Freelancers who had been used to selling their work to outlets ranging from Sky News and the Los Angeles Times, to the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation and Al Jazeera, now find it harder and harder to sell their work. One common trick is to insist the independent reporter leaves Syria before offering his or her work, ensuring the news outlet won’t need to bail the freelancer out of harm’s way. Freelancer Robert King says he was told that Channel 4 News would only take his footage of a frontline hospital in Syria when he had left the area. He eventually sold the material to CNN instead.
Petra Ramsauer, an experienced freelancer who previously worked for Austrian news outlets in Libya and Egypt, found that none would supply the letter of assignment the Free Syrian Army press office in the border town of Azaz required for her to work. “None of my clients, even my best friends, were prepared to write such a letter,” she says. “If something had happened to me, it would have cost their company an enormous amount of money.”
Richard Spencer, Middle East correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, was one of the commissioning editors who sought reporters on the closed online forum to help cover the gas attack. “From a corporate perspective, the management of the Telegraph are concerned about the costs of getting people out of kidnap situations,” he says.
The BBC has also found it expedient to break its own rules on using freelancers in Syria. In August, independent journalist Hannah Lucinda Smith filed a voice piece for Radio 4 from reporting she had done in Aleppo, at a time when BBC staff reporters had been ordered out of the area. Her dispatch triggered a row among BBC executives because a commissioning editor in radio had ignored a ban on the use of freelance work from Syria that was ostensibly in force throughout BBC News.
Perhaps the charges of double standards simply confirm how hard it is to report the conflict in Syria and how frantic news editors are to obtain reliable coverage. Reporters on the government side operate under rigid censorship. It is not always possible to assess the provenance of activists’ videos. There is no substitute for independent reporters on the ground. Sadly, too few professional news organizations appear willing to accept the responsibilities that come with hiring them.