Some organizations like RISC, offer freelancers the training and equipment they need for work overseas such as the flak jacket pictured in this staged photo.
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(Staged photo)

Freelancers on the frontlines

Whose job is to keep them safe from harm?

Philip Balboni was sitting at his desk when he heard the news.

It was late afternoon on Aug. 19, 2014. There had been word earlier that day on Twitter that something had happened to James Foley – something bad – but no one could confirm what it was.

Balboni’s mind filled with dread. He hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in two years because he was concerned about Foley’s well-being. He didn’t know how much more stress he could take.

At 4 p.m., Balboni checked Twitter. The same photo of Foley took over his timeline: Foley was clad in an orange jumpsuit, head shaved, kneeling in the desert sand. A man, face covered, dressed in all black, stood beside him, pointing to the camera and wielding a knife.

“It’s as horrible an experience as you can imagine,” says Balboni. “I never thought that he would be killed.”

Balboni is the founder and CEO of GlobalPost, an online news site with a focus on international coverage. Foley was a freelance journalist and GlobalPost contributor.

While he was working as a freelance photojournalist in Syria in November 2012, Foley had been kidnapped by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

After Foley’s kidnapping, GlobalPost spent millions of dollars on rescue efforts, including hiring a private security firm in an attempt to locate him.

Michael Foley, James’ brother, says GlobalPost stood beside James even though he wasn’t a staff member.

“I think GlobalPost is very unique in that respect,” he says.

Michael Foley praises Balboni and GlobalPost because he feels most news corporations wouldn’t have made similar efforts to help a freelancer.

It’s a dangerous job

In fact, most news outlets aren’t legally obligated to help freelancers in situations similar to James Foley’s. And many don’t provide freelancers with the kinds of protective measures they give their staff reporters. This includes things like Hostile Environments and Emergency First Aid, or HEFAT training, protective gear such as helmets and flak jackets, security personnel and medical insurance.

Since 1992, 204 freelancers worldwide have been murdered or killed while reporting in politically unstable areas such as Syria, Ukraine and Iraq. In 2015 alone, 15 freelancers died, and 56 were in prison.

In countries such as Eritrea, North Korea and Iran, where freedom of speech is routinely censored and political disruption is common, journalists – especially freelancers – often find themselves at risk of being caught in crossfire, demonstrations and riots. Freelancers in conflict zones are routinely imprisoned, kidnapped, tortured and murdered by figures or groups who oppose their reporting or who want to use them as political pawns.

Death of the foreign correspondent

But despite the dangers, news organizations are increasingly relying on freelancers to cover stories in conflict zones. Major news corporations now rely almost solely on local freelancers for coverage in Syria. Due to the Syrian civil war and government restrictions, most international reporters have been barred from entering the country, or have been expelled or pulled out by their employers.

Maintaining a foreign bureau costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, and foreign correspondents are expensive because they’re on salary and entitled to benefits and insurance.

Since the late 1990s, several newspapers have cut their foreign bureaus in order to save money against a backdrop of declining sales and ad revenue. The Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times have either reduced their number of foreign bureaus or slashed them all together.

In the early 2000s, the CBC closed three of its bureaus. In 2014, the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) announced it would be closing 11 foreign bureaus due to budget cuts

But some freelance support organizations are demanding that freelance work not be accepted by news outlets unless freelancers have certain credentials, such as HEFAT and medical-aid training, helmets and flak jackets.

Equipping freelancers

That’s led to the creation of a number of organizations designed to give freelancers the training and equipment they need.

After freelancer Tim Hetherington died in Libya in 2011 from a non-fatal injury because his colleagues had insufficient medical-aid training, his friend and fellow freelancer Sebastian Junger founded Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC). RISC provides free medical-aid training to freelancers.

RISC offers a four-day course that freelancers can take in New York City, Kiev, Ukraine, or Nairobi, Kenya. Graduates of the course receive a medical kit similar to that of a soldier’s.

Contents of RISC kit (Photo: Giuliana Mackler)

Former freelancer Frank Smyth founded a similar group called Global Journalist Security (GJS) in 2011. Smyth, who’s worked in areas such as Iraq, Sudan and Jordan, was dissatisfied with the military-based HEFAT training typically offered to journalists.

GJS provides consulting and training services to journalists, such as emergency first-aid, digital security training, civil unrest training and combat navigation skills.

Smyth frequently gives freelancers training at discounted prices and works with other organizations to provide it for free.

And Syria-based freelancer Emma Beals is a founding member of Frontline Freelance Register (FFR). FFR works with organizations like RISC and GJS to provide freelancers with HEFAT training, protective gear and risk assessment. FFR encourages media organizations to do the same.

Beals helped start FFR in 2013 after realizing how dangerous freelancing had become in Syria.

“People like to talk about us, but not to us. Starting FFR was a way of bringing (freelancers) together, offering support and particularly (providing) a voice for us within the industry.”

Global standards

But perhaps the most important protection for freelancers has been the development of the Global Safety Principles and Practices (GSPP): a set of voluntary standards implemented by news companies and journalism organizations in order to provide freelancers all over the world with HEFAT and medical training, protective gear and risk evaluation. It also calls for media companies to protect and pay freelancers as they would staff.

Since the GSPP standards were developed in February 2015, over 80 media groups and journalism organizations have signed onto them, including the BBC, CNN, PBS, Reuters and Vice News.

As a result of the GSPP, the Associated Press provides freelancers with the same amount of protection and communication it does staff members.

GlobalPost is a signatory of the GSPP, and, since Foley’s death, no longer sends freelancers into Syria or accepts work from there.

GlobalPost also won’t accept freelance work or send freelancers into areas unless they are experienced in conflict reporting, and have HEFAT training and protective gear, which GlobalPost provides.

And international news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) no longer sends journalists into areas held by ISIS and is developing better insurance options for its freelancers.

David Millikin, AFP’s director for North America, says “(AFP) works with a lot of freelancers and the security situation has gotten worse. We felt it was important to join in with other organizations to endorse a set of principles everyone can follow.”

GSPP signatory Frank Smyth of Global Journalist Security says “We need to be much more careful about how we use freelancers, where we send them and what kind of support we send them before, during and after their assignments. I think that’s a good thing. Long overdue.”

The debate

But some freelancers who go to a conflict area “on spec” – with the intention of writing about an event, without having a confirmed source to sell their work to – feel the standards endorsed in the GSPP limit their ability to sell work to outlets if they don’t have protective measures or can’t afford them.

Without a discount, the average HEFAT course offered by Global Journalist Security starts at $1,600 and takes three to four days to complete – time and money some journalists don’t have.

If protective gear isn’t provided, flak jackets alone can cost up to $3,000.

Columbia-based freelancer Toby Muse, who’s worked for Vocativ and Slate, worries the standards turn freelancing into a “closed shop.”

“It could be financially impossible for young journalists starting out to get insurance, (and) to get HEFAT training, and I think that could be off-putting,” he says.

Paul Schneidereit thinks the GSPP limits journalists who “simply happen to be at the right place at the right time.”
Paul Schneidereit thinks the GSPP limits journalists who “simply happen to be at the right place at the right time.”   Sara connors

Paul Schneidereit, a national director of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), thinks if a journalist doesn’t have training or protection, but is able to get to a newsworthy event in a conflict area quickly and behaves professionally, there’s no reason an organization shouldn’t buy his or her work.

“What if you’re on vacation and don’t have training, then something big happens, but because you don’t have certain accreditation none of it can be used? It seems ridiculous,” he says.

But Philip Balboni doesn’t think these arguments are valid.

“I can’t just go to Yemen and hope that I’m going to be able to freelance, because if you’re not qualified to be there, you’re work isn’t going to be taken,” he says. “I, as head of a news organization, shouldn’t contribute to your irresponsibility by buying your work.”

Ultimately, you’re on your own

Although groups like FFR, CAJ and the Committee to Protect Journalists can prepare freelancers before they go into conflict areas, they’re often unable to assist or rescue journalists once they’ve been injured, imprisoned or kidnapped.

Schneidereit says that although the CAJ will investigate injustices done to Canadian journalists abroad – such as being thrown in prison unlawfully – the organization can’t provide lawyers’ fees or post bail.

After repeated requests for an interview, Rachna Mishra of the Canadian Foreign Affairs department told the KJR by email that “journalists in conflict zones would receive the same type of consular services as other Canadians.”

However, she says consular services in Syria, Libya and Iraq are “severely limited,” and consulates do not have the authority to interfere in another country’s judicial proceedings – unjust or not – nor can kidnapped Canadians be exchanged for ransom.

And though many major news corporations have signed on to the GSPP, several have yet to join. Canadian media outlet CTV, for example, isn’t a signatory. After being asked several times for an interview, a spokesperson for the company told the KJR by email that CTV doesn’t comment on “internal policies.” Harris Silver, manager of high-risk deployment at CBC, says CBC hasn’t signed because it rarely uses freelancers.

A step in the right direction

Though the fight for freelance protection is slow, and though some feel the GSPP is limiting, many freelancers nevertheless think it’s a move in the right direction.

“It doesn’t solve all the problems, but it’s an excellent step,” says Emma Beals.

Beals says the GSPP is a “happy medium” because it doesn’t force either freelancers or news organizations to adopt these rules, but rather “empower(s) both sides to have those conversations and to make sure that those sorts of things are clear.”

In October 2015 some signatories of the GSPP announced they would be providing even more protection for freelancers. In 2016, international reporting organization, The GroundTruth Project, will put 20 independent journalists through a safety training course for covering climate change. Freelance protection foundation, the Rory Peck Trust, is now working with other organizations to provide more refresher safety courses.

‘Home in one piece’

After being held hostage for almost two years, James Foley was murdered by ISIS in retaliation for United States airstrikes in Iraq.

Though Foley was an experienced freelancer, his brother admits he shouldn’t have been where he was, because a journalist had been kidnapped from there only months before.

“James had all that knowledge, had all that background, safety courses – but it still wasn’t enough,” Michael Foley says.

“Freelancers are always at a disadvantage, and I don’t ever see that changing. But, with training and better education – which may include certification – I think their odds of going home in one piece can be improved.”