While covering the uprising against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, photojournalist Anton Hammerl was shot and killed in an attack by government troops, leaving behind his wife, Penny Sukhraj, and three young children. Journalists Clare Gillis, James Foley, and Manuel Brabo, who had been traveling and reporting in Libya with Hammerl, were kidnapped and held captive for 44 days. After their release, they helped organize a benefit auction for Hammerl’s family, which raised $135,000.
The funds are meant to help secure the futures of Hammerl’s three children, since, like many freelance reporters and photographers working in conflict zones, Hammerl was not insured. Foley, who had been freelancing for GlobalPost, says he wasn’t insured at the time either. Gillis, too, was uninsured, though she says that after her capture, USA Today, her freelance employer, purchased insurance for her and also started working to get the group out of Libya. But being without health, disability, or life insurance is the norm in conflict reporting, not the exception. “The baseline among freelancers is that nobody is insured,” says Gillis.
More and more news organizations are relying on freelancers to cover dangerous international stories. But these freelancers don’t enjoy the same protections as the staff writers and photographers who once covered those stories. While many news organizations claim to look out for their regular freelance contributors, the story some freelancers tell is slightly different. They say that while some news organizations will step in if something goes drastically wrong, most ignore or evade the insurance issue, and freelancers—fearing the revocation of their story assignments—don’t press the point.
This arrangement leaves freelancers—who are taking personal risks on behalf of news organizations—liable for their own expenses if they’re injured or killed in the line of duty. Foley, who is currently freelancing from Syria, says that sometimes media companies will ask him if he’s insured, “because they want to cover themselves,” but for the most part, insurance isn’t a topic of discussion. “Most companies will take freelance work and will not give you any kind of temporary insurance,” says Foley. “Sometimes you make a deal where you file for them when you are out of the country so they’re not responsible if you’re hurt or kidnapped while you’re there.”
Frank Smyth, the security adviser for the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote a chapter about insurance plans in CPJ’s Journalist Security Guide, which was published this April. Smyth says that the economic changes in the news industry have decreased the level of institutional support media organizations are willing to offer. “With all the cutbacks, there are more freelancers out in conflicts, gathering the news, than ever before,” he says. “And the level of support that’s available in general is completely curtailed.”
Not surprisingly, freelancers looking to insure themselves while working in dangerous situations have few options. Reporters Without Borders offers insurance plans specifically for journalists going to cover conflicts, among other plans. The policy option called the “extended plan,” which can be purchased per diem or for up to a year, covers individuals who have knowingly exposed themselves to acts of war. This option also covers individuals with preexisting conditions. The minimum insurance premium for one month in Afghanistan is $567. To add coverage for accidental death or dismemberment is extra; a payout of $100,000 costs $192 per month. Countries with similar prices include Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Israel, West Bank/Gaza, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Yemen, Georgia, and the following regions of the Russian Federation: Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia.
Samuel Normand, the head of operations for Reporters Without Borders’ insurance carrier, APRIL International Canada, says that these prices are considerably lower than a few years ago. (At the end of 2008, the premium for this level of insurance was $1,500.) Even so, Normand says that freelancers are increasingly the ones that shoulder this burden. In 2009, according to Normand, 60 percent of insured freelancers purchased their own policies, while 40 percent have their policies purchased by media organizations. Today, he says, about 80 percent of insured freelancers pay for their own policies.