A wage crisis: MCJN members share their experiences of struggling to get paid
While she was studying English literature at Benghazi University in 2011, Maha did not imagine that she would become a journalist and work with global media outlets. But the Libyan revolution that broke out in that year turned the world’s attention to her country. Media crews flocked to her city, looking for reporters and fixers. For six years, Maha assisted scores of journalists by organising interviews, finding information and acquiring permits to work in Libya. Everything she knows about journalism today is by practice. But what she didn’t know, up until recently, was that her work as a fixer should have been paid.
I started my career in journalism in March 2012, when I wrote an article for an English outlet on the first anniversary of the revolution. After filing several reports, journalists from France and the US saw my byline and contacted me asking for help. They would ask me to help them with airport entry procedures, and to arrange interviews with tribal leaders. But they never used the word “fixer”, and so I was not aware that what I was actually doing was journalistic work.
It never crossed my mind to ask for payment. I was 18 years old and I was fascinated by these journalists. Before that time, we never heard about Libya on television. We only saw official reports about Ghaddafi on Libyan state television. This is why I was very happy about my role in spreading different news about Libya. My family would ask me if I was getting paid, and when I say no they would tell me this was wrong. But I was always too embarrassed to discuss this with foreign reporters.
Sometimes, they would email me instructions to make some phone calls for them, and I would make these calls from my own mobile which was costly, but I was never reimbursed for that. It was difficult for me to translate these interviews, so I would ask my friends to help in transcribing and translating long interviews. My effort, and theirs, was for free.
Journalists would call me as soon as they heard news about an explosion, for example. I would collect all the information by myself, and they would just write them into a report with their byline, without any mention of my name. I found that strange, but I used to think that all fixers are volunteers, so I never really paused to think about it.
What happened to me during all these years was exploitation. Because of me, these journalists managed to connect with top political and tribal leaders
When the situation in Libya deteriorated, the assignments became more difficult. I had to arrange interviews with political leaders: from General Khalifa Haftar to the President of the Libyan House of Representatives Akila Saleh. You can imagine how frightened I would be everytime these journalists published a report that was negative or critical of one side over the other. These reporters would leave Libya, and I would stay behind and bear the consequences alone.
In 2016, I started working for the Foreign Media Authority in Benghazi because I needed a stable income. There, I met some young men who were doing the same job I did with foreign reporters, and I found out that they were being paid $150-200 USD a day. This was a big shock to me.
I can’t deny that I have learned a lot during that time, thanks to these journalists, and that my English language skills have developed a great deal. However, it has to be said that what happened to me during all these years was exploitation. Because of me, these journalists managed to connect with top political and tribal leaders. I would even arrange for them to sleep over at my friends’ homes when travel was difficult. But I never thought of asking for money because I was too embarrassed. I wouldn’t even ask my father or husband for money. But when I spoke with the editors of The Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network, I came to realise what should have been clear from the beginning; this is hard work and it needs to be paid. This is a right.
On the other hand, the best experience I had so far was with Mada Masr. In 2018, when rumours spread that Haftar had died, I made some calls and realised that it was not true, and I posted about this on my Twitter account. The editors at Mada Masr contacted me and asked me to write a short piece within the next 15 minutes. They paid me $350 for a 250-word news copy, and I was not expecting that at all.
After I moved to a European country, I realised that I was tired of this situation. Journalists are still calling me seeking help, but I tell them that I’m not in Libya anymore. Even if I can still help them, I don’t want to do that anymore.
Aziza has been working as a journalist since 2002. Arab and foreign media outlets rely on her, not just for covering field news, but also for in-depth reporting on issues ranging from the theft of Palestinian antiquities, to torture in Palestinian prisons. To this day, some outlets owe her thousands of dollars and there is no legal way to make them pay.
Until recently, I was too embarrassed to ask about payment. Now I realise that this has cost me thousands of dollars. Most of the freelance reporting was commissioned by my own initiative. I would send proposals to media outlets, and the moment they commission me I would start working straightaway without asking about fees. In 2010, I was working for a well-known newspaper in the Gulf, but we hadn’t discussed my fees. By chance, a colleague of mine talked to one of their staff and found out that they pay their reporters very well. I did some calculations and realised that they owe me a large amount of money. I wrote to the chief editor asking for clarification, but he never replied, so I stopped writing for them.
I was too embarrassed to ask about payment. Now I realise that this has cost me thousands of dollars
In Palestine, there is also the phenomenon of "middlemen". These are the local agents for Arab channels, and they commission us, as independent journalists, to file reports for them. All communications, editorial and financial, are with these agents. After sending a lot of reports to one of them, the agent told me that the channel did not pay him and so he won’t be able to pay me. Of course, I had no way to confirm this, as I had no direct contact with the channel and no contract with the agent.
What bothers me the most is that even when there is an agreement over fees, many media outlets do not follow up with reporters to make sure that they have been paid. So we end up having to follow up and chase them for months over small amounts.
Recently, I wrote an article for an Arabic-language American website. I had to remind them several times about my payment, and had to wait for five months to get $150. One Arab outlet only pays journalists after they file 4-5 reports, which may be published over several months. I had to wait for five months until I had published five articles with them, but no one contacted me. It was only when I wrote to remind them that they told me there was a problem with transferring money from their country to Palestine. I had to look for a way for them to send me the money. The process was very long, and the bank fees were deducted from my payment.
One time, I had produced an investigative report, and The Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network (MCJN) connected me with an Arabic website to publish it. MCJN’s editor was surprised when I told her that I didn’t ask for payment. We had a long discussion, along with an MCJN mentor too, and they pushed me to contact the editor and ask for payment. MCJN contacted the editors of the website too, given it was them who connected me in the first place. It took them 18 months to finally pay me.
The one outlet I respect the most is Al-Monitor. It was the only institution that gave me a freelance contract, and they communicate regularly and transparently with the reporters when there is a change in fees. Also worth mentioning is my experience with Al Araby Al Jadeed (The New Arab) website. I had published an article with editorial support from The Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network, and in less than a week they sent me the money plus a small amount to cover bank fees.
Having worked as a freelance journalist in Bahrain for several Arab and international media, Nazeeha Saeed found that most outlets suffer amnesia when it’s time to pay. Some have even blamed her for not reminding them about her payment. Unlike many of our members, Nazeeha dropped the embarrassment about money a long time ago, and this has enabled her to receive some of her rights - but not all of them.
I started my career in journalism with local Bahraini media, and I had a contract and a monthly salary of around €1000. But they were often late in their payment, claiming that advertisers on the website had not paid them yet.
After I gained some experience, I started to work as a freelance journalist with foreign outlets, and they were also late on their payments. I worked for a French broadcasting station and they used to pay per piece. In the beginning, I was too shy to ask for my fees, but after a few months I realised there was no room for embarrassment. Whenever I asked about my fees, they would say: “you should’ve reminded us!”. I never understood why I should remind them, given that we had an agreement. We are talking about reputable channels that should deal with journalists more professionally.
Some editors would call me and ask to arrange interviews with ministers or connect them with some experts. This was not calculated as part of my work and I didn’t get paid for it. At the time, I thought I was just helping some colleagues. But when I started working for British media, I realised that what I was doing was actually the work of a fixer and I should have gotten paid.
Whenever I asked about my fees, they would say: “you should’ve reminded us!”. I never understood why I should remind them, given that we had an agreement
I think that we often volunteer to work without pay because we think that they are doing us a favour when they treat us as reporters. But the truth is that we are the ones doing them a favour. After that, I stopped providing information. I would apologise and say: “If you want, I can do the interview for you,” or “I don’t have the numbers.”
About ten years ago, I was working part time for a local economic newspaper. They suddenly stopped my salary, although they continued to publish my articles and reports. They claimed that economic conditions were bad, but I refused to accept this as an excuse. After some persistence, they paid me only a quarter of my fees. I kept following up on the overdue amount (€5000) for two years, but to no avail.
When I moved to Europe I continued to work as a freelance journalist. The situation with the media outlets here is better from the financial perspective, but the story is still the same, I always have to follow up and chase to be paid. The responses are similar: “we forgot”, "write to us”, “remind us”. Such answers have become the story of my life.
I advise every journalist not to be shy and to ask for her rights. In our societies, we are too embarrassed to ask about money because we feel it’s humiliating. I think some institutions exploit the fact that journalists feel they are working for a cause that is more worthy than money, and they act as if they’re doing journalists a favour even if they don’t pay. This is unacceptable. This is work and I should be paid for it! It is also worth noting that journalists’ salaries are the smallest financial burden for any media institution. They spend larger amounts on advertising and marketing departments. Your salaries and fees are not a burden for these institutions so don’t be embarrassed to ask for your rights!
*Photo courtesy of Andrew Pons | stocksnap.com