Latin America: Freelance Journalists are Essential but Vulnerable

By Bill Gentile*

Bill on patrol with the Sandinista Army in the northern mountains of Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Gentile on patrol with the Sandinista Army in the 1980s/ Backpack journalism – copyright Bill Gentile

Freelance journalists are at the center of covering many of the most important news stories in Latin America but face increasing threats to their security and well-being. Tough economic realities and competition from the internet have forced most traditional U.S. and European media to close their bureaus across the region since the 1980s. Whereas maintaining a bureau may have cost $250,000 a year (and double that for a TV production team), these companies can now get reporting from freelancers for a small fraction of that cost. Consumers of news in and outside Latin America have become steadily more dependent on unaffiliated journalists for information on key developments.

  • Prize-winning journalist Jason Motlagh, for example, is a freelancer who has done groundbreaking stories on gang activities in El Salvador, even accompanying specialists exhuming the bodies of murder victims whose families yearn to give them proper burial. Independent reporter Frank Smyth has covered violence in Central America, and in Colombia he uncovered that U.S. counter-narcotics aid was being diverted to death squads run by Colombian military intelligence. Ioan Grillo has explored tunnels under the U.S.-Mexico border through which drugs and humans are smuggled. Stories such as these are rarely, if ever, reported by the “legacy media” that used to have full-time staffers in the region.

Although news consumers outside Latin America depend on them for ground truth, the freelancers lack the infrastructure and protections of their brethren in staff media positions. They hire local “fixers” to navigate complex places and gain situational awareness, but they depend mostly on their wits – and luck – to survive. Many report feeling exploited.

  • Security is their top concern. Criminal groups target any reporter looking into their activities, and freelancers – who often have the depth, language, and ideals to cover them aggressively – pose a particular threat. When journalists working as staff for traditional media have been kidnapped, their companies have helped get them released – something that freelancers can only dream of. Protection from governments is important too. The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported that 75 of the 251 journalists arrested for their work in 2018 were freelancers.
  • Some companies’ tendency to pay late, or never, is another problem. Even journalists with strong track records report having been assigned stories, submitting them on time, and then waiting months for payment. Overdue fees of up to $60,000 are not unheard of. Because of declining budgets, even excellent reporters working for serious news outlets have been forced to change careers.

Despite these trying conditions, freelancers still do solid journalism that supports the interests of the countries in which they work and the international community. But fairness dictates that the media who use them and the consumers of their news, including Latin America watchers like us, support ways to better protect them and their jobs. Some organizations, such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, provide assistance to reporters. The London-based organization ACOS Alliance is trying to “embed a culture of safety” throughout the industry. Its “Freelance Journalists Safety Principles” have been endorsed by nearly 100 news organizations, but the code lacks an enforcement mechanism. Some freelancers have proposed forming a trade union, but the mechanisms for binding media to contracts will be difficult to establish. The elements of a solution are not beyond reach, however. The staff foreign correspondent, representing a powerful media organization in North America or Europe, may be a dying breed, but the truth that they seek to report is not.

October 29, 2019

*Bill Gentile, a veteran news reporter, teaches journalism at American University. His video series, FREELANCERS with Bill Gentile, is available on multiple platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Video On Demand and Google Play.

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