Freelance journalist James Foley in 2011.  Photograph by Jonathan Pedneault
Freelance journalist James Foley in 2011. Photograph by Jonathan Pedneault

A coalition of prominent news outlets and journalism advocacy groups Thursday will release a set of guidelines at Columbia Journalism School for the protection of freelancers.

The recommendations, which will have the support of several prominent wire service organizations including The Associated Press and the Agence France-Presse, set forth best practices for both freelancers and the news organizations that employ them.

The new directives come amid a perilous time for freelance journalists, said Robert Mahoney, deputy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Widespread access to publishing tools has enabled terrorists to spread their messages widely without media organizations, making journalists more valuable to these groups as gruesome spectacles than bearers of witness. And financial setbacks have prompted many news organizations to shutter their foreign bureaus, leaving freelancers to pick up the slack in dangerous regions.

The initiative was spurred by the murders of American freelance journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff at the hands of the Islamic State group last year. Their slayings, images of which were made public and disseminated widely, "demanded a constructive response on the part of the news industry," Mahoney said.

"The spate of abductions and killings of journalists that we've seen over the last couple of years, particularly in the Middle East, has been horrific and demands some kind of action on the part of all of us in the news industry," he said.

Data collected by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows that reporters have been jailed and killed at increasing rates in recent years. From 2012 to 2014, 205 journalists were killed worldwide, a 24 percent increase over the preceding three-year period. The last three years were the worst for imprisonment of journalists since CPJ began collecting data, with 221 journalists jailed by the end of 2014.

In the wake of the murders, several organizations convened panels aimed at improving working conditions for freelance journalists, Mahoney said. A working group formed near the end of last year to draft guidelines that news organizations and freelancers would abide by.

News organizations that have signed on to the guidelines include The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, the BBC, Newsweek, PBS Frontline, Guardian News and Media Group, Public Radio International's "The World," Reuters, McClatchy Newspapers, GlobalPost, the Pulitzer Center and The Groundtruth Project. Several press advocacy groups are also signatories, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, International News Safety Institute, International Press Institute, the Frontline Freelance Register, Reporters Without Borders, the Overseas Press Club of America, the Rory Peck Trust and the James W. Foley Legacy Fund.

"That's a pretty big group, and we hope that once these guidelines are launched, others will join," Mahoney said

The guidelines recommend that freelancers learn first aid and wear appropriate protective clothing in war zones, that they assess the risks associated with traveling to hazardous regions and carefully arrange details of their assignment before arrival.

In turn, the guidelines state that news organizations should treat freelancers the same way they would full-time staffers, helping them in cases of kidnap or injury and giving them similar consideration in matters of payment, byline credit and safety equipment.

Although the document is not legally binding, the signatories are agreeing to abide by and support the compact for equitable treatment of freelancers, Mahoney said. The coalition hopes that the document will set a precedent throughout the news industry that freelancers are valued members of the journalism community.

"We put this as a first step in a long campaign to convince other news organizations and journalists to adopt these standards," Mahoney said.