But given the range of people who roam the world’s volatile regions—from academics doing research to tourists with blogs and digital cameras—it isn’t surprising that we periodically hear the alarming news of freelance journalists—or someone with a camera who may or may not consider himself a journalist—getting into trouble. The imprisonment of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi by the Iranian government was only the most publicized of recent cases. Shane Bauer, one of the American “hikers” arrested months later in Iran on charges of spying, has also been described as “a published journalist who reported from Darfur, Yemen and Iraq,” and whose “insightful commentaries have covered issues not tackled by the mainstream media.” These arrests in Iran came on the heels of the imprisonment of two Asian-American journalists in North Korea, and in the following months many freelancers also ended up in jails while covering the post-election upheaval in Iran and the war in Sri Lanka. And then there are those under-reported stories, like Nicole Tung, the twenty-three-year-old college graduate (and journalism major) who was picked up by Pakistani intelligence agents last December as she wandered in the tribal areas armed with a camera, working as a freelance photographer.

The upshot is that there is real confusion over who is a journalist in a war zone, and that confusion can cause problems for professional journalists as they try to do the already difficult work of covering conflict. But me having a trip into the tribal areas scuttled, and having to work overtime to mend my inherently fraught relationships with the Pakistani military, are minor irritations compared to the very real possibility that this confusion can be exploited for political gain. And the problem is not simply a matter of foreign governments looking to control the western media, or gain a propaganda edge. The more serious signs of trouble are coming from home.

In January, Major General Michael T. Flynn, the top U.S. intelligence official in Afghanistan, published a report calling for an overhaul of intelligence-gathering operations. Drawing parallels to how sports reporters gauge the chances of teams winning in the National Football League, Flynn expressed the need for intelligence assets who would “retrieve information from the ground level and make it available to a broader audience, similar to the way journalists work.”

In the footnotes, he was even more pointed: “Analysts need not come solely from the intelligence community. . . . Seasoned print journalists who have been laid off in the current industry retrenchment, and who want to serve their country in Afghanistan, might be a source of talent. . . . ”

Then in March, The New York Times broke news that a Defense Department official, Michael D. Furlong, had “set up a network of private contractors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to help track and kill suspected militants.” One of the subcontractors, a freelance journalist, told the Times “that the government hired him to gather information about Afghanistan and that Mr. Furlong improperly used his work.” The freelancer felt cheated. “We were providing information so they could better understand the situation in Afghanistan, and it was being used to kill people,” he told the Times.

Clearly, the American news media aren’t the only ones moving to a freelance model for information gathering. The military and editors in New York are in some cases drawing on the same talent pool. Under such circumstances, the ambiguity surrounding journalists in war zones—to say nothing of the under-employed nature of journalists generally—suits the military just fine. But it is bad news for American journalism. It makes the days when the industry wrung its hands over the military’s embedding program look ideal by comparison—at least as embeds journalists maintained the institutional integrity of the press, even while riding on the military’s jeep.

It also makes the Pakistani colonel’s insinuation that Qahaar had a “secret agenda,” and the allegations of espionage that have been hung on nearly every kidnapped or arrested journalist in recent memory, much more troubling—not because I suddenly believe those charges have merit, but because there is now something concrete for the folks doing the kidnapping and arresting to use to justify their claims.

Shahan Mufti teaches journalism at the University of Richmond. He is the author of The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family, and War.