Skip to content

Dangerous work: Freelancing in the age of ISIS


This story was originally published on on July 13, 2015 and re-published on on Sept. 26, 2015.

Smashdig will in three parts look at the future of the freelance war correspondent in the digital age. Today, we publish Part 2.

James Foley was dressed in an orange jumpsuit and forced to kneel somewhere in the Syrian hills. The man known as Jihadi John, and later identified as Mohammed Emwazi, then used a knife to behead him.

Foley, a stringer for Agence France-Presse and online news outlet GlobalPost, was abducted in northern Syria in 2012. The 40-year-old freelancer was beaten and tortured by the Islamic State group before his death became one of the more public since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, according to The New York Times.

In the video from August of last year, which showed the killing of Foley, another American freelance journalist, Steven Sotloff, appeared. The 31-year-old was kidnapped in 2013 and also held by the militants of the Islamic State group.

Only weeks after Foley’s death a new video was released online. It portrayed the beheading of Sotloff, who was dressed in a similar orange jumpsuit as Foley and forced to his knees in the Syrian dessert.

Freelance war correspondents live a dangerous life. In recent times the rise of the Islamic State group has further increased the risks for foreign freelance war reporters in particular regions. The militant group has consistently been using journalists for propaganda purposes as well as to extract money from governments all around the world.

Journalists being held by organizations and regimes for propaganda purposes might not be anything new. But groups such as the Islamic State have become somewhat of a game changer compared to other terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda.

‘‘Al-Qaeda never really represented a territory,’’ says Dr. Arne Kislenko, a professor in the international relations program at the University of Toronto and the Munk School of Global Affairs.

‘‘The appeal was similar with its anti-western ideas. But it never really talked about the caliphate and the Muslim homeland, whereas this organization calls itself a state and has a presence in Iraq and Syria,’’ says Kislenko.

The terror group developed out of al-Qaeda in Iraq in the beginning of the 2000s. Abu Umar al-Baghdadi became a leadership figure of the newly formed group. But after Baghdadi was killed in a joint U.S./Iraqi operation in 2010, the group needed new leadership. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadai took over at the helm and continued the expansion of the group.

In 2013, the Islamic State moved into Syria where they quickly took over a large territory. Around a year later, al-Baghdadai proclaimed himself Caliph Ibrahim and therefore the leader of the caliphate the Islamic State declared in Syria and Iraq.

While the Islamic State has stated its mission is to establish a caliphate, this might not be the group’s only goal.

‘‘There is a sense in which the caliphate is then becoming a territorial base for other possible operations,’’ says Dr. Chris Irwin, a professor in political science at Humber College in Toronto. ‘‘It seems possible that they are very much trying to bait the West into the conflict.’’

During its existence, the Islamic State has been known under many names. ISIS is perhaps the most well known name of the group, referring to the acronym of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Another well-established name is ISIL, meaning the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The members of the Islamic State see the Arabic acronym of the group, Da’ash, as derogatory. Use of the word can earn a person up to 80 lashes, according to an article from the New York Review of Books’ web site.

The Islamic State appeals mostly to young people who do not feel they have the opportunities to pursue their goals and feel they are being marginalized in the West, Kislenko says.

‘‘A lot of people want to belong to some sort of grand narrative and a grand structure,’’ says Kislenko. ‘‘Violence appeals to some people. They buy into a romantic vision of it.’’

Another major tactical difference between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda is the use of violence. While al-Qaeda was responsible for, among other things, the 9/11 attacks, the Islamic State has managed to capitalize on the chaos in the region to prosper. Many of the group’s members and leadership have not seen anything but war for a majority of their lives. It’s therefore a logical construction of how the group operates, says Kislenko.

The group’s violence tactic is, in a sense of the word, ‘‘sexy,’’ Kislenko says, as we in the West are so appalled by seeing, for example, a beheading.

But the Islamic State is not only showing how they kill their hostages. They are also using them as spokespeople.

British journalist John Cantlie, who was abducted at the same time as Foley, appeared in a video propaganda series called ‘‘Lend Me Your Ears.’’ Among the videos is a October 2014 ‘‘report’’ by Cantlie on how the Islamic State group is gaining control of the city of Kobane close to the Turkish-Syrian border.

‘‘ISIS is not only a brutal organization but a clever one too,’’ says Canadian freelance photographer Gavin John. ‘‘Knowing that if they terrorize the journalists who are trying to bring to light their crimes, fewer will be willing to go and they will get away with what they are doing.’’

John says ISIS is winning the propaganda war and that journalists have to fight back. To do so, reporters must change their tactics and how they operate.

‘‘Correspondents need to be aware we are more of a target in war than the combatants now and work with that mindset,’’ says John.

However, freelance reporters are not the only ones running the risk of being abducted and potentially killed by organizations such as the Islamic State group, John says.

‘‘ISIS does not care who you work for, just that you are a journalist. Jim [Foley] and Steven [Sotloff] were both stringers and we know how that ended. Hell, you don’t even have to be a journalist to be used as a propaganda tool. Aid workers and contractors find themselves in the same boat as us,’’ the photographer points out.

While most of the focus on the Islamic State group’s abductions, killings and beheadings seems to be centred on people from western countries, the militant group is doing the exact same thing to the local population.

This can turn out badly for locals who are working as freelancers for western media as well as drivers, fixers and translators. In September of last year, the Islamic State group beheaded Raad al-Azzawi, a cameraman for TV Salaheddin in Iraq. The 37-year-old was abducted and later killed because he refused to work for the organization, according to Reporters Without Borders.

‘‘We have some sort of way out but the local population does not have the opportunity,’’ says Swedish freelancer Urban Hamid. ‘‘They have to stay and can be the subject of threats and violence.’’

‘‘The media is covering a story to a great extent if it happens to a journalist or an aid worker from the West. But at the same time there are a lot of people of Syrian or Iraqi decent who are being murdered and executed and that does not get the same space in media, which I find deplorable.’’

Syria is ranked as the most deadly country for journalists in the world, followed by Iraq and Ukraine, according to data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Seventeen of the 61 journalists killed with a confirmed motive last year lost their lives in Syria. In Iraq and Ukraine that number was five for each country respectively. Syria topped the list in 2013, as well, with 29 out of the total of 70 journalists killed there. It was once again followed by Iraq with 10 deaths.



The news agency has also taken a firm stance in the changing media landscape of what material they will buy from freelancers. AFP no longer accepts material from freelance reporters who have travelled to areas where the news agency won’t send its own staff reporters.

‘‘(…) if someone travels to Syria and offers us images or information when they return, we will not use it,’’ AFP’s global news director, Michele Leridon, wrote in a blog post dated Sept. 17 of last year. ‘‘Freelancers have paid a high price in the Syrian conflict. High enough. We will not encourage people to take that kind of risk.’’

Not only physical risks

Freelance reporters covering war are not only putting themselves at risk physically, they are also facing potential psychological risks.

Several of the reporters abducted and held by the Islamic State group converted to Islam in hopes of getting better treatment, according to a piece in The New York Times detailing the ordeals of the hostages.

In the case of James Foley, the American freelancer converted to Islam and adopted a Muslim name. Foley was given an English version of the Qur’an and spent hours reading it, according to the Times.

At a downtown Toronto screening event of the Peabody award winning documentary ‘‘Under Fire: Journalists in Combat,’’ which focus on the topic of journalism and mental health, Dr. Anthony Feinstein of the Sunnybrook Research Institute says depression is on the rise among journalists covering conflicts such as the one in Syria.

Feinstein, a co-producer of the documentary and a pioneer in the field of mental health and journalism, has been collecting data from journalists covering the Syrian civil war.

‘‘It’s something about the nature of the conflict that has become even tougher for this group to deal with. If you are not with the Syrian government there’s no safe place. There’s no bureau at the end of the day to go to where you can take your flak jacket off,’’ Feinstein says during a Q&A following the screening.

‘‘The threat of getting kidnapped is new as well. ISIS has put out a bounty on the heads of journalists… very large amounts of money… fixers are turning in journalists… they are betraying their loyalty.’’

Despite the risks, Feinstein says there’s a certain type of person who is wired to do war reporting.

‘‘There’s something within the person’s personality. They find this very exhilarating. They can’t do a nine-to-five job. There’s a clearly defined biology that pushes people to take more obvious risks,’’ says Feinstein.

Susan Ormiston, a reporter with the Canadian public broadcaster CBC and an interviewee in the documentary, talked with moderator Alison Smith in a pre-taped interview during the screening event. She says young freelance journalists are facing greater risks than staff reporters when it comes to conflict reporting.

Freelance reporters go to conflict zones to make a name for themselves and oftentimes can’t say no when offered commissioned work, says Ormiston, adding they do not have the same protection as staff.

The CBC reporter says she has always been able to say no. But that’s an option freelance journalists might not feel they have, Ormiston says.

More than ever before journalists – both staff and freelance – are now the target of terror organizations and other military forces. During the Vietnam War, a reporter who found him or herself in trouble could shout that they were a reporter and would be left alone by the fighting forces. Today, that will get the reporters in even worse trouble than they are already in, director Martyn Burke says during the Q&A.

Reporters covering conflict might see and experience terrible things. Some develop depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. But that’s not the case for every single reporter.

‘‘Just because you’ve gone off to war and saw terrible things and experienced terrible things doesn’t mean you are traumatized,’’ says Feinstein.

Ormiston has never been scared or traumatized by her work in conflict zones, she says in the pre-taped interview. The one time she felt scared was when she covered the aftermath of an earthquake and large aftershocks shook the ground.

While Syria and Iraq are the most dangerous countries for journalists, they are not the only countries in which freelance and staff reporters run the risk of being kidnapped and possibly killed.

In Gaza, journalists could also find themselves in situations where different groups might try to abduct them, former freelance reporter Emilie Baujard says in an interview via Skype.

Baujard, who as a freelancer covered the Middle East with a focus on Gaza, Palestine and the West Bank, says she always worked with fixers in Gaza but never in any other place due to the low rates she was paid.

‘‘I had a running joke with my fixer [in Gaza], whenever I went out alone, he was like ‘yeah, if you get abducted, give me a call,’’’ says Baujard.

Today, the 32-year-old is working as a staff war correspondent for RTL, one of the leading private radio stations in France. Baujard is based out of Paris but went back to Gaza to cover the latest war. And during that time Baujard saw the difference between working as a staff reporter and a freelancer.

‘‘I was safer than many other journalists because I knew the place very well. But my radio [station] was calling me on the phone maybe twice a day to ask me where I was, if I needed anything, if I wanted to leave or not,’’ says Baujard who added she doesn’t have to feel stressed about not having enough money to make ends meet now that she’s working as a staff reporter.

‘‘So it was better for me because people were taking care of me in a way even if I was alone.’’

In a time when freelancers are getting paid less and less, Baujard says there’s a big risk of getting abducted because journalists have to cut corners in terms of personal security.

‘‘They don’t know with whom they work because maybe they will find someone who’s cheap and they’ll just say ‘let’s go.’ But these guys might not be reliable and can sell you to other groups, so it’s a very big issue,’’ says Baujard.

‘‘But I think it can happen to staff reporters too because some staff reporters are just careless. For example the four French journalists who were abducted in Syria, most of them were staff. I think in Syria, staff or freelance… you face the same risks every day.’’