A Journalist’s Life Shouldn’t Be The Cost Of Reporting

by Louisa Reynolds | 2014/15 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow

November 03, 2014

My first article in the Boston Globe told the story of Honduran journalist Lourdes Ramírez, who was forced to flee her country after she was subjected to threats and harassment. Ramírez had produced an expose on an armed gang that had hijacked a public hospital and and hastened the death of terminally ill patients in order to turn the dead over to funeral parlors and demand a “commission fee” for each coffin.

Honduras is not a country at war but with 37 journalists killed since the coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, it might as well be.

Ramírez’s case illustrates the fact that reporting is a hazardous job. In her case, she was supposed to have the support of the TV channel that she worked for as a full time reporter, although in the end her editor turned his back on her for fear of reprisals.

If journalists such as Ramírez who work under contract are so vulnerable, imagine the plight of those who work independently for a number of different news organizations and do not enjoy the benefits of a contract.

During my recent trip to New York, I had the opportunity to attend a forum on how to freelance safely organized by the Overseas Press Club of America, which addressed this issue.

Unfortunately, as Vaughan Smith, founder of London’s Frontline Club, pointed out, “reporting in certain countries is dangerous and the only way to avoid the dangers is not to do it”. Whilst that’s true, the speakers agreed that there are a number of ways in which those risks can be minimized.

According to Smith, improving safety for freelancers begins by changing the way their work is portrayed and holding news organizations responsible for their welfare. The death of 17-year old freelance photographer Molhem Barakat, during the Syrian conflict, is a case in point. Reuters gave Barakat a camera and paid him as little as US$100 for a set of 10 photographs but never provided him with a helmet or a vest. And after he was killed, Reuters refused to take any responsibility for his death by stating that he was not employed by the news organization, he was simply “someone who sold photos to Reuters on a freelance basis”.

At an individual level, says Smith, it is important that journalists who travel to conflict zones to talk to other journalists in the field as well as expatriates in order to find out which sources and fixers are trustworthy. He also recommends than on your arrival you assess what the worst-case scenario can be and how to mitigate the risk, and work out who your contact person will be in case of an emergency.

“It’s incumbent on freelancers to seek as much training as they can get. Before there was mentoring and they had people they could talk to but now they’re on their own”, said Judith Matloff, a veteran foreign correspondent who teaches a safety training course at the Columbia University School of Journalism.

Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, pointed out that “if you want a good story you have to get close” and getting close often means putting yourself at risk. “It’s like riding a motorcycle”, he said. “The most dangerous moments happen when you first arrive and when you’ve been there for a while”.

From right to left: Vaughan Smith, founder of London’s Frontline Club; Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma; Judith Matloff, veteran foreign correspondent; Sawyer Alberi, chief trainer for Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC); and moderator Liam Stack, a New York Times reporter

After listening to veteran journalists who have a lifelong experience working in conflict zones, I learnt two key lessons. The first is that although risk is unfortunately part and parcel of the job, there’s ways in which risk can be minimized and building support networks is one of them. The second is that it’s time for us to speak up and demand that news organizations should protect freelancers and take responsibility for our safety.