The safety of freelance journalists in conflict situations has been a source of concern for many years. Embarking into some of the most dangerous regions of the world with a limited support network, sometimes having to rely on strangers' good will to survive, not knowing whether the soldiers providing an escort will be guardians or kidnappers.
"The thing about freelance conflict journalism is it's very much a sort of lone wolf thing at the moment," says Aris Roussinos, a journalist and filmmaker who has covered wars and revolutions from Tunisia and Bahrain to Sudan and Mali.
Upon returning from Bahrain in 2011, he told Press TV of arrests and police intimdation in the country. One CBS reporter had officers surround her car and shoot at it with shotguns. As a freelance, he was constantly on the move, staying in different houses and relying on civilians' hospitality, to avoid detection and ensure his safety. In 2012, he spent a month with Sudanese rebels in the Blue Nile region.
"I've reported from conflicts without having had any training," he continued. "My first war I didn't have body armour, I didn't have a first aid kit."
Such a lack or training can be fatal. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Syria was the deadliest country in the world for journalists in 2012. Seventy four per cent of journalists killed in the country were victims of crossfire or combat operations. Of the 101 journalists killed worldwide, 22 were freelance.
"If you look at Libya and Syria in particular," said Roussinos, "so many young freelancers have gone off to conflict environments and often this is their first conflict environment or one of their very first conflict environments, and there's been a mixed reaction from the industry."
Roussinos says that while many news outlets and the industry on the whole is "utterly dependent" on freelancers to cover conflict situations and supply photographs or copy, there's a sense among freelancers themselves that they are not trusted by news organisations – that they are deemed to be "not entirely responsible".This is a way of creating an infrastructure where freelance conflict journalists can look out for each otherAris Roussinos, freelance journalist and filmmaker
"What we're showing is that we can look after ourselves, we're committed to journalistic safety and good practice and at the same time we're creating a body of staff for news organisations to pick and choose from really. A pool of vetted journalists."
The Frontline Club, housing a restaurant, members' cub room and bedrooms in central London, was established in 2003 to provide both a literal and figurative home for freelance conflict journalists. The Frontline Freelance Registry (FFR) has been launched as a representative body for these journalists, intended to provide training and ensure its members observe "responsible newsgathering and safety standards".
"Other journalists look out for each other in the field and it's done on a very ad hoc basis," said Roussinos, "This is a way of recognising it, of creating an infrastructure and creating a dynamic wherein freelance conflict journalists can look out for each other."
Initially launched in London and Istanbul, with a New York arm planned for later in the month, the FFR intends to ensure there is a safety net for freelance journalists in the same way as staff writers or reporters for large news outlets. As well as the Registry, the Frontline Club has published a white paper on safety for freelancers under its Freelance Safety Initiative, with guidelines and proposals for more collaboration on providing training and information across a range of safety and security subjects.
"It's a way for the industry to be able to have a body of freelance journalists who are vetted, who ideally have gone through all the necessary safety courses, first aid courses, have body armour, have first aid kits," said Roussinos.
He said the registry currently has more than 100 members with another 100 waiting to be confirmed and while he is part of the interim board, along with fellow freelancers Emma Beals, Balint Szlanko and Ayman Oghanna, elections will be held in the winter and a clearer path forward will be determined from there.
Until then, the board is meeting with industry bodies and organisations to establish which are the best courses, how they will be provided and how freelancers will be able to access bursaries that are available to help pay cover the costs.
"Obviously its a very fragmented industry and part of the problem was that there are a lot of bodies with an interest in looking after journalists but there's nothing actually for freelancers and nothing that really represented the issues that we're facing in the field.If I was starting out now, this would be my way forwardAris Roussinos, freelance journalist and filmmaker
"So what we're doing is essentially we're rationalising that, the whole, unwieldy, fragmented constellation of different bodies, putting it all together until its a one-stop shop."
Once these connections are established and a democratically elected board instated, Roussinos hopes that the FFR can move forward to give freelancers all the provisions and training they need to make them fully prepared for life in a warzone.
"I have quite recently done a hostile environment course but before that I've reported from conflicts without having had any training," he said, "and if I was starting out now this would be my way forward, this would be a means of accessing hostile environment training, first aid training.
"This would be a way of implementing the safety procedures that are standardised within the network. This would be a way of providing for freelancers the safety net essentially that staff journalists already have."
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