By Colette Davidson
Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar was just getting started as a radio journalist in Afghanistan in 2003 when his native country was thrown into turmoil – the Taliban had collapsed, a transitional government had been implemented and the country was moving towards reconstruction. But daily life was still plagued by a strong foreign military presence.
Mr Khalvatgar remembers one particularly poignant experience with American troops, where he was verbally attacked while out reporting. He has also had his phone confiscated in the field and been physically beaten by guards.
“There was no protection,” says Khalvatgar, “no procedure of how to protect and defend the rights of journalists.”
Such incidents were a push to found Nai in 2005, a non-profit organization that works to protect journalists in Afghanistan. With Khalvatgar acting as executive director, Nai has coordinated with the government to define safety regulations in Afghanistan, such as insuring journalists in the event of attack or loss of life.
While grassroots organizations like Nai that work to protect the rights of journalists are flourishing, the concept of contracts and insurance for freelancers remains novel in most parts of the world. Lacking international or national regulations on the subject, most journalists must navigate the issue piecemeal – one employer at a time.
Creating contracts – that include the costs of protecting a journalist’s physical safety as well as providing them with health or life insurance – is something that many media outlets don’t always take the time to do. Having office-wide regulations takes time, money and resources.
But as journalist attacks and murders become increasingly high profile in the media, employers are slowly facing up to reality. A contract, which includes not just monetary stipulations but safety provisions, can mean the difference between whether a story gets covered or not.
“Contracts are important in general because they clearly lay out expectations between the journalist and the outlet hiring them, with no room for guessing or misunderstandings,” says Christa Miller, a US-based freelance journalist and member of the Freelance Journalist Union (FJU). “This protects both the journalist and the outlet, so an outlet that balks at offering a contract should be reminded of this.”
Asking for what you want
Before demanding a contract, journalists must know what they expect from employers, which can be a daunting task since there is no international protocol on the topic. Adi Marsiela, a freelance journalist as well as a member of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AIJ) and WAN-IFRA’s Media Freedom Committee in Indonesia, says he has often navigated the concept of contracts and insurance on his own after employers balked at providing them to him.
“I’ve worked for [national newspaper] Suara Pembaruan without a contract since 2003. At first, I didn’t care about it,” says Mr. Marsiela. “But after working in these industries and learning the challenges and the conditions, I started to buy my own insurance. It took three years for me to get the minimum insurance from my news organization.”
Ms. Miller, the Freelance Journalist Union member, says that there are a number of things journalists can demand in a contract. First are aspects related to content and payment: deadline dates, copyright and licensing, confidentiality and non-disclosure, and a journalist’s standing as either an independent contractor or employee. Then, there should be provisions to cover the potential personal risk that the journalist may incur on the job. Insurance, says Miller, should also be included.
“Consider that many freelancers can’t afford to insure themselves, so if the risk is directly related to the freelance job, then there should be some type of limited coverage,” she says. “Again, this protects both the outlet and the journalist.”
Creating a streamlined protocol in the newsroom is especially important when there is no national governmental order to protect journalists. And in some cases, there may be laws and regulations surrounding journalist protection but they are not enforced.
Marsiela says that even if he did not receive insurance for three years from his employer, employers are required by Indonesian labor law to provide basic insurance to all employees. And Khalvatgar says that in Afghanistan, initiatives to protect journalists have been slow to take.
“Nai works with the government to try to push it to define regulations,” says Khalvatgar. “Months back, a journalism safety regulation was signed by the president but unfortunately we have not been witnessing any action on this.”
Contracts can save lives
Taking the time to sit down and write up a contract may not be the first thing on many editors’ to-do lists, but media outlets are becoming increasingly aware that it’s not only good practice to protect staff but it also protects their entity as well.
Alexander Papachristou, the executive director of the Cyrus R Vance Center for International Justice at the NYC bar association, says it’s mutually beneficial for journalists and editors.
“It’s as important for the news organization – perhaps more so – because it has greater responsibilities, it has greater resources,” says Mr. Papachristou. “If somebody’s going to sue, most likely the news organizations will be part of that lawsuit.”
Depending on what they get back, journalists can then assess whether the story is worth doing, or in the case of inadequate coverage from an employer, whether they must independently find insurance to cover their physical safety in case anything goes wrong.
Still, more advocacy is needed to inform journalists of the importance of contracts and insurance. Because even if most understand the importance of contracts, sometimes the prospect of getting exclusive coverage on a topic is too tempting to resist, even in dangerous circumstances – especially for freelancers still trying to make a name for themselves.
“Because freelancers are eager to find work, they tend to go the extra mile for a story, at times taking uncalculated risks that sadly, may get them arrested, assaulted or even cost them their lives,” says Shahira Amin, a freelance contributor at Al Monitor in Cairo, Egypt. “Senior editors are well aware of this but thus far, have taken little action to change the situation.”
For more information on creating a freelance journalist contract, visit ACOS Alliance, who has created a template for employers. https://www.acosalliance.org/contracts