opinion | Charles M. Sennott

Create a new culture of safety for freelance journalists

American journalists James Foley (left) and Steve Sotloff were beheaded by Islamic State militants.
American journalists James Foley (left) and Steve Sotloff were beheaded by Islamic State militants.

Risk was always part of the terrain for journalists covering conflicts, insurgencies, and upheavals around the world.

But times have changed, and those of us in this line of work have gone from trying to stay out of the crossfire to feeling caught in the crosshairs. With journalism directly under attack on many fronts, the right to a free press is threatened as never before.

In response to an unprecedented rate of intimidation, abduction, and killing of journalists around the world, more than 20 news organizations and advocacy groups on Thursday signed on to a new set of safety standards for reporters on dangerous assignments, in a document called “A Call for Global Safety Principles and Practices.”


Citing the murders this summer of freelance reporters James Foley and Steven Sotloff as a global turning point, the document calls for staff and freelance journalists and the news organizations they work with “to actively join in a shared commitment to safety and a new spirit of collegiality and concern.”

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The document presents a list of basic standards for journalists on dangerous assignments, including training in first aid, how to work in hostile environments, securing medical insurance in conflict zones or areas of infectious disease, and finding appropriate protective gear, such as Kevlar vests and helmets.

It also lays out a parallel set of standards for news organizations making assignments in dangerous places. These standards assign a “moral responsibility” for news organizations to “support journalists to whom they give assignments in dangerous areas, as long as the freelancer complies with the rules and instructions of the news organization.”

The list of signatories include the Associated Press, Reuters, the BBC, the Committee to Protect Journalists, GlobalPost, The GroundTruth Project, and others. What binds this group together is a desire to establish a new culture of safety for journalists in the field, particularly freelancers. We recognize that news organizations face a time of great change and upheaval, one that is straining old business models and leaving many organizations old and new struggling financially to fund international reporting. As a result, many of these organizations rely on independent journalists, or freelancers.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports journalists are facing the worst threat levels in the nearly 25 years since it has been keeping track of data. Seventy-three journalists were killed in 2013, a record number, and 61 were killed last year.


Things are bad, and getting worse. In the last six months, the killing of the messenger has reached a depth of darkness that few could imagine. It began with the gruesome beheadings of Foley and Sotloff at the hands of the self-described Islamic State.

It escalated with the Paris shooting rampage by two gunmen inspired by Al Qaeda in Yemen. They killed 12 people at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical weekly news magazine that has featured cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. And just two weeks ago, the Islamic State beheaded yet another journalist, a Japanese correspondent named Kenji Goto.

This sobering reality has been the focus of much discussion in news organizations around the globe.

The standards were drafted through a collaborative effort over the last several months that involved dozens of veteran foreign correspondents, committed freelancers, international editors, and executives from news organizations large and small as well as representatives of advocacy groups. We tried our best to represent a broad cross section of media, and we see this as the start of a longer and larger struggle to protect freedom of expression and the right to a free press.

“This is just the beginning, but we think it is a good start to a process of making sure freelancers are provided the respect, the dignity, the protections and ultimately the fair pay they deserve,” said Vaughan Smith, who founded the London-based Frontline Freelance Register, which represents some 500 freelance journalists around the world who’ve signed on to the new standards.


As the standards proclaim, in a time of journalistic peril, news organizations and journalists must work together to protect themselves, their profession, and their vital role in global society.


Things are bad, and getting worse. In the last six months, the killing of the messenger has reached a depth of darkness that few could imagine.

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Sandy Wolofsky: Honor slain foreign correspondents by demanding more of their work

Stephen Pinker: Why free speech is fundamental

Ward Sutton: When censorship is the norm

Charles M. Sennott, former Middle East bureau chief for the Globe, is executive director of The GroundTruth Project and a cofounder of GlobalPost.