Any conflict is dangerous for the working journalist covering it. It’s comes with the job. Especially this Arabian spring, which has demanded a horde of reporters, photographers and media personnel to cover events through the Middle East and North Africa. Some have media companies behind them, some work for themselves. Freelancers. We praise them and their stories, often sold and published cheaply by the media not willing to hire. Some freelancer will win World Press Photo in February for his Arabian spring images (remember where you read it first), and every single one of them get one step closer to fame. They may make a month’s pay while risking their lives in the conflict zones, if they’re lucky. But it’s a life full of stress and uncertainty.
That the Swedish government would not be quick about reacting and put pressure on Ethiopia demanding answers is not news to anybody. With the classical Swedish way of silent diplomacy that has been enforced in the case of Dawit Isaak (Swedish reporter imprisoned in Eritrea since 2001) no one really expected the Swedish Foreign Ministry and our Minister for Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt would wave their arms when the freelancers Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson were arrested in Ethiopia about two months ago. The Swedish government’s silence is unacceptable, but very much expected.
What is truly disturbing, however, is the fact that all newspapers and magazines have kept silent instead of stepping up to defend the two reporters. Media outlets that gladly would have published their reportage and called them “our reporters” along with the revelation. Media outlets that can’t resist the thought of a first-person reportage where Carl Bildt and Lundin Petroleum are caught red-handed in a developing country – a scoop of solid gold, if true – but don’t really care for commissioning the freelancers.
Media outlets like the Swedish magazine Filter, whose Editor in Chief excused himself “It’s not easy to know what I could have done, or was expected to do”.
Filter is sadly not alone, and the problem is widespread. In Sweden, as well as internationally. The blog post from the Editor in Chief mentions several national Swedish national media as potential buyers of the reportage Martin and Johan was producing, and probably reflects what all the editors are thinking. But for Martin and Johan in Ethiopia it suddenly got very, very clear on the day of their arrest. No media were willing to stand with them.
It is not until the beginning of September – two months after their arrest – that said media even speak out about Martin and Johan. By now rumours have already been circulating about whether Martin and Johan are actually “real journalists” or not. If any of the newspapers had spoken up defending them as colleagues from the beginning, that might have been prevented. The magazines Fokus, Rodeo and Filter have now stated this, assuring everyone that Martin and Johan are legitimate freelance journalists, considered colleagues. But it is too late. The advocacy that should have come instantaneously, came too late.
The very core discussion comes down to our definition of freelancers. We are going to need a national and worldwide debate about how to relate to freelancing journalists. Today they are but dust to the editorial staff.
They work in precisely the same manner as hired journalists, being the outmost defenders of freedom of speech and information. But they work without safety nets. Without trust backing them up. They’re sent slap-bang into an assignment, and only sometimes get paid what they’re due. Most often not.
They are without governments that defend journalists’ rights – no matter freelance or employee – to investigate unreported issues in unfair areas of the world. Not least since they apparently lack media companies that immediately and with force stand up for their rights to do so. They praise them if they succeed, but neither pay nor help them when they fail or get stuck in the far corners of the world.
Sweden has long been a role model for maintaining freedom of speech and information as a high priority. Not it seems not only the government, but even the press, is sliding away from this necessity of democratic society. Let it not be so.
Authorities, media and organisations alike must unequivocally reject the Ethiopian government’s presecution against Martin and Johan. If they have violated nothing but access restrictions and visa laws, they must be defended like any other journalist would be. From day one.