Afghanistan: freelancer pays dearly
10 Sep 2009

sultan munadi
Freelance journalist Sultan Munadi was killed in the British military rescue of New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell. Index on Censorship spoke about growing risks to local freelancers with Tina Carr of the Rory Peck Trust, a charity that helps freelance journalists and their families in times of crisis.

Downing Street claimed the military rescue of British-Irish journalist Stephen Farrell in Afghanistan was “the best chance of saving life”.

What the government neglected to mention here, however, was that life wasn’t saved overall. At least four people were killed in the military operation. One was Farrell’s translator, Afghan freelance journalist Sultan Munadi.

“The response among local Afghan journalists has been quite interesting,” said Tina Carr, director of the Rory Peck Trust. “They’ve got together as a group to express their real anger.”

Freelance journalists and fixers are integral to getting stories out of countries like Afghanistan, she said. But with foreign news outlets providing needed work, Afghan journalists did not formally protest about such risks — until now.

On any risky assignment, news outlets have an obligation to protect freelancers as well as staff members, Carr said. To this end, the Rory Peck Trust helps local freelancers obtain needed security training. It also supports news outlets’ efforts to follow an overall code of conduct for protecting journalists.

Yet governments also have a role to play. The decision to take military action came from Downing Street, not the New York Times offices on Eighth Avenue.

In the UK, Carr said, the Foreign Office has made been attempts to open up communication between the Ministry of Defence and free speech groups on codes of conduct for protecting journalists. But globally, practice still lags behind principle.

Since 1995, the Rory Peck Trust has provided assistance for a growing number of freelancers worldwide –– and 100 in 2008 alone. Several factors may play a role in increasing the number of freelance journalists at risk.

“One reason is the changes in the world of newsgathering,” Carr said. “With new technologies, journalists don’t have to leave the field. They are sticking around longer.”

Economics is another element. To cut costs, foreign desks are relying increasingly on freelancers, both local and foreign.

“In some cases, it’s possible that newsgathering operations might prefer to use local journalists because of the risks,” Carr said. “But they also have a responsibility for freelancers for the entire time they are commissioned.”

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