What news organizations owe the fixers they rely on, leave behind in foreign countries

When four New York Times journalists were released by the Libyan government in March, many journalists knew their names: Stephen Farrell, Anthony Shadid, Lynsey Addario, Tyler Hicks. Fewer could name the person with them who is still missing and may be dead: Mohamed Shaglouf, their driver.

In 2009, British commandos rescued Stephen Farrell from his Taliban captors; his translator was killed and his body left behind. His name: Sultan Munadi. That same year, freelance photojournalists Addario and Teru Kuwayama were hurt and their driver was killed in a car crash in Pakistan. The driver was a well-known "fixer": Raza Khan.

When the Taliban kidnapped an Italian journalist in 2007, they beheaded his driver, Sayed Agha. The journalist was freed; his translator, Ajmal Naqshbandi, was killed. Jill Carroll's interpreter was killed when she was abducted in Iraq in 2006. His name: Alan Enwiya.

Afghan mourners look at a picture of slain Afghan translator Ajmal Naqshbandi during a gathering to condemn Naqshbandi's killing in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, April 10, 2007. (Farzana Wahidy/AP)

Their names are unfamiliar because they work in the background, arranging transportation, translating, finding sources, figuring out what's safe and what's not. Sometimes these people are journalists themselves, sometimes they just know English and know people.

Even in death, they're practically nameless, known by what they were doing when they were killed: Farrell's translator, Addario and Kuwayama's driver; Carroll's interpreter.

The questions over Shaglouf's fate have cast attention on how news organizations respond when these “local hires” are hurt, killed or captured. Under what terms are these people hired? If they're hurt, what responsibility do news outlets have to them and their families?

I asked these questions of a variety of reporters and photographers who have worked in conflict zones, and of the news organizations that sent them. Everyone said they believe news outlets have responsibility for the support workers upon whom they rely so heavily.

For example, “The AP takes full responsibility for all individuals working for us, or with us, regardless of their employment status; full-time or not,” Santiago Lyon, director of photography for the Associated Press, said in an email.

The ambiguity lies in the “how.” Several journalists, for news organizations small and large, told me that the responsibility of finding and hiring locals was entirely theirs. They were more concerned with finding someone to help them do their work than explaining how their employers would respond if something bad happens.

“My editors assumed I would take care of it and didn't ask any questions,” Juan Tamayo, a reporter for The Miami Herald, said about hiring fixers. He figures he's worked with more than 100 from Central America to Iraq over the course of about 20 years.

And when something goes wrong? “I've seen everything,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I've seen news organizations absolutely step up and support people – even people who have been contracted informally – and I've seen news orgs turn their back on people.”

Perhaps many news outlets haven't thought through these uncomfortable questions. Perhaps they don't want to go public with policies that differentiate between one kind of employee and another. Perhaps they simply don't want to set a precedent, as Simon suggested.

In part, he said, the difficulty in answering the “how” stems from the complexity of these relationships – from the ad-hoc to the structured, from the one-time assignment to the everyday job, from the driver hired by a full-time employee to one picked up by a freelancer.

There is little ambiguity about what happens if they get into trouble: the foreign journalist is often spared, while the “local hire” is not.

“There can be very significant consequences for harming an international correspondent,” Simon said. “That's not going to be the case with a national.”

Local fixers are knowledgeable and vulnerable

Somehow, it’s always the fixer who dies,” wrote The New Yorker's George Packer in 2009, reacting to Sultan Munadi's killing during Farrell's rescue from the Taliban.

“In Iraq and Afghanistan and a growing number of other places, the foreign correspondent would be a target with or without the fixer, but the fixer is a target because he or she is with the foreign correspondent. Both are considered spies, but one is only an infidel, while the other is something worse—an apostate, a traitor.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented 69 deaths of “media assistants” since 2003. Three of them were killed working for The New York Times, not including Shaglouf, according to Executive Editor Bill Keller. Those figures don't account for other repercussions, such as threats that force people to relocate their families.

Mindful of these dangers, the Herald's Tamayo said his first question upon finding a fixer “was not whether this fixer would get me into and out of any one place and help me translate ... The first question I had was, 'Am I going to get this guy in trouble? Am I going to ask to go to places where he didn't have any place being?'”

Occasionally, such as in Sarajevo in 1992 and Basra in 1991, Tamayo decided to go alone, even though it meant that his reporting would be hampered by the language barrier. “In those cases, I thought the danger was too much to get another person involved, but I needed to be there. I took a chance and went in there myself.”

Although Tamayo said he sometimes explained the circumstances of a particular trip that could put his driver or translator in a difficult position, in general journalists told me they relied on fixers to keep them safe, not the other way around.

“They knew a lot more than I did about where the risks were and how to gauge them and how long to stay,” said Packer, who wrote “The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq” and has reported from Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.

“I think we owe these guys something,” Packer said. “They take enormous risks. And, I would add, all too often we don't think enough of these risks. We don't think about what it's like to be there after we leave, and you have no one powerful protecting you and have no one advocating for you.”

Making amends for some, not others

In March, the four New York Times journalists were covering a battle in eastern Libya when they inadvertently drove upon a checkpoint manned by soldiers loyal to Gaddafi. The soldiers realized they were journalists and captured them just as rebels attacked. After the skirmish, someone ordered that they be shot. Another soldier spoke up: “You can’t. They’re Americans.”

Later Addario saw a body in a pickup near their car and feared it was Shaglouf. The four wrote in an article about what happened, “If he died, we will have to bear the burden for the rest of our lives that an innocent man died because of us, because of wrong choices that we made, for an article that was never worth dying for.”

Kuwayama started prodding his colleagues about Shaglouf's disappearance. He argued that news organizations don't seem to have policies “on what happens in the worst-case scenarios.”

Reuters blogger Felix Salmon picked up on his argument and criticized the New York Times' Keller for acting as if fixers don't exist as he venerated conflict photographers.

In an email, Keller told me:

“Felix Salmon simply doesn't know what he's talking about. The Times takes care of its family — including our drivers, fixers and translators. We do not discuss the details of compensation (for anyone, including staff correspondents) but we fulfill our obligation to employees, including local hires, who are hurt or killed in the line of duty, and to their families in the case of death. (Yes, this includes Mohamed Shaglouf.)”

What about Khan, the Pakistani driver who apparently fell asleep at the wheel as he was driving Kuwayama (who was on assignment for Newsweek) and Addario (who was working for the Times)?

Keller said that case was “sad but considerably different” from Shaglouf and the three local hires killed working for the Times. “He was a short-term hire retained to take journalists to a refugee camp and back. It was not a dangerous assignment.”

Kuwayama said his understanding was that Khan had been hired for two weeks; Addario told me in an email that she had hired Khan to cover the fighting in the Swat valley, but the time was unspecified, and the wreck occurred on the first day on a “very safe, paved highway.” She said Khan wasn't a “regular driver for the NYT as far as I know,” although he did drive her around for a week the year before for the Times' "Talibanistan" story (which was one of a group of stories that won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting).

“I just don't feel that The New York Times should be liable to pay for a freelance driver who falls asleep at the wheel in a completely safe area,” Addario said.

Keller put it this way: “If something like that happened to a driver you hired in New York, you would feel terrible, but would you believe you had an obligation to compensate his family? I doubt it. Even so, the Times raised a few thousand dollars for his family in Pakistan.”

Kuwayama also gave the family some money. He said that Newsweek didn't pay anything; a spokeswoman told me that the company believes it contributed and someone was looking into it.

But Kuwayama took issue with how the Times described Khan's role. “The idea that he was just a random 'taxi driver' hired for a few hours for an innocuous drive in the countryside isn't right,” he said. “And at the time of the accident, the Swat valley war was in full swing. I know that Lynsey and I weren't under the impression that we were going someplace safe.”

The disagreement shows how arbitrary these distinctions are, he said.

“As far as I can see, Raza Khan didn't get any thing close to equal treatment” compared to him and Addario, he said in an email. “Does Mohamed Shaglouf get a different outcome? There's no clear policy. Who decides? What are the metrics? Is it different if a local employee is hired by a full time staff journalist vs. a freelancer working on assignment for a news organization?”

Addario said the Times has made the right call and compensated locals when necessary, more than any other company she's worked for. “I completely respect Teru [Kuwayama]'s drive and dedication to making sure local hires are taken care off – they are our eyes, ears, and our lifeline to the local culture – but a blanket rule would presume that all situations abroad with local hires are black and white, and anyone who has worked overseas knows that that just isn't the case.”

Relocation, compensation in face of threats, tragedy

Elisabeth Witchel, a consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said she could recall several cases in which Western newspapers and broadcasters compensated family when local hires where abducted or killed.

At least a few years ago, according to Witchel, news outlets were not as forthcoming when it came to relocating a local hire and his family due to threats. It's hard to assess the true danger and to secure visas, and the cost is open-ended.

At Packer's request, The New Yorker helped pay to move a local hire's family out of Iraq after they had been threatened.

At the Times, Keller said, “We have relocated local hires when their work put them at risk, paying all of their costs. ... I can think of at least half a dozen people we have relocated, either to safer neighborhoods in their own country or to the U.S. I would estimate the cost has been in the hundreds of thousands.”

The Times has also negotiated for the release of local hires. (“We don't talk about ransom,” Keller said.)

And though it may seem wise to lay out some ground rules up front, Addario said she'd be lying if she promised something to drivers in the field when the decisions are up to someone at the company.

“I cannot make promises to drivers and translators hypothesizing about what might go wrong,” she said, “and how they will then be compensated if something did go wrong, because these decisions are far, far out of my hands.”

Although the Times places freelancers on its insurance when they work in war zones, Keller said the approach for locals is simply that "we assume responsibility for death, disability and medical at our own expense.”

Freelancers can purchase such policies themselves; Reporters Without Borders offers a couple options, although they only cover people working outside their home countries. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, companies can take out specialized insurance for local hires, too. A Committee to Protect Journalists employee said insurance for fixers is available in conflict zones, but it's expensive and companies rarely buy it.

Such a solution, Kuwayama said, would be a “massive step forward.”

“Whenever something goes wrong, it seems like it becomes contingent on individual judgments, on personal relationships, or on how much the people who are directly related push to make things happen,” he said.

“The people at the end of the chain – these drivers, these fixers, they're extremely vulnerable and they often don't have the capacity to press their own case. I think it's incumbent on us to do everything in our power to make the case for them.”

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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