Sustaining a name as a freelance journalist during COVID-19

COVID-19 has undeniably knocked the journalism and media industry and, as newsrooms tighten their budgets to survive the pandemic, many freelance journalists are bearing the brunt of the crisis.

“Freelancers often work with no safety net; while the international news industry functions in large part due to the contributions of freelancers, they are the least resourced, and they do not receive salaries or benefits,” said Nadine Hoffman, deputy director of the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF).

Zimbabwean freelance reporter Panashe Makufa described the tightening of media house budgets during the COVID-19 pandemic as a blow to freelance journalists, especially to those who are still making a name for themselves.

“What matters most [as a journalist] is your name, especially if you’re freelancing,” Makufa said.

A Media Development Investment Fund article said, “The threat posed to media businesses globally by the coronavirus is existential”.

It added that the decision made by brands not to place advertising next to stories on COVID-19 contributes to the challenges the media industry currently faces.

“Advertising revenue has dropped suddenly. The Global Forum on Media Development

has reported that some of its members have seen 70% declines in advertising revenue,

a trend observed globally, most dramatically for local and regional media, as well as

in emerging markets,” said a UNESCO brief on journalism, press freedom and COVID-19.

“Media house budgets are getting smaller and smaller so who suffers first?” said Esther Nakkazi, an independent Ugandan journalist.

While journalists are recognised as essential workers under Uganda’s COVID-19 response, Nakkazi decided to work from her home in central Uganda.

She said the lack of mobility has impacted her work because she now heavily relies on the internet to conduct her interviews.

“Data is expensive and the supply of electricity is not always guaranteed,” Nakkazi said, adding that all the costs of conducting work fall on her.

Hoffman said freelance journalists are finding themselves having to make impossible decisions.

“They need to work to survive, but the only assignments available are COVID-19 related, which means they involve inherent risks. So, do they take the assignments and risk getting sick, in which case they are truly in a crisis?” she said.

Nakkazi said there are other issues that need great attention in the media such as the devastating floods in east Africa. However, she said editors are not always eager to pick up other stories.

“COVID-19 came and you’d think the audience is weary,” she said.

Fellow Ugandan Pricillar Nyamahunge said she wished she could report on issues that affect the communities in the rural town of Masindi that she lives in.

“Some stories I would wish to do are on food insecurity as well as the accessibility to healthcare systems,” the contracted freelancer said.

The ban on the movement of private and public transport vehicles in Uganda has impacted her mobility and the quality of work as she was reliant on the public transport system to move around for her stories.

“The best I can do is get on the phone for my interviews,” she said.

Makufa said freelance journalists without cars can face challenges moving around, more so in Zimbabwe where there is a hectic transport system.

“In Zimbabwe, if you are a freelancer you are definitely on your own,” he said.

However, he added that freelance journalists in his country are covered by organisations such as MISA Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights when facing violations such as assault.

Zimbabwean authorities were heavy-handed with journalists working since the inception of the country’s lockdown. Makufa was harassed and detained on April 4 while reporting in the capital Harare. To address these violations, Makufa and MISA Zimbabwe filed an urgent chamber application at Zimbabwe’s high court and were subsequently granted a relief order as frayintermedia previously reported.

“So in terms of legal representation we are okay but in terms of any other things there is a challenge,” he said

One of these challenges includes protection from acquiring the novel coronavirus.

“Just recently, the [Zimbabwean] media fraternity received PPE [personal protective equipment]. They were given to media houses but not to freelancers. So for you to now cover a red zone you have to go out of your way to cover PPE,” Makufa said.

Nakkazi said the cost of buying PPE such as the appropriate mask is expensive, especially given the unpredictable salary of a freelancer. Realising the inconsistency of earning through journalism during this time, Nakkazi said she relies on media training through Zoom.

The IWMF has a COVID-19 relief fund for women-identifying journalists in dire straits because of the pandemic. Hoffman said about 28% of the applications came from Africa.

“Given the global economic devastation caused by the pandemic, we knew that the journalism community would be hard hit, especially freelancers.

We had hoped there would be more global relief funding available to support our colleagues in extremely dire straits, but this has not been the case so far. While a number of funds have been created to bail out newsrooms, individual journalists are struggling to find help. And we can’t save journalism without saving journalists,” Hoffman said.

Despite the economic threat to her profession, Nakkazi said she still has to find ways to fulfill her financial responsibilities.

“African homes have extended families. There are children whom I support and they depend on me,” she said.

Nakkazi also has to fulfill her responsibilities of being the primary caregiver in her home.

“When I wake up, I make breakfast, do housework, and then do my work,” Nakkazi said.

“Women are more likely than their male peers to be primary caretakers for children or elderly parents. In a pandemic – where reporting a story could expose loved ones to infection – some women are making the painful decision that the assignment isn’t worth the risk.

That calculation comes with a massive loss: urgently needed income. Financial hardship, exacerbated by caretaking responsibilities, will force many women, especially freelancers, out of the news industry,” Hoffman said.

Makufa said the uncertainty of the freelance media industry as this time is a call for his colleagues to explore other financial ventures outside of the industry. Otherwise, when there is no work to pick up “they will go hungry”.

“When I am not getting any money from my work, I’m getting money from my agricultural project. It keeps me going,” he said.

However, he said journalists should not totally abandon their craft when faced with financial difficulty but carry on pushing forward.

‘Don't lose hope. Even if it's not paying, just continue to make a name because what matters most is a name. If you have a name, any time you can get a call [to do work]. Contribute to other organisations even if it's free and they’re not paying so that you have a name that is established,” Makufa said.

“This is not the time to give up. Your name has to shine. Everyone has to know that there is a writer there, There’s a great freelancer there,” Nyamahunge said.

Nyamahunge said while freelance journalists should persevere during the COVID-19 pandemic, they must not push boundaries for the sake of getting published.

“No story is worth your life,” she said.

Freelance journalists can find useful resources on the Rory Peck Trust website.

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