Don’t Forget Rasool: In international reporting, local journalists often suffer

When two journalists from VICE, Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, were arrested with Iraqi journalist Mohammed Ismael Rasool on August 28, a familiar scenario unfolded. A week later, Hanrahan and Pendlebury were released following a media flurry and worldwide attention. Still behind bars is Rasool, an experienced journalist and translator who had worked extensively in the Middle East for the Associated Press, Al-Jazeera, and VICE.

These disparate outcomes highlight the often-dire plight of local journalists and so-called “fixers” who are hired by international correspondents. When governments crack down, it’s the local journalists who often end up spending extended time in jail.

Rasool was acting as a fixer for VICE at the time of his arrest. But the term, often used to describe a local national with responsibilities such as booking interviews or driving a car for an international reporter, is not always accurate–given the increasing role local journalists play in the newsgathering process.

“Local journalists are doing work foreign correspondents were once asked to do and they are doing just as good of a job,” said Kathy Gannon, the Associated Press’ special regional correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan who has covered the region for the AP as a correspondent and bureau chief since 1988. In an interview for this blog she said, “If there are repercussions, it will be much more severe for the local journalist. They will be held longer and their home government can punish them for any negative story. Still, there is a desire [from outlets] to get the story. It’s a real dilemma that news organizations deal with.”

Newsrooms increasingly rely on local journalists as foreign bureaus shut down and reporting from conflict areas grows more and more dangerous. When international reporters do travel to dangerous areas, they rely on local journalists and fixers to navigate unfamiliar territories safely.

Some news organizations have recently stepped up to the challenge. Nearly 70 of them have signed the Global Safety Principles and Practices, a set of guidelines outlining responsibilities for news organizations in response to the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Among provisions focused on dangerous assignments:

  • Editors and news organizations recognize that local journalists and freelancers, including photographers and videographers, play an increasingly vital role in international coverage, particularly on dangerous stories.
  • Editors and news organizations should show the same concern for the welfare of local journalists and freelancers that they do for staffers.

Fixers are on the frontlines when things go wrong. Sotloff’s fixer, Yosef Abobaker, who was kidnapped with him, was released 12 days later and was told by the militant group Islamic State, “If we hear you work with journalist again, we will kill you for sure.” Before working with Sotloff, Abobaker had 18 months of experience working with at least 100 other journalists.

Others were not as lucky. In 2003, CPJ began collecting data on media workers who were killed while working. Since then, 93 have been killed.

It is not uncommon for international reporters to be released, while local journalists remain in prison. Mahmoud Abou Zeid, or “Shawkan,” a freelance photographer, was detained on August 14, 2013, while covering clashes between Egyptian security forces and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi.

In a letter from Tora prison, he wrote on his 600th day behind bars: “I was arrested along with fellow freelance French photojournalist Louis Jammes and American journalist Mike Giglio. Our group was then divided. Jammes and Giglio were released after just two hours. Those of us remaining were kept at the Cairo Stadium for the rest of the day and were transferred to a police station later. My hands were still tied behind my back–my wrists bleeding from the tightness of the plastic ligature. I can still see the scars.”

In September 2015, after over two years of pretrial detention, Shawkan’s case was finally referred to a Cairo criminal court. The trial is scheduled to begin on December 12.

High-profile imprisonments, like those of the Al-Jazeera journalists and Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, and the murders of Foley and Sotloff, have brought international attention to the dangers international correspondents face. If governments and extremists now imprison or kill journalists that once enjoyed a safer and less hostile environment, imagine the terrain for those who cannot flee or lack the support of major news organizations.

Today, the international newsgathering process hinges on the safety and wellbeing of local journalists and fixers. We cannot forget Rasool, Shawkan, or any of the hundreds of local journalists who are imprisoned and killed each year. Without them, we would not have international news of the same depth and accuracy.

In an article for VICE, Hanrahan described the moment when he and Pendlebury were forced to leave Rasool behind:

“I wrapped my arms around Rasool and promised him that no matter what, we would fight until he was released. Phil did the same.

“‘Get me out of here guys,’ Rasool said as we were led away.”