during shelling in Syria.

Celebrated reporter Marie Colvin died during shelling in Syria.

Treating freelancing as a rite of passage for aspiring writers might make sense, but surely news sources need to take some responsibility for the journalists whose work they’re using. Currently, whether an organization offers the freelancer insurance or not really depends on the ethical code of that organization, and the individual agreement between the reporter and the institution. Most organizations leave the freelancers uninsured. In the conference at LAU, Emilie Sueur, from Lebanese French paper L’Orient le Jour, shared her experience of having a freelancer asking her to commission her work. At that time L’Orient Le Jour didn’t have the budget to provide the freelancer with insurance, and so the paper ethically refused to commission the woman in question, although she was willing to work for the paper with no insurance.

Similar to L’Orient le Jour, some news organizations have taken matters into their own hand. The Sunday Times has recently adopted a policy of not commissioning freelance material from the conflict in Syria, nor buying it even if the reporter has returned home safely. The Sunday Times’ deputy foreign editor Graham Paterson states that the paper’s decision is a moral one and not a financial one. He explains that commissioning freelancers or buying their work, ‘could be seen as an encouragement go out and take unnecessary risks in the future…The situation out there is incredibly risky. And we do not want to see any more bloodshed. There has been far too much already.’ This policy was issued in reaction to the death of celebrated war reporter Marie Colvin, who was one of the most influential war correspondents of The Sunday Times. Last year, although Syrian forces were preventing foreign journalists from covering Syria, Colvin managed to illegally sneak in to file for The Sunday Times. She died in Homs from shelling.

Do newspapers have an obligation to take the moral high ground in these situations? Since it is becoming riskier and more difficult for correspondents to enter war zones, it is feared that if more news organizations follow the footsteps of The Sunday Times the news industry would miss out on some of the most important reporting coming out of conflict zones. Organizations interested in resolving this controversial problem of freelance reporting are trying to seek a compromise. The Rory Peck Trust is one example of the efforts invested in this debate. The organization attends to the financial needs of the freelancers and their families, and also conducts safety training courses and awareness sessions. Another organization that attains to freelancers’ needs is Reporters without Borderswhich provides insurance packages for freelancers. Since this program was first launched in 2002, 400 freelancers have purchased an insurance policy with the organization. Such organizations present one solution to the controversy; providing professional training and insurance to young journalists would eliminate any fears of inadequacy or incompetence.

Homs is subjected to constant shelling, and war reporters are not always well prepared.

Homs is subjected to constant shelling, and war reporters are not always well prepared.

It would be ideal if all news agencies insured their freelance conflict reporters, but there is no point in setting utopian standards; we must find solutions which have the potential to work in practice. If they want to avoid accusations of irresponsibility, news organizations should at least make sure that their freelancers are not complete amateurs. They must treat their reporters as humans before they treat them as sources. Conflict reporting is a primary asset in the news field, and so should be greatly respected and appreciated. Organizations such as the Rory Peck Trust which are trying to make a difference should be greatly supported; they are the first step towards building bridges between inexperienced enthusiastic freelancers and news outlets. Such organizations are especially necessary at a time when it sometimes appears that a journalist’s life is no longer a right, but an arbitrary detail left to chance.

This post by Tala Basheer Ellsa was originally published on the International Political Forum