Freelance journalists cover global hot spots

The last time Achilleas Zavallis packed his camera gear for Syria, he changed his airline ticket twice within 48 hours because he couldn’t make up his mind whether he should go to a country considered the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. His stomach was tied “in a million knots,” he recalled, as it is every time he travels to a war zone.

A photographer based in Greece, Zavallis is a freelance journalist. When he goes into danger, it is nearly always “on spec,” freelance parlance for covering a story and then trying to find someone to publish his work.

But in November 2013, after changing his ticket and second-guessing his motives and re-assessing the risks, Zavallis went anyway, traveling to northern Syria to document the country’s Christian minority. He stayed for about two weeks. A photo essay from the trip was published three months later in the National, an English-language publication in Abu Dhabi.

“I believe that the story must be told,” Zavallis said, “so that no one can come after 100 years and say that in Syria nothing happened and that no one died.”

At least 72 journalists have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has ranked Syria the most dangerous country in the world to report. Nearly half of those killed were freelancers, journalists who were not working as staff members for any media organization at the time of their deaths. Two of the most recent (and highly publicized) deaths were those of Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were beheaded by the Islamic State. Videos of their murders were released on social media.

More than 80 journalists have been abducted in Syria since 2011, and about 20 were still missing as of August 2014, according to New York-based CPJ. The majority are freelancers and are believed to be held by the Islamic State, a radical militant group that has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq, brutally targeting people based on ethnic and religious affiliation. The United States has launched air strikes on the group and is sending American soldiers back to Iraq to support Iraqi troops.

With dwindling budgets to cover foreign news and the high costs of sending reporters and photojournalists to war zones, news organizations are increasingly relying on freelancers to cover some of the most dangerous stories in the world. Freelance journalists pay for their own equipment (a good bullet-proof vest costs more than $500), their travel and lodging. They pay for fixers and drivers, and all of the costs associated with reporting the news. Some are lucky to get $200 for a story that takes days to report or document. When they get injured, they are responsible for their own medical care. Only the biggest news organizations provide medical insurance to freelancers on contract.

When Palestinian photojournalist Ahmed Deeb was hit in the back by a sniper bullet in Aleppo in 2012 while photographing clashes between the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Regime Forces, he paid for his own treatment.

“When I went to Aleppo in first time on 2012, I did not have any assignment,” said. Deeb, who is based in Istanbul and has documented the conflicts in Gaza, Egypt and Syria. “I just was photographing and sending the photos to some wire agencies. Some times they buy my photos, and some times they don’t take any of my photos, which means that my work for that day went vain. That happened many times with me.”

In September, Agence France-Presse announced that it would no longer accept work from freelance journalists in Syria. In a blog post explaining AFP’s position, global news director Michèle Léridon wrote that the freelance journalists had paid too high a price already. “We will not encourage people to take that kind of risk,” she said. Foley, one of the American journalists who was beheaded, had been a contributor to AFP before his capture.

Some freelancers like American photojournalist Holly Pickett welcomed the decision.  “If AFP is not willing to share the responsibility and risk of the freelancer being there, then they shouldn’t take content from there,” said Picket, who recently paid her own travel to Afghanistan, then picked up work documenting stories at a war trauma hospital in Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province.

Others said the decision did nothing to help photographers in other conflict zones.

The vast majority of AFP photographers in the Middle East are freelancers earning very little money, with few rights, said Ayman Oghanna, a freelance photojournalist based in Istanbul.

“Restricting work is not the answer,” said Oghanna, whose work has appeared in various publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and Al Jazeera America. “Enabling professional freelancers to work with the resources and support what they need to work safely is. Freelancers need to know that the organizations they are reporting for have their backs.”

Oghanna is a founding member of the Frontline Freelance Registry, a grassroots group for freelancers that advocates on behalf of its members, on issues from pay to the need for medical insurance.

In a white paper published by London’s Frontline Club in conjunction with the launch of the Freelance Registry, Vaughan Smith, a long-time freelance journalist and founder of the club, wrote that it was time to correct the negative assumptions about freelance journalists.

“In truth their content is now indispensable,” he wrote in the introduction to the report, which called for more hostile environment training, contingency plans when things go wrong and advice on the best forms of security. “In fact, freelance operators have become, on the whole, more experienced in covering conflicts than their employed colleagues. As way of example, freelance content dominates international news coverage of Syria. Without freelancers, reports would be reliant on material from activists, fighters and other local observers.”

The registry, which was launched in June 2013, had 495 members at the beginning of November, according to one of its other founders, Balint Szlanko, who wrote an article about the Syrian Christians for Denmark’s VICE journalism Web site that was illustrated with photos from Zavallis.

“Unsurprisingly, for most of our members the most pressing issue is pay,” he said. “Not necessarily the amount that they are paid. This also includes things like prompt payment.”

Szlanko said decisions like AFP’s avoid addressing the real issue. “The problem here specifically is that many Western news-gatherers ill not currently work with freelancers if they feel that the story is too dangerous precisely because they don’t want to be held responsible – not necessarily legally but morally – if something goes wrong,” he said.

Zavallis was clear about this: He chooses to go. He assumes the risks. But it doesn’t mean he absolves the news organizations that barter for his work. He called it the “email marathon” that happens after a journalist gets back with photos or a story from a conflict zone. He often deals with inexperienced editors who have no idea of the costs or the risks he’s taken for the story. They offer him “ridiculously low pay,” he said.

“But you can’t say anything ‘cause the story is done,” he said. “You feel that it’s important to be out there for people to read and you need to make back some of the money you spent going in the first place. There are even editors and photo desks that will contact you asking for permission to run your work with out any pay, offering as an excuse that either the magazine, Web site, newspaper is small and can’t afford the cost or that the exposure you will get by their publication will help you get more offers down the road.”

 Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the most recent print edition of GJR.