Freelancing, a dangerous task in Pakistan

Posted on May 9, 2013

By: Fatima Ali

Pakistani freelancer Arif Shafi’s death in a suicide attack reminded me a session about freelancing at the Excellence in Journalism Conference 2012 in Florida. The speaker’s topic was how a freelancer can get what he’s worth: “Be expensive or publisher would not take you seriously.”

Before listening to him I had never thought of it and perhaps still can’t grasp this thought. The organization I worked with for many years compelled me to resign when I was going abroad for studies. I was so confident in my own self, thinking that people know me well enough that I could always start writing for different newspapers as a freelancer. That will earn me some fame and fortune and I will be alive and kicking too in the sea of journalism back home in Pakistan.

I was totally wrong.

I contacted some newspapers, which showed interest in publishing my reports but without paying a single buck. I wonder how big media groups can say they don’t have enough money to pay when they publish a freelancer’s rattling good story and the paper gets advertisement on almost every page. Most of the organizations tell writers that it is an honor for them to be published in their precious paper or magazine, and therefore they should not expect money.

It doesn’t end there. The journalists working in remote and dangerous places like the tribal areas, Baluchistan, Swat and other danger zones are even worse off.  Media channels, newspapers and magazines use their information to make the breaking news but they never hire them as staff.

There’s a well-known stringer from Swat who is often shown on a TV channel doing live coverage. While covering terrorism, he even lost his very near and dear ones in an attack on his house by Taliban - but still he is a stringer, who gets less than a hundred dollars a month for risking his life. With his own filming equipment first he runs to find an editor to get his reports ready and then he is shuttling around to find a high-speed Internet to send his videos across the desolate city.  

Security is the biggest concern for the freelancers. Arif Shafi is not the first Pakistani freelancer to die in a terrorist attack. According to statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 52 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 1992 and 7 of them were free lancers.  

  • Hayatullah Khan was kidnapped and after six months, his body was found in Miran Shah in June 2006. He was kidnapped shortly after he photographed the remnants of a U.S.-made missile said to have struck a house in Miran Shah, killing senior Al-Qaeda figure Hamza Rabia.  

  • Mehboob Khan died in April 2007 in Charsadda, in a suicide bombing at then Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao.

  • A suicide attack killed Tahir Awan in January 2009 in Dera Ismail Khan. 

  • Fazal Wahab, a freelance writer, was shot dead by some unidentified gunmen in Mingora, Swat.

  • Two gunmen killed a broadcast reporter Mukarram Khan Aatif outside a mosque in Shabqadar, Peshawar in 2012.

When these reporters get killed, no organization takes care of them. Their close friends or some private organizations collect funds to support their families left behind. I appreciate UPI staff for setting up a special fund for Arif Shafi’s family and hope that other international media organizations would also follow footsteps of UPI for their freelancers.

Most of the freelancers or stringers fall prey to an obvious disparity. There are people who consider themselves journalists but seldomly go to the field. They use their family connections to get high-salaried jobs in media organizations. They are related to parliamentarians, human rights activists or business tycoons.

Such so-called journalists come to office and spend whole day there working for other organizations as freelancers. They take full advantage of their designations and use other reporters as their sources. They check out other reporter’s stories, gather information and then transform another reporter’s effort into their name and sell it to big American and European newspapers, getting thousands of dollars in their bank accounts.

They emerge as famous journalists, win awards but never disclose that their sources were actual field reporters.

A reporter can never be a source for any other reporter. I remember once one of our executive producers interviewed a fake suicide bomber and sold it to some foreign channel for a huge amount of dollars. How do I know that? Well the reporter, who is a friend, arranged that fake bomber, did it under pressure of his boss and requested his tailor, who aspired to be an actor, play this role. And the boss was too dumb to know the reality.

Director of the Cronkite Global Initiatives and Associate Professor Cronkite School of Journalism, Dr. Bill Silcock, said in an email interview that “freelancers and stringers provide an important role in the dissemination of global news. They are eyes and ears that often get there far before a network news organization can arrive.”

They earn a good reputation by reporting truth. They go to dangerous places for digging out accurate stories and become the eyes and ears for the audience that cannot be there in person. The sad part of the job is that so often they do not have the same kind of fame, reputation, and company backing that someone working for CNN or BBC enjoys.


Author: Fatima Ali
Author: Fatima Ali