As frustrated as I was, I found it difficult to blame Qahaar completely. For more than a year, I had worked in Pakistan as a freelance reporter. I had only weeks earlier become a full-time correspondent and “legal”—eligible to obtain a coveted press pass. I knew all too well that for a freelancer in a war zone, bold (and even reckless) moves—such as the one made by Qahaar—often seem like the only way to get attention, and a paycheck. As a freelancer I too had traveled into the tribal areas with nothing more than a notepad, a camera, and a young fixer by my side. With Pakistan now in an all-out war, nowhere was particularly safe. My closest calls had actually come in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, when the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto returned from exile. A bomb exploded in the middle of a massive procession that I was covering, killing nearly one hundred and fifty people. There were dozens of foreign freelancers operating from Pakistan during this time, and most of them, at some point, had done something foolish in search of a story. Qahaar’s misfortune was that she got caught.
Today, western freelance reporters of all stripes are spread across not just Pakistan but Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and Latin America, reporting on the most violent conflicts in the world. War zones have become the training ground for some of the greenest reporters, a way to break into a U.S. news business that has dramatically reduced its footprint in the world, shuttering bureaus and calling correspondents home. For newsrooms with shrunken budgets, freelancers in far-flung hotspots are a godsend. They tend to be young and hungry and, more to the point, cost a fraction of what staff reporters do. They don’t have to be insured; they don’t require business cards or press passes or Kevlar vests or hostile-environment training.
This situation is not new. The retreat from foreign coverage has been under way for at least twenty years, and intrepid freelancers have long set off without institutional backing to try to make their own professional breaks. But what is different now is that the financial health of most news outlets has become so dire that their use of—and in some cases reliance on—such lone-wolf reporters has become the norm rather than the exception. Advances in digital technology, meanwhile, have enabled a new breed of citizen journalist to wander in search of a scoop—or stumble upon one—publishing on their own Web sites and on their own terms. The result is that while not long ago we would have expected a star reporter like Christiane Amanpour to provide the defining reportage from a violent post-election Iran, today it is raw camera-phone video footage of a young woman bleeding to death in the streets of Tehran that defines a moment in history. The people who uploaded this video of Neda Agha-Soltan were awarded a Polk award, one of journalism’s highest honors.
Some freelancers have capitalized on the new reality to produce important coverage and establish themselves as serious journalists. Chris Albritton, for instance, translated his fearless and incisive freelance war reporting into a bureau chief position with Reuters. Michael Yon, another freelance war reporter who became popular for his coverage of fighting in Iraq, published a book and caught the attention of Bruce Willis, who expressed interest in making a movie based on Yon’s experiences.