Freelance Reporters as Mercenaries
Individuals and Clandestine Units
"A knight must encounter his fate, whether it meet him in the shape of sword or flame." – Walter Scott, from Ivanhoe
When discussing press freedom an essential element for democracy, we must praise freelance journalists in every state of our United States. People pick up pen and recorder and find the stories that help us refine how we govern and conduct ourselves as citizens. As such, we must also help them do this noble job safely and effectively.
Before we reach specifics, it is nice to get a sense of what freelancers have done and do now in modern times. “Freelance” means a person who works by the hour, day, or job, instead of on a regular and continuing basis for one employer. Generally, freelance work refers to writers, designers, and performers performing as independent contractors. For example, we contracted a freelance designer to draw and color a custom female journalist anime figure.
The value in etymology, though, is almost never present-day meaning, but technical meaning rooted in original use. In Medieval Europe, “freelancer” meant a mercenary soldier or adventurer, bridging the adjective “free” and noun “lance,” the latter a long wooden shaft with a pointed metal head—a common weapon used by knights and cavalry soldiers. Lance further referred to a cavalry soldier armed with this weapon and ready to charge. Historically, freelancers carried their weapons openly and marched with armies in battle, defending people and property from aggressors. Often they charged as aggressors.
Narrowing to mercenary, again, etymology is helpful: From Middle English, from the Latin mercenarius, we get the noun from merced- and merces, or wages. This means someone who works solely for wages, disregarding the ethico-political consequences of an army’s campaigns. Governments hire mercenaries who have no formal connection to state security services for a few reasons. The host country can easily deny knowledge, treat them as disposable, and pay with underground monies disconnected from state funds.
One recent example of mercenaries is the Slavonic Corps, a private security firm based in Hong Kong, guarding oil fields in Syria and securing Assad regime assets, as reported by fontanka.ru, a St. Petersburg media outlet. Reportedly, Slavonic Corps fighters also engaged Assad’s enemies directly alongside other contractors such as Moran Security Group. A bit more sinister, though, are the individual mercenaries not organized within a larger private firm. These heavily armed men show up ready to fight unannounced and uninvited. Known as kontraktniki, the Russian mercenaries fought in Chechnya, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq going back to Operation Desert Storm, as reported by The Telegraph in September 2001. And there is evidence of mercenaries in Ukraine today. There are more of these firms than imaginable, including Pretoria in South Africa, Sandline International out of London, and even Military Professional Resources, Inc. (MPRI), based in our hometown of Alexandria, Virginia. Apropos, MPRI, now called L3 MPRI, correctly displays a medieval sword in its logo.
Moving closer to battle lines, self-funded and motivated by their defense-oriented past, freelance reporters increasingly enter hostile zones, which broadly means reporting in the midst of aggressors who wish them harm, both state and private—those who want to limit press activity and by extension limit critical information from reaching the public. Freelancers release this information through media outlets, breaching the walls set up by city and state (and sometimes federal) governments. At the city and state level, freelancers do much of the grunt work, putting themselves in danger first before any corporate company profits from freelance labor.
What, then, is the safety task for freelancers before committing to risk life, limb, and liberty? To start, it is a task of committing to the lifestyle of someone underground, operating in the dark, recovering the “mercenary” profile from the original meaning. Of course, freelancers do not earn wages without ethical and political purpose, such as Russian mercenaries in Afghanistan. But in many freelance journalists seem to take what jobs they can get to make a living. And working independently offers some important security measures that those with high-profile public jobs do not have.
Today, freelance journalists rarely arm themselves and march with others, but they certainly work to defend something, even democracy itself. Trading spears for memorializing equipment (e.g., notepad, camera, video), freelance reporters run solo, fund themselves, and somehow blindside parties with breaking news. A former trainee of ours, Brandon Smith, did this with his FOIA request for the video footage of police shooting Laquan McDonald. And he recently told us, “The biggest pro to being an independent is that I can defend whomever I please, so long as I sell the idea well enough.” He added that he can defend “those who end up with the least rigorous defense,” countering the large media outlets who defend powerful forces like police unions.
Stealth and Operational Security
“Mercenary” has positive themes when retrieved and employed to reference modern freelance reporters. The traditional international definition is “non-nationals hired to take part in armed conflicts.” Soldiers paid by foreign countries to fight are mercenaries, and they fight for any country willing and able to pay. Freelancers in the U.S. do the same for any city or state, given the story and payout is worthwhile. We think the best security package is to live much like independent mercenaries not aligned with a corporate body. What do they look like? They look like shop owners who look for business opportunities.
The posturing of mercenaries is calculated. They do not indicate to others that they fight for other countries to earn a living or extra money. If they did, their mercenary careers would be short and blunted probably with violence. Mercenaries do not survive long working ex tempore. And neither would freelance reporters investigating sensitive stories in dangerous territory like Mexico or Venezuela.
Ideally, we want our freelance reporters to honorably arrive and report for the sake of the story, and to make a living, but to adopt some mercenary-like practices to report safely and effectively in hostile environments. Particularly, in the United States, freelancers should practice stealth when working and mercenary-like operational security when off-the-job. We will focus here on the latter point: limiting attention and the risk of getting tracked, databased, and eventually targeted for surveillance.
Everyday Security Posturing
First, without allegiance to any one country, and without a flag to fly, mercenaries become known to few major players. They hide in the general population, so to speak, and come out when needed, then return to daily life. Freelancers have day jobs, keep steady homes, travel as needed, and wiggle through cities loose and independent, never committing to one outlet for the long haul. This affords many security measures that keep them remote and agile in aggressors’ sights. Basically, they can blend in, operate nights and weekends, and keep their visibility low. They earn wages without advertising, marketing, and rubbing shoulders with public figures.
The first priority is to drop the desire for prestige, public applause, and alliances with large media organizations. That may be economically backward, yet the best positioning to freelance in quantity and quality.
Freelancing like a mercenary is compatible with family and friends, and social life can be integral to work overtly and sometimes covertly. A major barrier is sharing critical information with others. We need to talk about work, exchange stories with friends, and keep our families informed. However, this can compromise one’s ability to report. So we recommend complete and qualified lies to friends, co-workers, and family about press life. Resisting the urge to share is difficult at first, but becomes routine and in fact a side hobby. Keep a constant mixture of stories that are simple and believable. And if prepared well, some stories may even be accurate.
For a long while we’ve trained reporters to cultivate at least two to three “outside activities,” meaning private-life hobbies that allow for interesting work missions. Freelancers might have full-time day jobs, but whether reporting is part-time or full-time, they need to pursue hobbies to explain their time away from friends and family and create opportunities to meet sources, exchange items, and perhaps infiltrate groups. We can think of a few groups that would be easy to infiltrate and exploit within just a few weeks.
Good hobbies explain travel. Mobile, independent reporters need cheap, everyday hobbies like tennis, comics, model planes, and music lessons. Something that takes $20 a week to pursue and opens the door for out-of-town conferences, conventions, and meetings. Build it up, post on social media, and treat interests as genuine (and they may become legitimate interests). Talk to friends and family and introduce them to the ideas. Over time, with careful planning and strategy, freelancers can insulate themselves from questions about disappearing for a weekend, going out every Thursday night, and taking the train once every few months to another city. Frequent interruptions throughout the year will become normal, and that is what we want: appear mundane, boring, and never close to the next breaking story.
Next, and this is the mercenary mindset, freelance reporters should treat their work as a 24-hour job and never separate private, reporting life from private life. Earning the wage does not mean the fight is over. This is a long-term strategy to settle into an environment, merge with the baseline citizens, then operate in plain sight with only those with a “need to know” suspecting.
- The “need to know” principle in journalism is very basic: a prospective person, in the interest of security, requires access to, knowledge of, or possession of the information to perform tasks or services essential to developing the story. Unless one is face-to-face with someone who needs to know information about reporting activity, denial is the default. Start denying on a regular basis and develop the habit of protecting from friends, family, co-workers, and the general public.
Independent mercenaries live a solitary life, earning wages abroad and returning to live frugally particularly to not raise suspicion. They often are not paid much anyway. Media outlets pay freelancers little, so spending is not a major indicator, though we should always think about indicators that profile, alert, and deviate. For mercenaries, these indicators include weapons, ammunition, and combat gear. No Serbian mercenary will walk the streets of Belgrade wearing hard plates outside his clothing. He will not store weapons at home. He will not tell combat stories to strangers in bars. Similarly, freelance reporters should not advertise encryption tools, wear bracelets with the names of fallen colleagues, and carry bags specifically designed to hold cameras. These indicate desires and plans. In the military world, the message from command elements to vacationing service-members is the same: do not wear military-style pants in public, dog tags hanging out, or military boots.
In his famous Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote, “In a country where the doctrine of sovereignty of the people obviously holds sway, censorship is not simply a danger; even more than that, it is an enormous absurdity.” We have a problem with censorship in America, explicit censorship and covert censorship through disrupting the release of critical information. In the meantime, while we move toward greater press freedom, our freelancers have the extraordinary opportunity, as independent contractors disloyal to any media organization, to soldier in the shadows as they please. Without public profiles on websites of media companies, without advertising their exploits and weapons of choice, they can really dig into a city, set up shop, and report on the stories that we crave as free citizens.