On James Foley, Steven Sotloff and freelance journalism in the Middle East

It is impossible, as a journalist working in the Middle East (albeit one who never ventures into war zones) not to take the murder of James Foley, and then Steven Sotloff, -- and the alleged torture that preceded it -- personally. I didn't watch the videos; the still photo of each man kneeling next to his executioner was enough. How sickening to see a human being reduced to a prop in his own gleeful murder. 

These men's killings have been followed by some lovely remembrances and many reflections on our vulnerable, hard-scrabble profession. My first reaction to Foley's murder was incomprehension and indignation at the idea that anyone should be freelancing from such a dangerous place at all.

Foley was apparently a "freelance correspondent" -- isn't that a contradiction in terms? -- for Global Post. Also reportedly, that organization's CEO was very personally (and financially) committed to doing right by him and trying to bring him back. Both he and Sotloff seem to have been determined to go to Syria, despite having little to no institutional backing. 

There have been plenty of articles and personal essays in recent weeks about the erosion of real jobs in the media and the toll that freelancing from the Arab world's uprisings and wars can take. (One doesn't have to be on the front lines of war to experience post-traumatic stress order). It's worth remembering, of course, that local fixers for Western news outlets have been getting kidnapped and killed on a regular basis for the last decade.

In the past few weeks there have been some interesting debates on the paying of ransoms and the keeping quiet about abductions (a report on the radio program On The Media suggested that the media blackout on kidnappings by extremists meant we were unaware of the extent of the phenomenon in Syria). What I haven't seen is editors, publishers or media owners clarifying what their policy on accepting freelance work from conflict zones is; or making a commitment to remunerate and protect freelancers better. In piece after piece, freelancers describe the ridiculous conditions under which they report, while those with salaried jobs wring their hands and say things like: "This is a sad reflection on the state of foreign reporting today."

Freelancing is fine when you are young, starting out, and not reporting from somewhere where you are putting your life at risk -- but isn't it high time that the US and Western media actually took greater responsibility for the safety and fair pay of those providing it with content? (If you know of any discussions/new policies being instituted, please share in the comments). 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.