In revolt, freelancers establish Frontline Freelance Register

Finally, there is an organization for freelancers run by freelancers, and it could not come at a more opportune time. As anyone who has been one knows, being a freelance conflict reporter, in particular, can be tricky business.

More than 20 years ago, I was an accredited CBS News radio stringer with several years of experience covering the guerrilla war and related events in El Salvador. In 1991, now from CBS’ office in the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus, I called CBS headquarters in New York and told my radio producers that I was planning on going with Kurdish rebels into northern Iraq during the post-Gulf War uprisings against Saddam Hussein.

“Television wants to talk to you,” the radio producer said. A television producer got on the phone. “There’s a high-8 camera in the office,” she said, referring to a Sony handheld “high” 8 Millimeter camera. “We’d like you to take it with you,” she added, “on a right-of-first-refusal basis.”

In other words, CBS News wanted me to take their camera into the war zone at my own risk without either any insurance, or any guarantee of compensation, with the agreement that CBS News would have the right to be the first news outlet to review any footage I might gather. Then, if they wanted to use it, we could negotiate a price.

More than a month later–after I had spent more than two weeks in prison–CBS News ran several pieces of combat and related footage that I sent from Iraq, and we negotiated, post-publication, a fee of US$12,000. I gave half of it to the mother of my close colleague, Gad Gross, who was killed in Kirkuk.

The news industry has only gotten stingier since, and the treatment of freelancers, if anything, has only gotten worse. At the same time, widespread layoffs of staff journalists mean that more freelance journalists are on the front lines of gathering news from Taksim Square in Istanbul to Tornado Alley in the American Midwest.

The Frontline Freelance Register (FFR) was launched last week in London “to support the physical and mental well-being of freelance journalists,” reads the “About Us” page on Freelancers “also lack organized representation, often leaving them at the mercy of powerful media groups,” the page goes on. FFR says it aims to help freelancers by providing both “a forum” and “a representative body.”

FFR is a project of the Frontline Club run by Vaughan Smith, a veteran freelance journalist and cameraman and benefactor. Smith established the Frontline Club in 2003 in memory of no less than nine of his late colleagues of the now-defunct Frontline News Television agency who each died in the field pursuing their work. (One of them, Smith’s close friend, Roddy Scott, died in 2002 covering the Chechen guerrilla war in Russia. Scott was killed by a bullet that pierced the view-finder of his camera before reaching his eye.)

“Freelancers have a surprising potential to collaborate and organize themselves to improve their collective safety and there is [a] long-established freelance practice in mentoring,” Smith wrote in an essay posted last week with other pieces when FFR was launched. “Freelancers lack resources but the very many serious ones have no lack of integrity or commitment.”

His colleagues who support the register and its goals seem to agree. Today, freelancers are covering dangerous stories “without financial, logistical and institutional support,” wrote three freelance journalists, Aris Roussinos, Ayman Oghanna, and Emma Beals, each of whom also sits on the Frontline Freelance Register initial governing committee.

Freelance journalists “currently working in conflict or foreign reporting” can join the register free of charge as long as they subscribe to the FFR’s code of conduct. The code covers both safety and ethics, saying members “are obligated to demonstrate a professional approach to news safety whilst promoting the highest ethical standards in journalism.”

The FFR is clearly not oriented toward local freelance journalists. One benefit for international journalists, however, is that the register helps them advertise their services by allowing them to post a short biography detailing their skills, accomplishments, and experience.

Although it is just getting off the ground, one long-term goal of the Frontline Freelance Register is to be able to help freelancers obtain both hostile environment training and insurance when on dangerous assignments, and also try to limit the liability fears that often deter news organizations from using freelancers.

“[I]n the last few years the increasing risk to journalists in the field (both staff and freelance) has forced news organisations to rethink when and why to send people into war zones,” wrote Colin Pereira, Head of High Risk for 1st Option Safety, in one of the essays released with FFR’s launch.

The high price of insurance remains a major obstacle. But the insurance industry is also changing. “The insurance markets are currently extremely competitive and with brokers and underwriters keen to win new business, the appetite for launching a freelance insurance scheme is there,” added Pereira.

No one expects doing something like arranging affordable insurance programs for freelancers to be easy, but the Frontline Freelance Register at least plans to try.

“The freelance community is here to stay and there has been a general shortfall of leadership and guidance to them from the news industry. Freelancers have delivered relatively inexpensive material to news organizations,” wrote Smith. “We can surely now collaborate to do more to unlock better insurance options and increase the availability of training to freelancers.”