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Dangerous work: A Swedish freelancer’s perils

This story was originally published on on July 6, 2015 and re-published on on Sept. 25, 2015.

Smashdig will in three parts look at the future of the freelance war correspondent in the digital age. Today, we publish Part 1.

Urban Hamid’s driver decided to take a shortcut. That turned out to be a bad decision.

In 2004, during the second Iraq war, Swedish freelancer Urban Hamid was on his way from Amman, Jordan to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. The fastest way to travel between the cities was by car, as flying into Iraq was not an option at the time. Hamid was in a hurry to get to the capital and decided to travel alone with a driver. This was something he usually wouldn’t do.

The quickest way to Baghdad was to drive through the city of Fallujah. But just days before Hamid landed in Jordan, Fallujah had become a battleground after three American CIA agents were captured and murdered. This led to a massive bombing raid by American forces. The local resistance force was outraged and threatened to kidnap every foreign journalist and aid worker passing through the city.

Hamid reached an agreement with his driver to drive around Fallujah. This trip would take an extra hour, but was much safer.

Somewhere along the way, the now 57-year-old Hamid fell asleep and his driver decided to drive through the city after all. In Fallujah, the duo was stopped by armed men. Hamid was forcibly taken to one of the city’s suburbs by the men. The freelance journalist was pushed into a factory where he was held together with a couple of missionaries from South Korea.

Hamid was interrogated but the freelance journalist, who has an Iraqi father and a Swedish mother, had a skill that saved him.

‘‘I know Arabic so somehow I managed to plant the thought in one of the guys in the middle-management of the local resistance force that I was part Iraqi and I could appeal to his humanity,’’ says Hamid. ‘‘That led to my release.’’

A few weeks earlier, an American contractor named Nick Berg had been beheaded by a radical Islamist organization as a response to the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.

‘‘I had that in the back of my mind the entire time…that the risks were there,’’ says Hamid.

A shrinking world

Over the last decade, the news industry has undergone major changes. Many news outlets across the globe have declining profits and have cut back on their foreign reporting. This has led to increased reliance on freelance reporters to report stories from parts of the world where most media outlets no longer can afford to staff bureaus.

In an American Journalism Review study from 2011, the journal found the number of reporters covering international events went from 307 in 2003 down to 234 in 2011. Similarly, the 2014 State of the News Media report by Pew Research Centre pointed out that international reporters working for newspapers in the United States declined by 24 per cent between the years of 2003 to 2010.

But news is cheaper to produce now. A single journalist can in the digital age work as both a cameraman and reporter, reducing the need of sending large teams into conflict zones. Digital technology has also opened up the scene to new platforms and services on which consumers can access the news. However, there’s no denying journalists covering war live dangerous lives.

According to data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 13 of the 61 journalists killed last year with a confirmed motive – meaning the death of the journalist was work-related – were freelance, making up 21 per cent of the statistics. In 2013, the number of freelance journalists killed reached 22. The year before 20 freelance journalists were killed, according to the CPJ database.

Dangerous work for little pay

The increased demand for freelance work from conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq has led to freelance reporters taking enormous risks for a relatively small paycheque.

‘‘Short answer is that the odds are stacked against us and we’re in a tough spot to balance financial practicality and personal safety,’’ says Calgary-based freelance photographer Gavin John in an online conversation about freelancing in conflict zones.

‘‘Arab Spring was the rise of the freelance war journalist, and subsequently its own downfall. I was not in the group of ‘trailblazers’ as you would call them from 2011 to 2012. But I had to watch men and women I looked up to and aspired to be killed, murdered, kidnapped and recently beheaded.’’

Lower pay can mean freelance reporters covering conflict must cut corners to make the money last as long as possible.

‘‘I started freelancing full-time about 10 years ago and the trend has become that you get paid less and less for every article,’’ says Hamid, who is now based in Sweden.

In the new media landscape freelance journalists will have to be more creative to make those paycheques last as long as possible. This could potentially affect a reporter’s security. Instead of spending just one day reporting from a specific place, a freelance reporter might now have to stay a couple of extra days to produce more stories and sell enough material to pay for the trip. This will ultimately will make the journalist more known in the community and make it harder to keep a low profile, Hamid says.

Other ways for freelance war correspondents to be creative is to arrange for the interview subjects to come to the reporter’s location rather than having to go to the interviewees. This provides a solution in that the journalist does not have to hire a driver or a fixer that day, the Swedish freelancer says.

Despite trying to be as creative as possible and having to do more with less, Hamid generally does not cut corners when it comes to security.

‘‘I usually say it like this…a little facetious… I’m more particular when it comes to choosing my driver than my life partner. Because it’s really a matter of life and death,’’ says Hamid.

Gavin John is of the same opinion as his Swedish colleague.

‘‘I never ever cut corners when it comes to fixers, drivers, security. If I can’t afford a good driver/fixer/guard then I don’t go. People who do are irresponsible and are more likely to end up in the hands of ISIS than win a World Press [photo award],’’ says the 29-year-old photographer.

‘‘There are far too many stories of people cutting corners and then being sold out by their fixer.’’

But security is expensive. Insurance for reporters in conflict zones can cost thousands of dollars a month. Equipment such as bulletproof vests and helmets are also a large cost to reporters and photographers.

Attempts have been made over the past few years to lower the price of insurance. Reporters Without Borders offers three different plans, called ‘‘solutions,’’ to its members. The plans vary depending on the reporter’s need, but generally 100 per cent of the health care coverage up to a certain cost is covered. In some cases travel cancellations and lost baggage are also covered under the plans.

It is also highly recommended for journalists covering war to have some sort of first aid training.

‘‘Training is key and HEFAT [Hostile Environments & Emergency First Aid Training] courses are the very minimum that I would expect anyone getting into this to have,’’ says John. ‘‘If not, that journalist is a liability and a danger to everyone around them.’’