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Protecting yourself in the field as a freelance journalist: Tips from experienced freelancers

Journalists can be contracted full time, or journalists can work as freelancers. Full time journalists usually work within one organisation, have a regular income and more basic amenities. Freelance journalists have a flexible work environment, their pay is based on contract deals and agreements and their basic amenities protection is much lower.  Freelance Journalists such as Simone Schlindwein, do not work for one publication, they work as self-employed. She has the freedom to write articles on a variety of subjects and revealing cases that might otherwise be unknown to the public. Simone has reported from conflict zones such as Uganda, South Sudan, DR Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and the Central African Republic. Simone’s work as a conflict correspondent has its challenges such as getting the right insurance cover at a reasonable price. In our interview she gives important insight into the field of a conflict zone freelancer and what she has learnt in her experience of more than 8 years.  

 

One of the main characteristics of investigative journalism is risk. “Local governments can be threatening, suppressing and unwilling to cooperate in order to hide their actions.” Therefore, journalists venture into conflict zones often at high risk levels and must prepare as much as they can for unexpected hurdles and difficult situations. Freelance journalists often choose which area of conflict they would like to report on, regarding how to make a decision on what to report Simone says:  “Sometimes there are events which I have to cover, however, I decide how I risk my life, and what I go into, It’s mine and my editor’s’ responsibility to think ahead.” Personal insurance for freelance journalists doesn’t cover a lot of incidents, or it is very expensive if it provides extensive cover. Personal insurance covers medical assistance, legal assistance, damaged or stolen equipment, these policies can also, offer compensation for disability or accidental death. “It’s very tricky to be insured, even for my British and American colleagues, it’s always the question: “how to be insured?”.  A four-week insurance cover for an extreme zone can cost $208. This is expensive for individuals who do not have a stable income and if their assignment is long-term. Consequently, many freelanders are still traveling to dangerous parts of the world without adequate insurance. In order to combat this Reporters without Borders (RSF) has organised a global insurance policy for freelancers from with EU.

Consequently, some of the best support networks are personal connections you have in the conflict zone. Editors are important persons of contact according to Simone and “logistically my biggest support network is private contacts on the grounds, from rebel leaders to pastors in a church and people in government who are in strategic positions for example the commander of an army, these people I can call ahead and say ‘I’m coming here, is this road safe’?”. Conflict correspondents inform and contact a large network of people from different organisations before venturing into conflict zones. It is important to inform your embassy of your movements so they can monitor your movements and intervene “whenever necessary”. Another useful resource is International NGOs, they can provide useful information about a conflict zone area ahead of time. “I rely on my persona network more than my insurance company. There are 1 million phone numbers I call before I leave.” A million phone numbers may not be the exact figure, nonetheless, it highlights the importance of networking for an investigative journalist.

 

Simone’s biggest advice to freelance journalists is to “start slowly” it’s very important to not rush into a conflict zone. She suggests setting up “a local underground support network” before going to a place you’re investigating. “After 8 years of in the region, I can say I know someone in every village.” Simone first travelled to Congo, Bukavu, in 2004 when the town fell into rebel hands. However, it wasn’t until 2008 that she returned to Africa and begin her long-term reporting work.  

 

Reporting from conflict zones in the 21st century presents new challenges to all journalists. “In cold war times, there were two different settings” explains Simone. Journalists were considered neutral and were less of a target, now journalists are being targeted as an “enemy”. “International media has changed the situation a lot, previously people wrote articles and reports  when they came back from investigating a conflict zone in a safe environment. Now, when I’m on the frontline, I put my findings on social media directly and the whole world can see what’s going on as it’s happening. Social media enables those who want to challenge and stop your reporting to track your location, therefore, it’s very easy to kidnap a journalist and put him or her into a “compromising position.” It’s a growing worry that insurance policies are not reflecting these changes, insurance coverage for kidnapping and ransom is expensive; usually unaffordable by journalists. The New York Times reported that in 2015 groups have managed to collect more than $125 million in revenue from kidnapping since 2008.

 

More and more women are entering the field of conflict zone  journalism. Being a female journalist breaks many social conventions, International Women’s Foundation (IWMF) sheds a light on gender based discrimination faced by female journalists. Of the 977 women surveyed nearly half had been subjected to sexual harassment and more than fifth to physical violence. Simone conveys a different message: “to be a female journalist I’m never really a threat to someone on the ground”. She recalls an incident of going into a rebel territory where roads were blocked fully with men and children armed with spears and guns. “I tried to communicate with them, I thought they would kidnap and kill [us], but they only wanted money for food and water and they were scared away by the fact that [we] were two women. I had to put the money on the ground, where they took it from. If [we] were two men, the entire situation would be complete different and maybe not in a positive way.” Acknowledging the daily challenges which female journalists face she goes on to explaining why being a female journalist is important and the advantages of being a female. “It’s better to be a woman when communicating, especially with other women about delicate topics such as rape, as a man it can sometimes be very difficult”. Simone’s experience provides a hope that gender based barriers are in the process of elimination. She sets out the evident advantages which female journalists have in the field which emphasises the need for more women in the profession of investigative journalism.

 

Working as a freelance investigative journalist can be a daunting prospect, especially due to the lack of amenities available. However, Simone’s guiding tips are a helpful resource for journalists starting their career. She provides insight into avoiding some of the pitfalls and problems which can be encountered when reporting in a conflict zone area. Proper research, a large network on the ground will help you stay safe and take helpful precautions where necessary. As an investigative journalist, it’s important to know the background of the conflict zone and take personal measures of provisions to keep yourself safe at all times.

Mehwisch Khan