Sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? And yet, that is the work environment that greets aspiring freelance foreign correspondents today. In the seven years I’ve been working as a journalist in the Middle East, the average going rate I’ve encountered for a 2,000-word web story from a conflict zone is anywhere from $350 to $600. You can forget about the price of travel and accommodations, but more important, staying alive in a war zone is expensive. Good helpers and security cost money, and when they can’t be afforded, corners are cut. Unwise risks are taken, and they sometimes have serious consequences.
For many journalists who report on conflict, this job is not a choice — it’s a compulsion. There are people who believe in this work enough that we will willingly put ourselves in dangerous situations and traumatize ourselves by witnessing incredible human suffering without the slightest guarantee of security, financial or otherwise. That might sound crazy, but it certainly doesn’t apply only to me. Practically every freelance conflict journalist I know fits this description, and they all have stories like the one I’m about to tell.
I recently proposed to a prominent magazine I won’t name an article about refugee returns to Syria. An editor at the publication said they were very interested but needed more pre-reporting before they could commit. Here’s a bit of background on the piece.
The Syrian refugee crisis has not ended. Jordan is struggling to cope with its population of about 700,000 Syrians, as is Turkey with 3.5 million and Lebanon with more than a million. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is rapidly running out of money to provide aid and has been drastically cutting services for refugees over the past two years. Europe, Canada and, of course, the United States have rapidly decreased the numbers of refugees they’re taking in. As a result, the overwhelmed countries neighboring Syria are trying to send refugees back to the war zone they fled. This is all taking place at a moment when it has become clear that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will maintain control over a significant swathe of territory in Syria.
For my story, I decided to visit Arsal, a town in Lebanon, near the Syrian border, that is hosting more than 50,000 refugees. Some 800 refugees have returned to Syria in recent weeks, ostensibly of their own free will, but my reporting soon showed that matters were much more complicated. Local residents were harassing the refugees. Horrific conditions in the refugee camps and sky-high prices were also putting pressure on them. Private landlords, with the help of Lebanese municipalities, were carrying out mass evictions.
From what refugees told me, it’s hard to get reliable information from the returnees. I heard that some have managed to find relatives to stay with and are settling in relatively well, while others have simply disappeared into Syrian prisons or are being terrorized by the shabiha, notorious pro-Assad militias renowned for sexual violence.
After days spent in the camps gaining people’s trust, I had more than six hours of interviews and was planning to write a story that explores how the return process really plays out. But after all that work — as well as the emotional toll it takes to report on such horrific human suffering — the editor I was corresponding with told me the magazine didn’t want the piece anymore. I was not compensated for my time, and when I tried to sell it elsewhere, I got crickets from other editors.
I’m tired of fighting so hard to do an important job I love and believe I’m good at. This was the last straw. I’m on the verge of giving up being a freelance foreign correspondent and moving back to the States. That would make me one of several journalists I know who have made the same decision in recent years. It has become completely unsustainable for my mental health to continue doing this job, as it has for many others. The end result is that countless important, life-or-death stories like this one will receive less coverage than they should.
I’m often approached by journalism students and aspiring freelancers for advice on how to do this work in our current environment. I have run out of nice ways to tell them to find another career if they can. I know that for some, that advice will always fall on deaf ears. Some of them will take stupid risks and work however long it takes for any amount of money to do a job they believe in. I just hope I don’t see any of them on TV one day in an orange jumpsuit, surrounded by men wearing black.