Rethinking the Dynamic Relationship Between Fixers and Journalists

The morning panel discussion ‘Fixers and Journalists: The Changing Paradigm’ moved quickly from recounting the many issues faced by fixers and journalists who work with fixers to a consensus of that fact that there’s an urgent need for there to be regulation and protocol to train and protect the people who enable journalists to do some of their best work in foreign environments.

The panel itself was as diverse as the conversation that followed. Moderated by Vishal Manve, an Indian journalist with Agence France-Presse who has written extensively about democracy and freedom of speech, representing the fixers’ perspective on the panel was Rajesh Prabhakar, who has worked as a fixer in India for over 12 years with more than 30 international projects. Also present on the panel was Iona Craig, a freelance journalist with extensive work in Yemen, and Bobby Ghosh, who has worked as an editor, journalist, columnist and commentator in various capacities for platforms like TIME, Quartz, and more recently, Hindustan Times.

The first important issue that came up in the discussion was the very term ‘fixer’ and how broad it is. “In our experience, many people who perform that role, hate that title,” stated Ghosh, summarizing the views of the panelists. The term ‘field coordinator’ came up as a possible replacement since that more accurately captures the role played by fixers, and sounds more elegant, at least to the panelists. Craig, who has worked in Yemen, relies on fixers despite knowing the language herself, and painted a warmer relationship with the people she relies on in the field, calling them her friends.“I jokingly started referring to them as my angels as an alternative. And one of them turned around and said, “Yes, that’s appropriate because when we work with you, we know we’re getting closer to heaven,”” she recalled.

The anecdote barely manages to capture the problems that fixers working on ground to facilitate journalists face, especially those working in conflict areas with repressive authorities. Other than the obvious danger to their lives and to those of their families, fixers do not get recognized or credited for their work, despite sometimes doing a considerable amount of work for the stories. In some situations, not giving credit is for their own safety, but one of the points of discussion was crediting fixers after it’s safe to do so. Craig suggested crediting fixers while still hiding their identity, by mentioning them in the story as local coordinators.

Another point of concern was the question of big media organizations skirting their responsibility when it comes to fixers. Craig summed up the problem by recalling, “In the eight years that I’ve been covering Yemen, only once as a freelancer has a media organization said: “What about the fixer and insurance for them?”” Here, Ghosh stepped in with his experience while working with TIME.

In his experience, every time the organization needed to step up in terms of taking responsibility for the people on the field, it did. However, it still isn’t built into the system like it should be.

The discussion soon took on a more solution-oriented tone with Ghosh suggesting that a gathering of journalists, editors, and fixers, like at the International Journalists Festival, could put their heads together to come up with a set of principles and protocols for ensuring a better working environment for fixers, which news organizations could adopt. “Let’s call them the Perugia Principles,” he said. Adopting a set of guidelines and regulations was something that all panelists unanimously agreed to. He also suggested discussing the responsibility that the media organizations owe to the fixers after the completion of the assignment, and possible guidelines for these journalists to send distress signals. This is understandable because in many cases, especially in conflict areas, fixers put themselves in danger beyond just the duration of the assignment.

An interesting issue that was brought up during the discussion was about improving communication between journalists and fixers, where journalists discuss their ethics, codes of conduct, and expectations with their local coordinators. This connected to the suggestion of providing training to fixers through accessible video modules where they could be taught about journalistic ethics, bias, their rights, and the risks they would be incurring, amongst other things.

In this narrative of a power imbalance between fixers and journalists/media organizations, the opposite perspective was brought up through a question about fixers having their own agenda, and manipulating journalists, especially if journalists are absolutely unfamiliar with their environment and also do not understand the language. While the panelists agreed that this was an issue, Ghosh and Craig shared that in their extensive experience of working with fixers, this was a rare occurrence.

While it still remains to be seen if something like the Perugia Principles will ever exist that puts forth concrete rules of engagement between journalism and fixers, the panel discussion was definitely a sign of progress with a shared appreciation for the people on the ground, acknowledgement of the need to work towards ensuring security and recognition for their work, and some concrete, applicable solutions to bring about this change in the industry.