The man behind Vice’s push for freelancer insurance

January 9, 2019

Lean, tall, and bald, Sharbil Nammour, Vice’s head of Global Security, looks like the archetype of a “security guy.” But he stands out in a fundamental way. While the security field is dominated by former military, Nammour has a background in risk management and the law. He has drawn on this experience to help find a solution to a longstanding industry problem: how to extend insurance coverage to freelance journalists, and also the fixers, drivers, translators, and support staff that form an integral part of any high-risk reporting team.

In early 2016, Vice hired Nammour as a consultant to carry out a security evaluation, which took six months. Nammour met with managers, editors, and other staff in the New York and London, and checked in with the teams in the field. He pored over security contracts, insurance policies, and examined the legal framework. After completing his review, he was hired full time with a mandate to reform. (Around the same time, the outlet was criticized for its failure to pay freelancers in a timely manner, but Nammour’s hire wasn’t directly related, he says.)

In an interview at a noisy cafe near Vice’s Williamsburg headquarters, Nammour describes himself as “Lebanese, French, and Canadian—that’s French, comma, Canadian.” (His wife is French-Canadian, no comma.) His father was in the oil business, and Nammour grew up in Beirut and Tunisia. He went to college at Notre Dame, studied law at McGill, and practiced law briefly in Canada (“Cup of coffee briefly,” Nammour emphasizes) before getting into risk management, mostly in the Middle East.

Nammour was hired at a time when Vice was growing rapidly and also heavily relying on freelancers. From Nanmour’s standpoint, the lack of an existing security infrastructure made the job exciting. It was a chance to build a new safety culture from scratch. Nammour says he encountered little resistance as he developed new safety protocols, even from hardened journalists who had previously taken on high risk assignments. “It’s like, here’s some first aid training. Who says no to that? Here’s some life insurance when you go into war zone. Here’s backwatch [remote support], and security. It would be challenging to find someone who says no to any of those things.”

Over the next year, Nammour built out a five-person safety team. It includes an information security expert who helped develop and implement protocols on digital safety. Ramy Ghaly, a former combat medic who served with the US Marine Corps in Afghanistan, was hired as production security manager. (Ghaly previously served as CPJ’s first James Foley Fellow and part of CPJ’s Emergency Response Team. You can watch the videos he produced on first aid here.)

One of the biggest challenges Nammour identified was providing safety support to freelancer contributors. Freelancers have long played a crucial role in covering war and conflict around the world. As someone who spent his entire journalism career as a freelancer in Mexico and Central America, I understand the appeal. Freelancers can often cover the stories they want in they way they want. But they have always been paid poorly and often take on greater risk than staff writers. And even as Vice became a recognized as a critical outlet for freelancers interested in unconventional and long-form reporting, it also faced criticism for its gonzo style.

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Relying on his risk management background, Nammour sought to extend coverage under high-risk policies to the full teams of reporters and news assistants, including the fixers, drivers, and translators. Insurance policies contain risk mitigation clauses that underwrite safety training for those working in high-risk environments. Nammour began providing greater support for Vice freelancers and support staff—enrolling them in hostile and environment and first aid courses, and supporting teams in the field through risk assessment and emergency response protocols. He then went to London and “basically camped out” at the Lloyds office. Over a series of pints, he explained to the insurance company that since the Vice reporting teams were getting the same training and same support as the staff, everyone should get the same insurance coverage at no additional cost. The insurance companies eventually agreed.

“Sharbil showed us that all insurance is negotiation and that benefits all of us,” Jason Reich, head of the global security at BuzzFeed, says, and the arrangement that Nammour was able to negotiate for Vice is becoming an industry standard.

While journalists give Nammour credit for expanding safety training and insurance coverage for Vice freelancers, the relationship between Vice and the freelance community remains fraught.  Anna Therese Day, a veteran freelance conflict reporter, says that, for example, Vice does still not have a central point of contact that freelancers can turn to with their concerns and that the new safety protocols are not consistently implemented across Vice’s different verticals.

“I’m rooting for Sharbil,” says Day, who is the also the co-founder of the Frontline Freelance Register, a London-based organization that advocates for better work conditions for freelancers, says. “But I’m not quite ready to root for Vice.”

Nammour says that Vice is in the process of adding a hotline for freelancers and that safety support extends across all verticals and teams, although he initially worked most closely with the high-risk teams.

The media industry as a whole has rethought safety following the 2014 murders of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff in Syria. Both were freelancers; Foley for GlobalPost and Sotloff for Time magazine. In the early phase on the Syrian conflict, journalists were welcomed by the insurgent groups, who wanted global attention on the atrocities being committed by the Assad regime. But as radical Islamist groups gained a foothold, journalists suddenly became targets. Foley and Sotloff, along with several dozen journalists and aid workers operating in Syria, were taken hostage by the group that would become the Islamic State.

Jim’s mother Diane, through the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation created to honor her son’s memory, has helped spur the creation of a number of new organizations, including Hostage US, which supports the families of those taken hostage and the ACOS Alliance, which works to enhance safety support and improve standards.  And in 2016, CPJ created a new Emergencies Department to provide more comprehensive support to at-risk journalists, and brought on the London-based Colin Pereira as our first safety specialist (Vice provided funding to CPJ to support the creation of the Emergencies team).

Nammour says he’s seen real progress in the industry’s understanding of the role of freelancers, though he acknowledges much work needs to be done. Extending insurance coverage is a significant step forward, particularly if similar arrangements can be negotiated at all major news organizations.

“There’s no reason that duty of care should not extend to freelancers,” Nammour insists. “I’m not trying to hold up Vice as an example. But if we can do it, then anyone can do it. Right?”

Joel Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.