On September 16th, 2013, journalists Javier Espinosa and Ricardo Garcia Vilanova were traveling in Northern Syria along with four rebel soldiers they had hired for protection. At a checkpoint near the town of Tal-Abyad, armed, bearded men took their passports and whisked the group of six to a makeshift detention facility. Two weeks later, the kidnappers released the four rebel soldiers, but not Javier and Ricardo. The soldiers told concerned colleagues and relatives that the journalists were in the hands of Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, or ISIS, a particularly radical Islamist militia once affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
In the eyes of the kidnappers and much of the world, Javier and Ricardo appear to be quite similar. Both are talented, experienced Spanish journalists. Both had reported from Syria before and were familiar with the risks of reporting from the country. There is one major difference, however, between the two men. Javier is a staff reporter. Ricardo, on the other hand, is a freelancer. It’s a distinction that shouldn’t really matter, but it does.
A dirty little secret of news publishing is that most of the pictures and videos we see on the front pages of our newspapers and magazines are taken by freelancers. The digital disruption of print news media has led to a staggering number of cuts in journalism jobs. With limited resources, publishers’ reliance on freelancers is at an all-time high. Working with freelancers has huge economic advantages, especially in conflict zones. Publishers don’t have to pay for salaries, travel expenses, insurance, lodging, safety equipment, first-aid or hostile environment training. On occasion, some publishers do pay for accommodations or expenses, but this is rare. Generally, they buy or license the content when they need it on an a-la-carte basis without any add-ons or advance commitment.
Publishers reap all the rewards of working with freelancers, but assume none of the risks. If something terrible happens at any point leading up to, or following the transaction, the publisher bears no responsibility.
If a camera gets stolen or broken, a plane is missed, or someone else gets to the story first, the freelancer absorbs the costs. If a freelancers get hit by a bus or struck by a rocket, they’re on their own. While some media companies do provide some form of insurance and safety equipment for freelancers, they are the exception rather than the rule.
So what exactly happens when things go wrong for freelancers? The ongoing Syrian civil war has provided far too many examples.
Take the case of Ali Mustafa, a Canadian freelance photographer. Ali’s big break came in Cairo on August 14th, 2013, when he found himself holed up inside the Rabaa mosque with his Nikon D9 camera. Nobody except an aspiring freelance journalist would have wanted to be there that day. Egyptian security forces raided the mosque, killing more than 500 civilians in cold blood. Ali witnessed the massacre from beginning to end. His photographs of bodies piled one on top of the other on the floor of the mosque caught the attention of SIPA and the European Pressphoto Association, two prominent French photo agencies. They bought Ali’s photos and offered him a freelance contract. He was elated.
The following week, his camera was confiscated at an Egyptian army checkpoint. He returned to his native Toronto to save up money for a new one. Back home, his closest friends said he had changed. His demeanor was more serious; he complained of insomnia, nightmares, and survivor’s guilt. Sensing his desperation to get back to the Middle East, his friends initiated a fundraising campaign to buy him a plane ticket and replacement camera.
Thanks to his friends, in early February, he was back in business with a sparkling, new Nikon, on his way to Syria. Ali crossed the border from Turkey and had the good (journalistic) fortune of being the only Western journalist in Hadariya, a rebel-controlled neighborhood of Aleppo. Thanks to his exclusive access, he sold photos by the dozen to EPA and SIPA, which were splashed on the front pages of the Guardian and the Times of London. On March 9th, a government helicopter dropped a barrel bomb on a residential building. According to witnesses, Ali went into the destroyed building with some young activists to try and rescue survivors. Suddenly, the chopper swooped back around and dropped another bomb. Ali’s luck had ran out. At the age of 29, on his second professional reporting trip, he was killed alongside seven Syrians.
Nobody called Ali’s family to notify them of his death. His sister found out through a photo uploaded by an activist on Facebook. His face was charred, but unmistakably his. Ali had no liability or life insurance policy when he was killed. The Turkish and Qatari Red Crescents recovered the corpse and transported it back to Turkey. His mother, who runs a small cleaning service, paid the Canadian government 6500 Canadian dollars to coordinate the repatriation, plus another 8000 for a flight, and 7000 for the funeral. When all was said and done, Ali’s family was more than 20,000 dollars in debt. The photo agencies, on the other hand, incurred zero costs. They did not offer the Mustafa family a single penny. They did not offer their condolences or even acknowledge Ali’s death. Miraculously, Ali’s camera had survived the blast and was sent home with his body. It was covered with blood. The memory card was missing.
Syria is the most dangerous place on Earth right now to work as a journalist. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 65 journalists have been killed since the conflict began. The vast majority are freelancers. Sometimes they get caught in the crossfire like Ali. Other times they are executed for no apparent reason. Yasser Faisal al Jumaili, an Iraqi freelance cameraman who worked for Reuters and Al Jazeera among other outlets, was shot in the head in Idlib by ISIS thugs while on assignment for a Spanish media outlet. The company never publicly acknowledged a relationship with its freelancer for fear of reprisal. Yasser left behind a wife, three children and lots of bills to pay.
It’s not just foreign journalists who are under threat. As less professional Western journalists make the perilous journey into Syria, an increasing number of young and desperate Syrians are filling the void. Molhelm Barakat was trying to make ends meet in a defunct Syrian economy when he began selling photographs to Reuters in May of 2013. The wire service bought dozens of photos, but provided him no war-zone training, protective gear, or insurance coverage. Molhelm was killed on December 20th, 2013 while covering a battle over an Aleppo hospital. His actual age at the time of his death has been difficult to confirm. He was either 17 or 18 years old.
As the fog of war continues to descend over Syria, kidnapping has quietly turned into a cottage industry. An assortment of rebel units, pro-government gangs known as Shabiha, al Qaeda affiliated groups like ISIS, and the Syrian army all have been implicated in the disappearances of more than 80 journalists. To make matters more complicated, each of these master groups has splintered into scores of loosely affiliated sub-groups. In August 2012, Austin Tice was nabbed on his first professional freelance reporting trip while stringing for the Washington Post, seemingly under the protection of the Free Syria Army. In November 2012, James Foley, a Global Post video journalist, disappeared without a trace just 10 kilometers from the Turkish border. Despite efforts by their families and, in the case of James, by the Global Post, both men, sadly, are still missing. In the early days of the war, rebel forces protected journalists in exchange for getting their side of the story out. Now, as resources run low, and allegiances become murkier, more and more journalists are disappearing. Armed with just notebooks and cameras, they make for easy targets.
I got to know video journalist and photographer Ricardo Garcia Vilanova after he joined our freelance video journalism platform, Storyhunter in 2012. He produced and uploaded two videos on our website from Syria that were commissioned by our partner, Yahoo. They were both fascinating portraits of regular Syrians doing heroic things during the Civil War. One profiled a protest sketch artist, the other provided a window into the life of a Syrian citizen journalist. I chatted with Ricardo by phone or email on numerous occasions throughout his reporting from Syria. He had actually lost count of the number of trips he had made into the country since they were so numerous. Still, I always tried to get a sense of what kind of risks he was taking. Our last communication was on September 12th, four days before he was kidnapped. He sent me a pitch for a video report on the plight of a Syrian doctor. I followed up by email to learn more. I tried to contact him multiple times, but got nothing back. After a month of trying with no response, I knew in my heart that something bad had happened, but wasn’t able to confirm it until December.
Ricardo is the quintessential professional freelance war reporter. His CV reads like a laundry list of top media companies. Name your favorite newspaper, magazine, or network. Chances are they’ve published his work. Ricardo was one of the few reporters to cover nearly the entire Libya conflict, following the front line from Bengazi to Tripoli. On one of the brief breaks that he took from work to return home to his native Barcelona to visit his parents, Ricardo learned that his work was chosen to be exhibited in a prestigious NYC gallery. They invited him to attend a reception in his honor. At the same time, the city of Misrata had fallen under siege by Qaddafi’s forces. For Ricardo, it was a no-brainer. He headed straight back to Libya.
Like most freelancers, Ricardo went into war zones sans insurance. The reason has more to do with cold, hard economics than with bravado. Photos rarely sell for the price of a train ticket. Videos rarely sell for more than the cost of a plane ticket. Trusted insurance policies that cover death, terrorism, kidnapping, extortion, etc. cost thousands of dollars over the course of a year. For the majority of freelancers who are living hand to mouth, such policies are simply unaffordable.
The flip side of this equation is that if the stars do align and a freelancer manages to secure exclusive access to a far-flung civil war somewhere, he/she can sell stories by the dozen and not have to worry about getting paid work for a while. Unlike staff reporters, whose pay is fixed, freelancers are incentivized economically to take greater risks. As in any open marketplace, when there’s scarcity and demand, the price of the content generally rises. Lingering in the back of every freelancer’s mind is the potential for those depressing, dry months at home where there’s no work. Do I go to the front lines now or risk waiting tables this summer? Ironically, for freelancers determined to make a living doing what they love, sometimes, going to a war zone feels like the best survival strategy.
Even for Ricardo, an Emmy-nominated, award-winning, veteran war correspondent, making ends meet as a freelancer was a challenge. He worked constantly during the Arab Spring, bouncing from conflict to conflict. It was in Libya that he first teamed up with Javier Espinosa, a talented staff writer for El Mundo. They didn’t report for the same outlets, but traveled and worked together to cut costs, share information, and stay safe. Libya was a nasty place for journalists, and an inflection point for journalist killings and kidnappings. Ricardo ended up producing some videos for CNN from Misrata, winning him a Rory Peck award (named after a freelance cameraman killed in a Moscow street gunfight during the October 1993 constitutional crisis). Javier reported and analyzed the war for his loyal readership in Spain, scribing countless articles. They survived a brutal war in which, tragically, many other great, experienced journalists perished.
We can only imagine the terror Javier and Ricardo felt once they realized they had become hostages. However, as a staff journalist, Javier Espinosa at least had some peace of mind. He knew that that his family, wife and kids, would continue to receive his full salary and benefits from El Mundo, which they did. Ricardo, on the other hand, did not have a company to cover him. As the detention dragged on, Ricardo’s financial obligations increased. Someone still had to make payments on his home in Barcelona, studio rent, and social security. Someone still would have to pay for medical treatment, or in the worst possible outcome, a funeral. In addition to worrying deeply about the safety of their only child, his parents, who are elderly and retired, were left responsible for this unexpected financial burden.
As days turned into months, close friends and colleagues planned a crowd-funding campaign to make sure Ricardo’s parents would be able to pay his debts, and to ensure funding for medical and psychological treatment if necessary. They couldn’t go public with the campaign because there was a deal in the works between the Spanish government and the kidnappers. If the kidnappers got word of any funding, they might reconsider how they negotiated. Ricardo’s parents waited anxiously. In the meantime, the bills kept piling up.
In such situations, the pain and anguish felt by journalists and their families should not be compounded by economic anxieties. In what other industry does a company not bear any responsibility if a contractor loses a life, limb, or their own freedom? Admittedly, I am also to blame. Why was I so focused on the stories instead of asking Ricardo if he had insurance? How could our company benefit from Ricardo’s stories and not substantially cover his costs while he sat in a miserable cell somewhere in Syria? We felt like we had to do something to help, but as a young start-up all we could do was make a small contribution to the crowd-funding campaign and help promote it.
Syria should be a harsh wake-up-call for our industry. The problems, however, are pandemic. Journalists are repressed, abused, kidnapped, and killed with impunity in Mexico, Russia, Pakistan, and China, just to name a few particularly repressive environments. In the future, more and more international news gathering will be done by freelancers. Leveraging the freelance economy can and should be a win-win for all, but media companies, wire services, and agencies are not operating ethically towards the human beings they depend on to supply them their content. Often times, they act as uninterested clearinghouses with little or no accountability when things go sideways. Media companies who rely on the third parties for content often don’t even have any interactions with the freelancers, which makes it easier for them to diffuse responsibility.
I believe the most viable solution right now is to create a freelance insurance policy that is affordable and meets the needs of journalists in war zones. If the price of insurance doesn’t budge, media companies and wire services should have a moral responsibility to either share a part of the costs or not purchase freelancers’ content from war zones. Buying content from uninsured freelancers in war zones should be stigmatized in our industry just like buying coffee beans from companies that don’t pay farmers a living wage. It’s time to set up fair-trade practices for journalism, too.
In the absence of an independent media watchdog, I recognize this will be very difficult to enforce across the industry, especially at an international level. The responsibility will ultimately lie with the buyers of the content and organizations like ours. However, freelancers can help by simply inquiring about company obligations BEFORE embarking on a risky reporting trip. Policies need to be made clear. Freelancers should not be afraid to ask their editor that awkward, but crucial question: “What would happen to me if I got kidnapped or killed on the job?” It’s better to know than make assumptions. Then, ideally, freelancers will refuse to work with bad actors (i.e. publishers who accept work from uninsured freelancers in Syria) and thereby exert pressure on them to change. Of course, there will always be someone younger and a less risk-averse freelancer willing to seize an opportunity.
At Storyhunter, we are changing the way we work with freelancers in conflict areas. From now on, life, kidnapping, and injury insurance will be a mandatory requirement for our journalists who report from conflict zones on our platform. In conjunction with journalist advocacy groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Rory Peck Trust, we will create and regularly update a list of countries and regions we deem to be too dangerous to work in without insurance. We are also advocating on behalf of our community for insurance companies to design cheaper plans that suit the specific needs of freelance journalists.
After 194 days in captivity, Ricardo and Javier were released. The details of how they got out have not been publicized to avoid reinforcing negative behaviors. The crowd-funding campaign that was previously put on hold launched shortly thereafter, with Ricardo’s blessing, and raised more than 30,000 Euros. Ricardo will use the funds to cover all the debts he incurred while in captivity. It will also buy him a new camera and lenses, which did not make it back with him on the flight home to Spain.
We are beyond relieved to have both Javier and Ricardo back. We’re truly grateful for the generosity of those who donated to Ricardo’s cause. But crowd-funding campaigns for kidnapped freelancers are no substitute for insurance and risk management policies. Brave freelancers will continue to sojourn into war zones to report on human rights violations. Ironically, as an industry, we have been neglecting the freelancers’ own basic human rights. For those freelancers who have been lost. For those who are still missing. And for those who are planning their next trip to Syria, we call on every media organization to implement new policies towards the freelancers whose photos and videos keep them in business.