Gaza: Where Freelance Means Abandoned

GAZA CITY — Sitting by the hospital bed of freelance photographer Mohammed Othman, Ashraf Abu Amrah knows that nobody owns a freelance journalist from Gaza who gets injured, or dies.

"When a news agency crew is injured, the world reacts with anger, and human rights groups send letters of protests," Abu Amrah, 29, himself a freelance photographer, tells IPS. A Palestinian freelance journalist in Gaza is on his own, he says. 

Othman suffered with injury to his chest, and damage to his spinal cord in an Israeli attack. His right arm and hand suffer due to neurological damage. His attending doctor at Al-Wafa Hospital says Gaza’s ill-equipped hospitals are not equipped to provide the care he needs. 

Doctors at Al-Shifa hospital were able to get shrapnel out of his spinal cord, but not much more can be done in Gaza. He has since been moved to a hospital in Jordan. 

Niman Shtawi, head of a local photo-website which promotes photographs of Palestinian freelance journalists, says he and his colleagues are marginalized by international groups, and have no protection in conflict or peace, unlike journalists working for local and international news agencies, or those working for factional media. 

An international group recently donated bulletproof vests, helmets and safety equipment to journalists in the region. "Freelance photojournalists were not given any," says Shtawi. Most of the new equipment, he says, was given to the wealthier news agencies, which can afford such equipment anyway. 

When opportunities arise for advanced photography training in European countries supposedly to develop local media skills, "most of those invited are the big news agencies that already have the budget and means for their staff without any help from international aid groups." And this when local freelancers are usually first there on the frontline where the violence happens. 

It isn’t great for Gaza’s freelancers at the best of times. Freelance journalism brings Abu Amrah neither enough food on the table, nor health insurance for him, his wife or his two children. International news agencies, he says, are reluctant and to sign contracts with local journalists. 

Shtawi has "no budget to use in case of emergency" though many of these photographers are internationally recognized. Many pictures they have taken have been published in the world’s largest newspapers, magazines and photo engines. 

Eyad Al Baba has worked six years as a freelance photographer selling images to foreign news agencies. "Freelance media should be recognized in hot spots like Palestine by an organization that protects them," he tells IPS. "It is a dangerous job, you risk your life, but when you are in crisis, nobody stands by you." 

"This injury to Othman has made me think a thousand times about the future of freelance journalists like myself," says Ashraf Abu Amrah. "We ask for protection, no more." 

The picture is less than rosy for local journalists employed by international agencies. There is clear discrimination between local staff and foreign staff, says a local journalist employed by an international news agency. "In times of war, armed vehicles are given to European staff — locals must take their normal car and manage by themselves." He spoke of huge gaps in payment to local and to foreign journalists. 

Othman looks ahead to an unsure future. Apart from his injuries, his equipment was damaged, including two cameras he had bought to practice a profession for which he studied four years. 

"A bullet-proof vest which is expensive and must be ordered from abroad is not affordable, so it’s not available to me," he says. And yet nobody wants to give up either. 

Not Samar Abu Elouf, among the few female freelance photographers around in Gaza. She wants to carry on documenting photo stories of cases the bigger news agencies know little about. "This is a challenge, I will not leave despite all dangers," she tells IPS.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Mohammed Omer

Mohammed Omer writes for Inter Press Service.