Last November, as the Iraqi special forces began their offensive on Mosul, CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon went with them. She spent 28 hours trapped in the streets, ricocheting between safe houses and vehicles. And as bullets and bombs rang through the air, Damon took notes, reporting an experience that most Americans can barely fathom.
Damon lived to tell the tale. But reporters on the ground—in conflict zones like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or Mexico—often put their lives in great danger to help us understand the real people affected. Well-reported stories have the power to foster empathy and connection anywhere, but in regions dealing with war and violent conflict, that power becomes vital. The reporting that journalists do in conflict zones also gathers information from hard-to-reach sources—knowledge critical to understanding the social and political landscape of regions oceans away.
We all know, in the abstract, that journalists can play an important role. However, perhaps less known, or at least appreciated, is that the information they gather inevitably has political and policy implications—for instance, when an anti-war activist finds reason to distrust reporters on the ground in Syria, or when a respected politician wants to ignore reports of human rights atrocities, our political associations can overwhelm our commitment to a free press. In today’s polarized political environment, the democratic institutions that protect journalists in many nations are weaker than ever.
The International Women’s Media Foundation and New America’s International Reporting Project invited Damon, freelance journalist Emma Beals, and US Reporters Without Borders director Delphine Halgand to discuss the issues facing journalists in hostile environments today. All three women were recipients of the 2017 James Foley Freedom Awards for their contributions to reporting in conflict zones. The awards honor journalist James Foley, who was killed by ISIS in the summer of 2014 after being captured while reporting in Syria.
At the panel, Damon shared her story about the siege in Mosul, but she made sure to remind the audience that the protections she has as a well-paid correspondent for a major international news network like CNN are far beyond what local journalists or freelancers, like Beals, have access to. The amount of journalists working as freelancers has been growing in recent years, especially in conflict zones where smaller, foreign news organizations often can’t afford to maintain bureaus or send paid correspondents. The pressures of social media and citizen journalism have compounded the issues driving the rise in freelance work. Without resources to draw upon and guidance to follow, Beals explained that many freelancers wade into dangerous territory without anyone to monitor their safety.
In response to the growing awareness of the dangers freelancers take on, some larger news organizations have started refusing to accept work from freelancers in specific areas they deem too dangerous, such as Syrian conflict zones. Beals said this approach is detrimental, since less ethically-minded news organizations would still find ways to get work from freelancers and the journalists themselves would be further cut off from mainstream support structures and well-paying jobs. That is why she helped to co-found Frontline Freelance Register, which offers material support, like training and equipment, while also giving freelancers a network of professionals who can deal with large news organizations as a unit. The Register also maintains high standards for freelancers who apply, giving news organizations a way to distinguish accredited professionals from untrained amateurs, who could potentially be a liability.
Despite the work of organizations like Frontline, however, Helgand from Reporters Without Borders reminded us that the world is an increasingly hostile place for journalists, even when they are not in conflict zones. American journalists are familiar with the criticism of President Barack Obama’s aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers, as well as with President Donald Trump’s vilification of the media, but Helgand pointed to policies in countries like Canada and Germany that betray a frightening lack of respect for democratic principles in nations that claim to be liberal democracies. The rise of authoritarian leaders around the world only amplifies these issues—journalists have had adversarial relationships with governments since the dawn of news, but, especially in Western countries, they could often rely on courts and legislatures to uphold principles of press freedom.Beals and Damon agreed with Helgand’s concerns and discussed how the wealth of information available today, along with the fractured social media ecosystems in which we consume news, have diluted the impact of individual journalists and increased citizens’ distrust of the media. While it is unclear how journalists will go about regaining that trust, all three women emphasized the enormous role the press plays in holding our governments accountable and maintaining democratic norms. Efforts to support the independence and freedom of the press will likely continue to be waged by organizations and institutions outside of government. But journalists looking to tell tough stories today face an increasingly wrenching choice between their mission and their livelihood.