Grassroots journalism is key to a healthy democracy, and freelancers must be given the pay and training they deserve.
The role of freelance journalists should not be ignored if we want to promote a healthy democracy.
DO you want to be a journalist? Probably not – especially a freelance journalist in Cambodia.
In a country where unemployment is an endemic problem for new graduates from high schools and universities, a career in the media is still among the jobs considered as a last resort for many Cambodians who cannot find another livelihood. Many people who decide to enter journalism may opt to become freelance journalists if they cannot find a full-time job.
Like other media professionals in general, freelance journalists can play an active role in enhancing good governance and social accountability, as well as promoting a healthy democracy as a whole. Freelance journalists can help fill in the gaps when mainstream media outlets don’t have the resources to cover a story. Due to a lack of staff or sufficient means to report on events in the provinces, many newspapers, radio and TV stations depend on stringers or freelance journalists to help fill in this information vacuum.
Unfortunately, their efforts are not rewarded in the way they deserve. On average, freelancers are paid US$2.50 per story by a black-and-white newspaper and $5 if the story is published by a larger newspaper. It is hard to make ends meet with such a low income, which can discourage people from joining the profession. Facing this financial dilemma, many provincial freelancers have to write two or three stories every day in the hope that at least one of them will be published.
Many mainstream media outlets are making quite a handsome profit thanks to the hard work of these freelance journalists. Now, it’s time to give something back.
We know some media outlets are able to pay reasonable salaries to their staff. Other successful media organisations should do the same. If a full-time reporter is paid at least US$200 a month and a freelancer can receive $15 or $20 per news article, they will be able to produce quality stories (at most, a freelance journalist will have only about 10 stories published or broadcast each month). With the improved quality of the news products, media outlets can also attract the attention of more advertisers as their audience increases.
Another common problem among freelance journalists is the fact they usually enter the profession with little or no proper education or training. This makes them vulnerable to criminal lawsuits for defamation or disinformation due to mistakes they’ve made in their stories. If they are properly trained in the required professional skills, they will not only be able to produce better stories and draw a higher salary, but they will also be able to minimise the risks of being sued for making mistakes.
The role of freelance journalists should not be ignored if we want to promote a healthy democracy. A healthy democracy needs to start at the grassroots level. In order for this grassroots democracy to flourish, we need the media to function at the grassroots level through the use of civic, or citizen, journalism.
This is where freelancers come into play. If young people can be trained to become freelance journalists at the district or commune level, they can represent the voices and interests of their community while keeping them informed of what is happening elsewhere. Ultimately, freelance journalists can help Cambodian citizens fully participate in Cambodia’s democratic process. The future of our democracy starts here.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh is director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies and teaches about the media at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.