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The resourcefulness of fixers

THE ETHICS of working with fixers were on the agenda at June's LFB meeting. Our speaker was award-winning broadcast journalist Dr Dawood Azami, a BBC World Service Multimedia Editor and former BBC Bureau Chief in Kabul.

our speaker

Dr Dawood Azami

Dr Azami gave examples from Pakistan of the "resourcefulness of fixers". One unnamed Western journalist arrived - as many do - "with a story in mind". He sought a local fixer to assist on his story about the feelings of parents of Talibanis from Pakistan who were killed on the battlefield in Afghanistan.

The journalist went to a father whose son was killed in Afghanistan. The father told how his son had "wanted to fight for Allah, now he's dead, I'm fine with that." The next father of a "martyred" Talibani said more or less the same. But the journalist was looking for a sad story featuring a devastated parent. He told his fixer he wanted "more drama," so the fixer "found a fake father for him," who told him what he wanted to hear.

Another journalist went to another part of Pakistan to look for Taliban training camps. But these "don't exist in the open... they're underground". Fixers won't find them for you. The fixer said, "let me find something, give me some time." He later took his client into the hills to see "five or six people in turbans, looking like they are being trained".

Fixers have "skills, they have local knowledge, they can arrange your transportations be your interpreter, can give you story ideas if you have an open mind, if you don't have fixed ideas," says Dr Azami. But "the job is very risky," made worse by the fact that there are now more "taboo topics".

The stories that governments are happy to see covered are handled by local media. Journalists seek fixers to cover the taboo topics not covered locally. Criticising "politicians or their policies" is taboo. Democracy and human rights is now something "you cannot cover in South East Asia", in Pakistan you can't talk about separatism in Baluchistan province. India is "getting worse" for subjects that are off-limits. Paradoxically, Afghanistan is "freer" than most of the region in terms of what coverage government will tolerate, as long as you don't offend the "more dangerous" warlords.

"Many fixers were killed in the past years in some of these countries," notes Dr Azami, when fixers help journalists "they are in trouble." They are not recognised as a profession, but "recognition brings more trouble for fixers, anonymity is sometimes useful", in some cases "it is required." Then there's "not having insurance... a major problem". Fixers are "paid on a daily basis... nobody knows what happened to them after the correspondent leaves."

The other risk fixers face is "mental health... they face dreadful things." For journalists, medical help is available - the fixers are abandoned. "When it comes to fixers it is hopeless... there is nothing... no support". This is in contrast to Dr Azami's own experience of coming under Taliban attack on arrival at his Kabul hotel in 2010. After it was over, the World Service rang him to check he was OK and asked if he needed a doctor.

Despite initiatives to support fixers, such as those of the Frontline Club and the International Federation of Journalists, Dr Azami hasn't heard of fixers being helped. It's hard to identify or find them - "they don't know who the fixer is... they are not registered, they have no job title for fixers, they are hired for a few days, they work for a local NGO" or are "unemployed youth, students" as well as a new type of fixer, "activists turned journalists", who are more at risk.

The role of fixers is changing, mostly for reasons of cost. Many news organisations have "closed local bureaus" with "just one or two (local) journalists sending raw material". In many cases, this leads to fixers becoming "proper journalists, they now work for the New York Times or CNN". Fixing can be "very beneficial in terms of knowledge of skills," there are "many local journalists who started as fixers".

LFB Committee member Erica Dezonne also introduced a short video (see below) by "my dearest friend", Brazilian photojournalist Felipe Pavia, who described life for fixers in the continent of South America, where work for fixers "comes in waves, when there is political instability" to report on. In his experience, "fixing in Venezuela can be very different from fixing in Ukraine or fixing in Iraq."

It's "hard to measure how profession as a whole is doing... fixers are a very disorganised group, you go to the square, if somebody hires you are lucky, if not you go home," this is done via a "very informal mechanism". While Felipe has "heard stories of fixers inventing stories and inventing characters," word-of-mouth ensures everyone knows "who does the job well, who is morally engaged".

  • There are several cases of left-behind fixers being helped by individual members of LFB or LFB collectively. See, for example, the case of Iraqi fixer Tariq Ramadan, now granted asylum after being assisted by London Freelance Branch members.