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AFP photographer Diptendu Dutta works during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19 in Siliguri, India, on April 10, 2020. Freelance journalists have faced risks to their lives and livelihoods amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP)

Freelance journalists risk lives and livelihoods amid COVID-19 pandemic

By Courtney C. Radsch/CPJ Advocacy Director on April 23, 2020 11:15 AM ET

Johannesburg-based freelance journalist Yeshiel Panchia was on his way to cover a story about a local developer who had found a way to keep his wage laborers employed during South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown by letting them live on the construction site so that they didn’t have to leave “home” in contravention of strict rules.

As Panchia was leaving, he was stopped by police, who had been tipped off about the project.

“She [the cop] threatened me with arrest and told me that media was not a fucking essential service and was getting in my face, but a senior colleague basically told her it was okay, the paperwork's in order, like, let's go,” he said. “They were all armed with rubber bullets, they had drawn weapons, non-lethal weapons.”

He was lucky he had his press card, a permit, and a letter from a commissioning editor, the three documents that journalists are required to carry in South Africa, where they’re classified as essential workers and thus exempt from COVID-19 movement restrictions.

In most of the world, journalists are considered essential, as CPJ has documented, allowing them the freedom to move around and report on the pandemic. But freelancers who spoke with CPJ said they often subsist in a netherworld in which they lack official credentials and work on spec, meaning that they cannot prove they are journalists. And many lack access to the vital personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to cover COVID-19 safely. At the same time, a sharp drop in advertising revenue amid the global economic shutdown has led to outlets postponing or cancelling assignments, further imperiling freelancers’ incomes, CPJ found in interviews with freelancers and advocacy groups.

Elisabetta Zavoli told CPJ that she used to travel each week from her small hometown in northern Italy to Milan, where she did most of her work as a freelance photojournalist. But with strict quarantine measures in effect throughout Italy she is unable to leave her home even though journalists are considered essential workers.

“If I don’t get assignments from media outlets during this period of time, I cannot simply go out of my home to follow stories and shoot stories and then pitch them to be sold, because I don’t have a working permit,” explained Zavoli. “So this is the tricky part of being under quarantine.”

Freelance journalists around the world are facing similar challenges, as the inability to show proof of being a journalist or not having an assignment means that many of them can’t leave their homes and thus can’t work, impacting not only their livelihoods but also the public interest.

“It’s becomes increasingly difficult for journalists to go out and freelancers do not have press cards, because in India there is no independent press body that gives press cards to freelancers,” said Neha Dixit, a freelancer who covers social justice and gender issues and was the recipient of CPJ’s 2019 International Press Freedom Award.

India imposed a country-wide lockdown on its more than 1.3 billion residents that has had a ripple effect throughout the mainstream media, which relies heavily on freelance journalists for reporting outside big cities, according to Dixit.

“A lot of information from the remote corners of the country comes to the mainstream media because of freelancers, and that channel is completely broken,” she said. Furthermore, a government bureau oversees the distribution of press cards, which are granted only to highly experienced freelancers in the good graces of the authorities. Those critical of the government don't stand a chance, said Dixit, who has reported on human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings by police, and does not have a press card.

And while some reporting can be done remotely, freelancers say this is much harder when reporting on vulnerable populations and poor communities. And photojournalists and videographers must be there in person to report.

“This points to a larger trend among visual journalists,” explained Nadine Hoffman, deputy executive director at the International Women’s Media Foundation, which launched a fund to support journalists through the crisis. “They're having a lot more trouble just because their jobs require them to be outdoors, interacting with the public.”

This also means these journalists are at higher risk while doing their jobs, and need to wear PPE, like masks and gloves, that can be difficult to come by.

“We've also heard that people are unable to take assignments or are scared to take assignments because they don't have access to protective gear. We've had a couple of cases, specifically in Guatemala and in Puerto Rico, where journalists told us that they turned down assignments because they didn't have access to masks or gloves or any kind of protection,” said Hoffman.

To make matters worse, some news organizations are not even asking about safety protocols or whether a freelancer has PPE.

“There seems to be a little bit of slippage in terms of safety nets and safety protocols,” said Sarah Giaziri, executive director of the Frontline Freelance Register, and an assumption that if a freelancer has covered a high-risk story before, they should know how to cover a pandemic.

Hoffman said editors were starting to shy away from assigning work to freelancers because they were unable to take responsibility for their safety if they were to get sick on an assignment.

Outlets cancel, postpone freelance assignments

Perhaps more common, however, is the full-scale cancellation of assignments. Hoffman, who has read through the more than 600 applications for financial support IWMF received in the past three weeks, said they all mentioned the postponement or cancellation of assignments.

Several people interviewed said there have also been cases of outlets refusing to pay kill fees for stories that were already commissioned or in process.

Lynne Smit, chair of the Southern African Freelancers’ Association, said a survey of members indicated that more than 50 percent of respondents had lost more than 70 percent of their income, while 33 percent had lost 100 percent. “Photographers have really been hit the hardest,” she said, along with travel writers and sports journalists.

A news industry that’s already seen advertising revenue decimated is further reeling from drastic cuts in advertising as businesses pull their ads. News outlets that receive state funding, like Radio France and China’s Xinhua news agency, may be the exception, as they’re less reliant on external funding to support newsgathering. Panchia said he had picked up work with Xinhua, whereas most of his other clients had cut off their stingers.

“Many news outlets are bringing all their reporting in-house to limit spending in an effort to mitigate against the recession COVID-19 will cause,” Clothilde Redfern, who runs the UK-based freelance support group Rory Peck Trust, said via email.

Freelancing has never been easy but as the news industry has continued to buffet economic changes, bureau closures, and dwindling staff, freelance journalists have become an even more integral part of the profession.

“I know everybody is focused on what the impact will be to the larger industry and to small and medium newsrooms. You know, people are talking about how this is going to kill local news. But I think we also know from the way the industry has shifted that a lot of journalism, especially international journalism, is built on the backs of freelancers,” said Hoffman.

These freelancers are covering the stories that staff journalists are often unable or unwilling to cover, says Giaziri, and are risking their health to do so, often without insurance or knowing whether they’ll get paid for their story. Yet even as risks and insecurity mount, their livelihoods are dwindling and jobs are disappearing, and the stories they would tell go unreported.

CPJ’s safety advisory for journalists covering the coronavirus outbreak is available in English and more than 35 other languages. Additional CPJ coverage of the coronavirus can be found here.

[UPDATE: The 22nd paragraph has been updated to correct Panchia's freelance work]