by Miriam Alveberg
As many journalism graduates decide to start work as freelancers, some will pursue international reporting to get their break into the industry. What awaits them may be confusing and dangerous. Since freelancers are not always fully prepared and briefed like journalists working for media organisations, being safe in hostile places is in their own hands. The world of freelancing in conflict zones can be a professional war of their own.
The year was 1975. Malcolm Fraser replaced Billy Snedden as leader of the Liberal Party of Australia; the Australian Embassy in South Vietnam was closed and staff evacuated prior to the fall of Saigon; Medibank was introduced; Papua New Guinea gained its independence from Australia; the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the government of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser is installed as caretaker Prime Minister. And Indonesia started military incursions into East Timor. Tony Maniaty was there, on assignment for the ABC in Balibo, East Timor.
“I was 26, I’d never been anywhere near a war zone,” he says.
The assignment was supposed to be nothing out of the ordinary. East Timor, which had been a Portuguese colony up until then, was struggling towards independence. While there was conflict in the country, the assignment was not regarded as a particularly risky job. But when the Indonesians invaded, it suddenly became a very dangerous place. Few anticipated that the outcome would be so tragic and the danger so great. For a journalist who had worked several years both in Brisbane and London, Tony Maniaty found Balibo turned out to be something completely different.
Without training, or even a briefing of what to do if something happened, he and his news crew were very vulnerable.
“We really had no idea of what we were getting into. We had no preparation. I flew into East Timor in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, and I took a copy of Moby Dick and a Swiss Army knife. We had no medical supplies, no radios, nothing.”
They were there to report on East Timor’s fight for Independence. Portugal colonised Timor in the 16th century, the Netherlands claimed West Timor in 1640 thus forcing the Portuguese to East Timor. Finally, in 1914 the border was finalised between East and West Timor. In 1942, when Indonesia gained independence, West Timor became a part of the Indonesian republic. East Timor remained a Portuguese colony until 1975. With a military coup in Portugal the previous year, the Portuguese began withdrawing from Timor. Indonesia opposed an independent East Timor and, with support from the Australian Government who saw integration with Indonesia to be in Timor’s best interest, invaded the country in December, 1975.
Two months before this, Tony Maniaty and his news crew were stationed in the border town of Balibo to report on the conflict. While East Timorese groups campaigning for independence skirmished among themselves, the Indonesian military was crossing the border into East Timor at Balibo.
“The major issue is we didn’t have any preparation, back-up supplies of food or water, or medical supplies. There was no radio contact, no way of communicating,” Tony says.
“The whole world could have ended and we wouldn’t have known. It was extremely dangerous once we were trapped and caught up in fighting. We had no way of telling anyone in Australia ‘we’re in deep trouble, help, get us out of here’.”
While conflict in the country was well known, the specifics of the current situation were virtually impossible for a news desk in Sydney to imagine. “By the time we got up to the border of Indonesia, to Balibo, we were aware this was a dangerous environment. But still, we were sort of in this bubble that we didn’t see ourselves as being potential victims.”
There was a sense that being a foreign journalist would somehow offer protection, but it tragically turned out not to be the case. Five journalists, working for Channel 9 News in Sydney, were killed by the Indonesian military in a deliberate act and not, as Indonesia claimed, in cross fire. Tony Maniaty and his crew almost shared the same fate.
He says he was scared for his life.
“I got on the phone and said, ‘They’re talking about killing me on the radio every night, my life is in great danger’. [But I was told] ‘No, Tony, a good correspondent stays on the job.’ And I was young, young in the sense I was trying to build a career. The implication was ‘if you go now, your career is finished’.”
But he wanted to continue working as a foreign correspondent and was afraid to go home if it would jeopardise his chances of further foreign assignments. But eventually, enough was enough. When he had the chance to get on a plane to Darwin, he jumped on it, although not light-hearted.
“I had a sense of failure, that I had abandoned my post.”
Even though Tony Maniaty got out with his life, the episode continued to haunt him. He had survivor guilt, thinking about the other journalists and also the East-Timorese people living there. It had a strain on him psychologically and it was hard to shake off.
“The other guys had died and I lived. I was pretty much the last journalist in town. Had I abandoned the East-Timorese to their faith?.”
Today, the crew would never have been sent up to East Timor without adequate training, and certainly not armed with nothing but a classic novel and a Swiss army knife. Protective gear like flack jackets and helmets are now a routine gear for journalists reporting from l conflict zones.”
In the 1970s, no one talked about post-traumatic stress syndrome, no one talked about psychological help. Tony Maniaty says the attitude was “You’re a man, deal with it like a man”.
That attitude has changed. During the 1990s, big news organisations like the BBC and CNN started offering training to their foreign correspondents.
While the training courses vary, most include hostile environment training as well as road safety training, an important consideration for journalists working in developing countries. “Those courses are terrific, but the problem with them is that they are hugely expensive,” Tony Maniaty says.
A high price for safety training
One organisation offering training is the London-based AKE Group which has offices in places like Lagos, Nigeria, and Kabul, Afghanistan. Course co-ordinator Bethan Haines says the majority of trainees are from the big networks like CNN or BBC whose insurance policies demand that staff members are properly trained. These organisations have the resources to offer proper training but a five-day course costs around £2,500 ($4,500). However, Ms Haines says there is funding available for freelancers.
“The largest source of funding is from the Rory Peck Trust, an organisation that supports freelancers in all sorts of ways. A large part of the funds are donated by the large media organisations that use freelancers.” And she says the company recently introduced a rate for independent journalist who are not funded. It is £1500 (fully inclusive).
The idea of training may have emerged in the 1990s, but terrorist strikes like the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001 put greater focus on the need for trained staff. Bethan Haines says the insurance companies pushed for more training for staff reporting from dangerous environments.
She says the AKE Group does not construct scenarios like being kidnapped because they can never create the realistic fear one would experience in a real situation.
“We feel students could be lulled into a false sense of security thinking they know what it would be like and how they would cope. To do it properly and effectively requires a lot of time.”
There are also other options available for freelancers with limited income. Founded by journalist Sebastian Junger, Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC) focuses on teaching first aid. When Mr Junger lost his colleague Tim Hetherington, who bled to death from shrapnel wounds in Libya in 2011, he was convinced Tim’s death could have been avoided if someone around him had more first aid knowledge. The course, which costs around $1,000, focuses exclusively on medical training and journalists receive medical kits on completion of the course.
Courses like this can be life saving. The Committee to Protect Journalists not only collects data on how many media workers are killed while in the field, it also records causes of death. The main cause of combat deaths is gunfire and exploded ordnance. But, as in the case of Tim Hetherington, injuries may not be fatal if the bleeding is stopped. It is basic but potentially life-saving skills that can determine whether someone lives or dies.
Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues’ annual report shows 120 journalists were trained in 2013, with almost half being between 22 and 29 years. One of them is Fabio Bucciarelli who has reported from places like Libya and Syria. He says the course is important and essential to being prepared should disaster hit.
“It’s important to know how to react in a case of emergency. We know that, as journalists, we’re always at risk. You can be hit by a mortar, by shrapnel. To have the instruments and knowledge to help a colleague or yourself is fundamental. Everyone should do a course like this to learn more.”
However, the AKE Group places special focus on practical scenarios like road accidents.
“We aim to give students the skills to make rational decisions in irrational situations,” Ms Haines says.
The changing nature of foreign newsgathering
The journalism industry has never been tougher to get into. News organisations are struggling to survive and keep their staff. For many emerging journalists, freelance work is the only way to start their journalistic career. But if they are to sell material to the big organisations, it has to be good and unique. For many, international reporting offers a way forward. As news organisations often cannot longer afford to have foreign correspondents in place, international news material is increasingly provided by freelancers, both local and international.
In the 1970s, it was different, according to Tony Maniaty. He may not have been in a hostile place like East Timor before, but he did have eight years experience as a journalist.
“We’ve seen two changes in the last 10 years. One is a huge drop in the cost of covering warfare. It would have been impossible for me to go by myself to East Timor to cover the war in 1975. The gear would have cost probably half a million dollars.”
And travel expenses are now prohibitive for the average freelance journalist without funding support from a media organisation. And even the big news and television networks find the costs prohibitive. If they have to spend a large amount of money, they send the best journalists to ensure they get excellent coverage. “A top correspondent would have been in a war zone many times,” Tony Maniaty says.
However, as the networks are desperate for good images and footage from places where they don’t have staff stationed, it’s easy for freelancers to sell pictures and footage from conflict zones. Often a network will buy footage and have one of its own journalists provide the voice-over. It’s a cheap, safe investment with minimal insurance costs since the network does not have any legal responsibility towards the freelancer, unless a contract has been signed.
While organisations like the BBC and The Sunday Times no longer accept freelance material from, for example, Syria, it is not so much an ethical decision as a practical one – very often the material is impossible to verify.
According to Tony Maniaty, these days being a great journalist is not necessarily a criteria; the networks just want good pictures with the analysis being provided by their own journalists. “It’s outsourcing of danger,” he says.
Previously a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney, Dr Maniaty says he’s talked with several students who travelled overseas to chase stories. “Three days after you leave UTS, you can be fully equipped with high definition news coverage gear in a cheap hotel in Kabul and be on the war front. And you’ve had three days experience as a journalist. Not as a war correspondent, as a journalist.”
He is very critical of networks accepting material from the inexperienced because it creates a market for such freelancer news and footage. He says there is a misplaced sense among young inexperienced journalists that if they prove themselves as a freelancer, they might get a job with a network.
John Martinkus, former correspondent for SBS’s Dateline and now a journalism lecturer at University of Tasmania, was in Timor 20 years after Tony Maniaty. It was his freelance work there in 1995 that kicked off his career in journalism. As correspondents struggled to get visas to Timor, he used his initiative, got into the country on a tourist visa and was able to write exclusive stories from the continuing conflict that helped him get noticed.
“I saw a gap in the market where I could actually do stories, sell them and get myself on the world news pages. I used that to get a leg up my career,” he says.
Before Timor, he was writing freelance articles for real estate and trade journals. He had no training for working in hostile environments and says it’s hard to talk about inexperienced journalists reporting from conflict zones with his students, as he himself was that journalist at the beginning of his career.
“I’d be really cautious about recommending that kind of career trajectory. But by the same token, that is also what gets you noticed and what gets you in the game,” he says. “I would be reluctant to suggest a young, inexperienced journalist to do the same thing in a conflict like Syria or Afghanistan, for example, where the danger is very high. I can sit here and say, ‘don’t do that, it’s too dangerous’ but a young journalist could go to Afghanistan tomorrow and do something for The Guardian.
While discounted training for students and freelancers is available, it is impossible to say how many have undertaken such professional courses. Several freelance journalists working in Lebanon and Afghanistan were interviewed for this story and none of them had any training. One of the journalists, Frida Sebine Skatvik, who is based in Beirut, says, “The biggest risk here are car bombs, and that’s little one can do about that, except have knowledge of first aid.”
She says she had received support through a stipend to travel to Libya to report but after talking with contacts living there decided it was too much of a risk.
Not every freelancer is as careful. Two friends of her, Jeppe Nybroe and Rami Aysah, tried to interview Syrian rebels who had kidnapped Swedish journalist Magnus Falkehed and photographer Niclas Hammarström. They ended up getting kidnapped themselves by an unknown group, and it was their families who paid the ransom to have them released after 30 days.
Described by Vogue as “a struggling 27-year-old Canadian journalist hoping to make a name for herself”, Amanda Lindhoudt went to Somalia in 2008 and got kidnapped with cameraman Nigel Brennan after three days. Held captive for 15 months, they experienced torture, starvation and rape. When she was released, publishers chased her to sign a book deal. Sara Corbatt, a New York Times contributing writer, ended up writing the book, an excerpt of which appeared in the New York Times Magazine. It has made Amanda Lindhoudt famous, but critics like Maragret Wente, of the Canadian Globe & Mail, called her ”recklessly naïve” and a ”foolish amateur”.
Preparing for potential trauma and tortue
Today, it’s tempting for a journalism student to buy a cheap airfare and report from virtually anywhere in the world – travel somewhere exotic, find a great story, get published, and increase the chances of getting a job. It sure beats doing another internship with no job prospect and little reward.
However, the first thing to consider is reporting on trauma. Interviewing traumatised people is not easy. Not for the journalist, nor for the journalistic outcome. The DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma is working on developing better awareness among reporters. Cait McMahon, director of the Centre in Melbourne, says freelancers need to take responsibility to educate themselves as much as possible.
“I think it’s an imperative that journalism schools start looking at training. More and more people training for journalism will be freelancers,” she says. “The physical and psychological potential injury, and the safety of journalists is an imperative. It’s about priorities. I think it’s an imperative that journalism schools start looking at both physical and psychological safety and training around both of those aspects.”
She says DART research shows 85 to 90 per cent of journalists will at some point come across a story that is regarded as potentially traumatic enough to trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
While journalism schools do offer lectures on covering trauma and torture and the effect of PTSD in subjects such as International and Comparative Journalism, Ms McMahon wants to see courses dedicated to the issue.
Both DART and Reporters Without Borders have addressed the issue of psychological trauma by producing handbooks for anyone who needs advice or help.
Online security issues
Journalist reporting from conflict face not only physical danger but also possible danger from an online presence.
The UN acknowledged difficulties with digital security, and passed a resolution last November “recognising the relevance of freedom of expression and of free media in building knowledge-inclusive societies and democracies and in fostering intercultural dialogue, peace and good governance”.
As the Internet is the biggest outlet for news, it is easier for governments to keep watch on journalists. A journalist’s online presence makes it easy to track and target. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), more than 200 journalists are imprisoned worldwide each year. The data goes back to 2000, and shows a steady increase with nearly three times as many imprisoned now than in 2000. The majority are imprisoned for so-called ‘anti-state reporting’.
The Rory Peck Trust provides information on how to be safe online. It also offers advice on how to encrypt information when using email, live chats, Skype, websites, smart phones and hard drives. Encryption may not only be about protecting the journalist, but also sources. When reporting from conflict, some of the sources may be at risk for speaking to journalists.
It pays to be careful as indicated by the case of human rights activist blogger Fadhel Al-Manafes who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in Saudi Arabia in April on charges of undermining national security and stability, inciting sedition and sectarian divisions, disloyalty towards the king, publishing articles and communicating with foreign journalists with the aim of harming the state’s image, creating a banned association and inciting protests.
In journalism, working harder than the next person often means getting the story getting it first and getting it right. In conflict reporting, this involves danger and calculated risks. It is a difficult area between personal responsibility and corporate responsibility.
As John Martinkus says, “I look back and having been in places like Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, I think morally it was the right thing to do, to tell those stories and show what was going on.”
But he urges journalists to take a step back and ask why they want to travel to conflict zones and to be aware of potential dangers to themselves and others, especially locals.
“You have to think ‘Am I just doing this to get a byline? What am I actually doing this for? Is anybody going to suffer?” I think it’s really important to not lose sight of that.”