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The Truth behind Freelance War Journalism

The Truth behind Freelance War Journalism

By Kaavya Nair

Edited by Shambhavi Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

The right to free and open access to news and information is universal, but threats to a free press persist.  Freelance Journalists reporting from war zones and politically turbulent regions face risks every day as they report on regions in conflict or transition. They operate in an environment where attacks, intimidation, torture and abductions are rampant.

The abductions and killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff in Syria captured America’s and the worlds’ attention, largely due to the gruesome manner of their deaths. The dangerous conditions and low pay that today’s freelance war correspondents face rarely make headlines.

In order to reduce expenses and manage finances, media companies have largely outsourced the news gathering and reporting that takes place in the world’s most strife-torn places. The result is that young, inexperienced journalists with little to no training, safety equipment or insurance wind up risking their lives in the hopes of selling a story, for which they might be lucky to earn $100.

With most major news agencies pulling their staff journalists out of war zones, the burden is increasingly falling on freelance and citizen journalists, though it may be too dangerous for freelancers to work in the country. It is hard to determine the number of freelance war correspondents, although it is estimated to be approximately 500 Western journalists reporting from combat zones around the world, in 2014 only. Loose confederation of media professionals say this number is climbing, though, and it often is the youngest, least experienced journalists exposed to the most danger. “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,” said director Hannah Storm, International News Safety Institute. Reports state that 85 journalists and media staff have been killed this year, so far.

Freelancers are often more vulnerable to the surrounding violence in conflict-stricken areas, and have limited access to resources such as protective clothing or training on how to report safely within a war zone. Even when freelancers know what kind of safety equipment, training and insurance they should have, they don’t make enough money to buy it, and most news outlets don’t provide these benefits. There persists this strange perception that freelance journalist get paid more in dangerous areas. It is more profitable to do a PR job in the U.K. than to go somewhere like Gaza. In Gaza, they would be lucky to get 300 pounds ($483 U.S.) a day, maybe less. Some of them go to these places sans helmet or body armor because they couldn’t afford the equipment and there was no allowance from anybody to buy the equipment.

Much of the reporting that has come out of Syria, Iraq and other such conflict stricken areas in recent months has been done by freelance and citizen journalists, illustrating the need to ensure safety of the journalists and taking measure against the particular threats faced by freelance journalists reporting from the  most dangerous locations in the world.

Reporting from a war zone is never an easy or safe task, and the warring sides likely won’t break for a stalemate while journalists document the carnage. However, the targeting of journalists with violence prevents the rest of the world from understanding the complexities of a conflict that has so far claimed the lives of over 150,000 people, displaced more than 9 million, and produced a human rights crisis of epic proportions. This portrait of struggling freelancers highlights how news agencies must provide greater resources to freelancers risking their lives to report in areas so dangerous that no staff reporter would be sent in their place.

Kaavya Nair is a currently a second year Political Science major at Miranda House, University of Delhi. She is passionate about liberal arts and obsessed about issues of International significance. An avid debater and a passionate writer she strongly believes that a dedicated youth working together can create change for the better, and hopes to positively impact the world through her passion and dedication for words. 

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