Saturday, December 19, 2009

Freelance journalists in the front line

The inexorable rise of the internet over the last decade has had two main consequences for the coverage of foreign news.

Firstly, the internet has undermined many mainstream media organisations' print advertising-focused business models, a structural change that has been compounded by the cyclical economic difficulties of the last two years. Overseas news bureaux at newspapers, news wires and broadcasters have born the brunt of the inevitable cuts that have ensued, with organisations shedding staffers and becoming more reliant on freelance correspondents.

Secondly, the internet has made it much, much easier for independent journalists to report from the far-flung and sometimes risky places where news organisation have shed staff correspondents.

These developments have been positive in that they allow enterprising, well-connected freelancers to fill roles that were once held by staffers who were parachuted in, often with little advance knowledge of the places they were being sent to.

However, as I found out when I was forced out of Singapore, freelance journalists operating in unstable media environments face many more difficulties than staffers when things go wrong.

Had I been on the staff of a major news organisation, the Singapore government would have inevitably been more reluctant to deny me a work visa. If the government still chose the same path, a major media organisation would then have appealed on my behalf and, if necessary, flown me out and into another job.

But, as I explained in a recent interview with, a website for British journalists, when I told the editors that I worked for what was happening to me, their attitude was "that's terrible but don't expect me to help you out".

The perils of freelance journalism are not so great in Singapore, which, after all, does not beat up or jail reporters. But, in more precarious hotspots around the world (Somalia, Burma, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan etc), intrepid freelance journalists are risking much more.

The problem is particularly acute for local freelancers working for international organisations, who are putting themselves on the line but can't leave when the shit hits the fan in the same way that most foreign correspondents can.

It is no surprise therefore to read in a recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists that the number of freelance reporters in prison around the world has doubled over the last three years.

There are currently more than 60 freelancers behind bars, making up nearly 45% of the total number of journalists jailed worldwide.

As Joel Simon, the CPJ's executive director puts it: "The days when journalists went off on dangerous assignments knowing they had the full institutional weight of their media organizations behind them are receding into history."

"Today, journalists on the front lines are increasingly working independently. The rise of online journalism has opened the door to a new generation of reporters, but it also means they are vulnerable.”

The rise of a website such as Asian Correspondent is a case in point. Clearly AC is helping to fill some of the holes in news coverage left by the mainstream media in Asia. But if any of my fellow AC writers in the Philippines, China or Thailand come a cropper, there is little chance of AC coming to their rescue.

That is not a criticism of AC but just an acknowledgement of the way in which the game is changing.

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