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Dangerous work: A Swedish freelancer’s survival plan

This story was originally published on on July 20, 2015 and re-published on on Sept. 27, 2015

Smashdig will in three parts look at the future of the freelance war correspondent in the digital age. Today, we’re publishing Part 3.

When  Cecilia Burman went to Mexico in 2011 she and her colleague worked out a plan to stay as safe as possible.

‘‘We didn’t tell anyone that we were journalists. We agreed on that since Mexico is one of the deadliest countries to work in as a journalist, especially for local reporters. And we did not really know how dangerous it was for foreign reporters,’’ says Burman, a Swedish freelancer and blogger.

Over the past few years, Syria and Iraq have been the most dangerous countries for freelance journalists. But Mexico remains deadly as well.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 31 journalists have been killed where the motives have been confirmed – with an extra 41 reporters where the motive is still unknown – since the organization started collecting its data.

The country’s struggle with the ongoing drug war has seen a large number of people from the local population being killed or completely disappeared. Those journalists who dare to report this story live a dangerous life with the constant threat of being kidnapped or even killed looming overhead.

Burman and her colleague decided to say they were working with a culture project. The duo hired a driver whom they did not tell they were journalists and lived at an artist hacienda.

The Swedish freelancer’s partner had been in Mexico before and established a few sources, which both of them could trust once they entered the country to report about young Mexican women that had been killed as part of the ongoing drug war.

The story was bought by the news division of Swedish TV4 after Burman and her colleague had arrived back in Sweden. Burman says she would have appreciated having a tighter relationship with the news outlet to which she ultimately sold the story.

‘‘We went knowing the risks, but there is a certain cynicism at many media outlets. That’s a form of insecurity, not knowing if you are going to be able to sell the material. If they are saying that they will look at the material when we get home and we are taking all the risk… that’s to put the full responsibility on us. And if we are able to produce something good they’ll buy it,’’ Burman says.

The Swedish freelancer says she thinks this can lead to an even bigger gap in international reporting in the future.

‘‘Those suffering from this is not primarily Swedish freelancers but the people living in countries where democracy and freedom of expression are not a given. I felt our presence, that we showed the stories of these women were worth telling, gave them some kind of restitution. So it’s also a question about empathy, which we risk loosing if we’re not covering these countries,’’ Burman says.

Canadian freelancer Gavin John has also experienced this cynicism.

Many media organizations are happy to accept work from freelancers but without risking any liability, John says. He’s been told that when overseas he is representing himself and if anything happens then that’s ‘‘too bad.’’

Media organizations need to ‘‘grow a pair’’ and pay for more work that involves photographers and reporters being in situations where they could see people die and being captured, John adds.

At the same time, the Quebecor Media stringer knows he’s part of the problem. But he is balancing a fine line.

‘‘I should say ‘no, I need to be paid more’ to the agencies who want my work. But I have very little leverage because there is always some 23-year-old with a DSLR [camera] that would happily go off to Iraq in my place,’’ says John.

Despite all the risks facing freelance reporters there are several measures these journalists can take to improve their safety.

Journalists can work together to split their costs for drivers, fixers and translators, Swedish freelancer Urban Hamid says. But the journalist emphasized the importance of finding a reporter who can be trusted and has a certain amount of experience.

If the reporter works with someone who fits this description this can lead to an increase in the journalists’ personal security, Hamid says.

Journalists and photographers covering conflicts are often seen as ‘‘glory boys’’ – people who only are working for the fame and thrill of covering war – by others in the industry, John says. But he agrees with Hamid that collaboration improves security for reporters.

‘‘We take care of our own very well. It’s a very tight and secretive group of people, and aren’t very warm to outsiders for the most part. But once you prove you belong beside them they will go to hell and back for you,’’ says John.

‘‘I’ve been helped by everyone from Fox News to RT to The New York Times to Magnum. There are no party lines in a trench and when it comes to safety that could possibly save your life.’’

What freelancers can do to be safe

A number of organizations have been set up to help freelance reporters to get to know each other and be knowledgeable of who is covering what. One example of this is the digital Frontline Freelance Register. The register lists reporters from all across the world who are covering conflict. The list is open to reporters and photographers who are actively working.

On its web site, the Frontline Freelance Register writes the list is created for freelancers by freelancers to ‘‘support the physical and mental wellbeing of freelance journalists.’’ All freelancers signing up for the registry must agree to uphold the code of conduct, which, according to the site, shows the freelancers’ commitment to being professional while working in the field.

The FFR launched in June 2013. Today, the registry has close to 500 members, according to a search within the FFR.

The Frontline Freelance Register helps freelancers connect with each other and news organizations. Photo:

A typical profile of a freelancer in the registry includes a short bio, email and web site addresses, Twitter handles, primary and secondary skills as well as languages.

Both John and French journalist Emilie Baujard (from part 2) are members of the FFR and the registry was used as a tool to find their contact information to request interviews for this article series.

‘‘We [the community] know what works best for us and have set up organizations to ensure we’re all on the same page. FFR is a good example,’’ says John.

Baujard says there could be more ways to ensure the safety of freelancer. The radio reporter mentioned opportunities to rent equipment such as bulletproof vests at a low price would be helpful for freelancers.

Another way would be lower insurance rates, says Baujard who herself was not insured while working as a freelancer before becoming a staff reporter.

Earlier this year, more than 30 news organizations and press freedom groups signed a document of principles outlining 14 points to improve safety for freelance journalists covering conflict. The points split the responsibility between the reporters and the media companies commissioning their work.

The voluntary guidelines are published on the web site of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. It states news outlets should provide freelancers with the same type of safety training and assistance in the event of a kidnapping as they do their staff.

But no matter how much security precautions a freelance war correspondent takes, this type of work will continue to be dangerous and in some cases deadly. In addition, the pay rates keep posing a problem for freelancers who are trying to make a living in the digital media age.

For these reasons, Burman has stopped working in conflict zones.

‘‘It’s not worth it anymore. The pay is too low and it’s hard to sell your material,’’ says Burman.

John has been freelancing professionally since 2011. In a January interview, he says he’s going back to Iraq. The trip is his second to the country.

‘‘I was there in 2010-ish. And I loved it. The people of Iraq are kind and gentle and were [an] important part in my commitment to my career direction,’’ says John.

But the Calgary-based freelancer knows the risks of going to a conflict zone.

‘‘[I] only intend on spending no more than two days on the front lines. Which might be 1.8 days too much,’’ says John. ‘‘I have yet to be in active combat, which will be Iraq.’’

‘‘Knowledge is your greatest ally. That and your gut feeling.’’