Reporting from the battlefield, uninsured

Freelancers on the frontlines operate with little to no institutional support

While covering the uprising against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, photojournalist Anton Hammerl was shot and killed in an attack by government troops, leaving behind his wife, Penny Sukhraj, and three young children. Journalists Clare Gillis, James Foley, and Manuel Brabo, who had been traveling and reporting in Libya with Hammerl, were kidnapped and held captive for 44 days. After their release, they helped organize a benefit auction for Hammerl’s family, which raised $135,000.

The funds are meant to help secure the futures of Hammerl’s three children, since, like many freelance reporters and photographers working in conflict zones, Hammerl was not insured. Foley, who had been freelancing for GlobalPost, says he wasn’t insured at the time either. Gillis, too, was uninsured, though she says that after her capture, USA Today, her freelance employer, purchased insurance for her and also started working to get the group out of Libya. But being without health, disability, or life insurance is the norm in conflict reporting, not the exception. “The baseline among freelancers is that nobody is insured,” says Gillis.

More and more news organizations are relying on freelancers to cover dangerous international stories. But these freelancers don’t enjoy the same protections as the staff writers and photographers who once covered those stories. While many news organizations claim to look out for their regular freelance contributors, the story some freelancers tell is slightly different. They say that while some news organizations will step in if something goes drastically wrong, most ignore or evade the insurance issue, and freelancers—fearing the revocation of their story assignments—don’t press the point.

This arrangement leaves freelancers—who are taking personal risks on behalf of news organizations—liable for their own expenses if they’re injured or killed in the line of duty. Foley, who is currently freelancing from Syria, says that sometimes media companies will ask him if he’s insured, “because they want to cover themselves,” but for the most part, insurance isn’t a topic of discussion. “Most companies will take freelance work and will not give you any kind of temporary insurance,” says Foley. “Sometimes you make a deal where you file for them when you are out of the country so they’re not responsible if you’re hurt or kidnapped while you’re there.”

Frank Smyth, the security adviser for the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote a chapter about insurance plans in CPJ’s Journalist Security Guide, which was published this April. Smyth says that the economic changes in the news industry have decreased the level of institutional support media organizations are willing to offer. “With all the cutbacks, there are more freelancers out in conflicts, gathering the news, than ever before,” he says. “And the level of support that’s available in general is completely curtailed.”

Not surprisingly, freelancers looking to insure themselves while working in dangerous situations have few options. Reporters Without Borders offers insurance plans specifically for journalists going to cover conflicts, among other plans. The policy option called the “extended plan,” which can be purchased per diem or for up to a year, covers individuals who have knowingly exposed themselves to acts of war. This option also covers individuals with preexisting conditions. The minimum insurance premium for one month in Afghanistan is $567. To add coverage for accidental death or dismemberment is extra; a payout of $100,000 costs $192 per month. Countries with similar prices include Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Israel, West Bank/Gaza, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Yemen, Georgia, and the following regions of the Russian Federation: Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia.

Samuel Normand, the head of operations for Reporters Without Borders’ insurance carrier, APRIL International Canada, says that these prices are considerably lower than a few years ago. (At the end of 2008, the premium for this level of insurance was $1,500.) Even so, Normand says that freelancers are increasingly the ones that shoulder this burden. In 2009, according to Normand, 60 percent of insured freelancers purchased their own policies, while 40 percent have their policies purchased by media organizations. Today, he says, about 80 percent of insured freelancers pay for their own policies.

“It’s not always clear between employer and employee who takes care of insurance,” says Normand. He recommends that freelancers discuss this upfront, during the initial contract negotiations. “When the freelancer provides the employer with the cost of reporting, sometimes they don’t put in the price of insurance, and then the employer says, ‘Oh, we have a contract for this price, you didn’t include this price, so we aren’t paying for this.”

But reporters often don’t mention insurance out of fear that it could mean losing the job. After a brief stint reporting for an aviation news service from Iraq, Kimberly Johnson knew she wanted to go back and continue reporting. She took a course on surviving hostile regions, and after lining up some “tentative strings” with newspapers and news services, was able to embed with the Marines in Anbar Province. The embed was a strategic move on her part: “I knew that if something happened, the military will take care of you to a certain extent, or at least get you to a hospital in Germany, and then I would figure out how to reimburse the military from there,” says Johnson.

She researched insurance policies, but says she “would have been making just enough to maybe pay the premium.” “It was an endeavor sparked by passion, versus common sense, as my mama would say,” says Johnson. After freelancing a few pieces for USA Today, Johnson was offered the opportunity to blog for the paper’s site; she accepted, and wrote a column called “Dispatches from Iraq.” Johnson also wrote stories that landed on the front page, above the fold, in USA Today’s print edition.

But insurance wasn’t part of the deal with USA Today, says Johnson, and she was reluctant to ask: “I do believe it would have been a deal breaker if I pressed the issue.” She recalls explaining the entire situation to her mother and recommending a course of action should something go wrong. “I told her, ‘If you don’t hear from me in X amount of days, contact Reporters Without Borders and Committee to Protect Journalists.’ And I said, ‘Go to local media with this picture of me smiling and every other word out of your mouth is to be USA Today,’” says Johnson. “That was my insurance plan.”

Johnson takes full responsibility for going along with this contract. “It was complete free will,” says Johnson. “I agreed to their terms to do this with them, and my intent in talking about this is not to throw them under the bus. They have their priorities, and so did I. My priority was to get over there and tell a story. I felt compelled to do that.”

William Dermody, the world/military affairs editor for USA Today said in an emailed response that the details of Johnson’s arrangement with USA Today could not be confirmed in time for this piece: “[T]o be absolutely clear, I am not disputing Kimberly’s account. I just can’t verify it one way or the other because [those] who may have had personal knowledge of her deal have since left the paper,” writes Dermody.

“I do know that since I have been in this position roughly two years that we have paid the cost of an insurance policy for contract employees like Kimberly who we have arranged to send to conflict zones,” writes Dermody. “However, we rely much more frequently on freelance journalists who do not work exclusively for us and are located in the region where the story is happening… We do not manage nor direct these reporters. They are independent operators…

“We pay a flat fee for the story and photos from freelancers. It’s our understanding that the freelancers provide for their own insurance. We greatly value the contributions of our freelance reporters… We will always stand by them if they encounter trouble.”

Other large news organizations responded similarly. John Daniszewski, AP’s senior managing editor for international news, wrote:

“In conflict zones we mostly take content from trusted individuals with whom we have some kind of regular, ongoing relationship. If any person is injured while on assignment for us, of course we provide whatever care is deemed medically appropriate. We have provided such care in the rare cases when there has been serious injury. We would not assume liability for other freelancers not on assignment for AP or working without AP’s foreknowledge in a conflict area.”

Eileen Murphy, vice president of corporate communications for The New York Times, wrote in an email:

“[W]e do provide both accidental death and disability coverage for our freelancers, as well as medical coverage, when they are abroad in harm’s way. We also provide emergency evacuations, if needed.”

The BBC responded with a reference to this webpage, which explains that freelancers are “expected to have their own personal accident insurance,” but that the BBC will cover “emergency overseas medical expenses” incurred while out of their home country on “BBC assignments of up to three months duration.” Requests for comment to The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times went unanswered.

Of course, this sampling of answers and non-responses is just a drop in the media-business bucket; freelancers work from dangerous areas all over the world for print, web, radio, and television. News organizations in every medium save money by buying from freelancers. It’s no mystery why; insurance is prohibitively expensive. Michael Kamber, who’s freelanced from Iraq, Afghanistan, the Sudan, and many other countries, says when he was working in Iraq in 2007 for The New York Times, his editor told him that they “were paying more for my insurance than they were paying for me to work there.” But policies like The New York Times’s are rare. “A lot of newspapers and magazines, they use you when they need you and then they walk away,” says Kamber. “When they don’t need you anymore, there’s no follow up. I’ve seen it; people get hurt, and they’re not taken care of.”

Kamber wrote a post for the The New York Times’s Lens blog this past October describing how “the Libyan war appeared to draw a large number of unprepared and inexperienced photographers to the war zone,” most of whom were young (early to mid-twenties) and had little to no insurance or training. But showing up is the way everyone starts. “It’s the way in, it’s always been the way in. It’s the way I got in,” says Kamber. “But the journalist is the little guy. We can’t put this on a 22-year-old journalist starting out with a few hundred dollars in the bank.”

This problem is not insurmountable; improvements can be made. “There are ways to do this, it’s a partnership. I’m not putting it all on the companies,” says Kamber. He brings up the possibility of news outlets combining resources to create a solution. “It would be great if these organizations came together and had a pooled policy to put freelancers under,” says Kamber. It’s an idea that CPJ’s Frank Smyth also proposed as a possible way to start dealing with this problem.

Journalism institutions, which are supposed to be bastions for transparency, can also start by being completely clear about what they can and cannot do for their freelancers on the front lines. Encouraging reporters to get training would also be a big step. Several organizations offer hostile region instruction, including Sebastian Junger’s new initiative, Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, which offers courses in battlefield safety and first aid. “I think media companies that have big budgets have the resources to help work on a solution,” says Kamber. “They can’t just step back and say hey, they’re freelancers. Tough luck. They sold us the photo for $200, and now we owe them nothing.”

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , ,