Colin Freeman: Fixers can be 'absolutely bloody useless'

“Any reporter who goes to troubled spots and tells you they don’t get a kick out of it is either a higher moral being than I am, or lying their arse off.”

Colin Freeman is refreshingly honest about the life of a foreign correspondent. He’s also surprisingly optimistic for a man who was released less than a month ago after 40 days in captivity in Somalia.

His story has been well documented in the press. Freeman and his Spanish photographer, José Cendon, were kidnapped in the north Puntland region of Somalia in November while they were there reporting on piracy in the area for the Telegraph.

The kidnappers were the bodyguards they had paid $20 a day to protect them – and Freeman says it can be hard to find fixers and people to help you when reporting in a dangerous area.

“You have to go on other people’s recommendations and every reporter who’s ever been to any dodgy part of the world will tell you they’ve met fixers who’ve been absolutely bloody useless,” he says.

“Unfortunately, that’s one of the occupational hazards of the game – trying to find someone who’s reliable, trustworthy and available.”

Freeman has no plans to go back to Somalia at the moment “for obvious reasons”.

He says, slowly: “If something was to happen to me again, it wouldn’t look very good. Also, I suspect the paper would think very carefully about it.”

During his time in captivity, Reporters Without Borders released a statement warning journalists thinking of visiting conflict areas “to prepare with utmost care”. Freeman agrees.

“Going as a freelance – which is how I started – the best thing to do is to ask advice from as many people as you can,” he says.

“Don’t be afraid of ringing people up. Even if you don’t necessarily know the person, call them and say: ‘I’m thinking of doing this’.

“You’re showing that you’re not afraid to ask, which is one of the basic skills of a reporter. You’re showing that you’re being careful and that you’re not scared of looking green.”

However, if a freelance asked his advice on going to Somalia, Freeman says: “I would just say no, don’t. I would advise against it. On your own you don’t have the support or the resources.

“If it was somewhere where safety was an issue then I think it’s a case of: consider it but be careful how you go and take an awful lot of advice from people on the ground.

“If the advice is that now is not a good time to be here on your own, then heed that advice.”

To established correspondents, Freeman stresses the importance of having “well drilled emergency procedures” in place.

“We were lucky at the Telegraph. When I got taken, there was a streamlined operation which went into place,” he says.

“They knew who to ring in terms of family, and the crisis management was relatively well-drilled. The Telegraph was great at supporting my family; there were good procedures in place and they sprung into the breach.”

Knowing that things are being handled at home makes captivity slightly more bearable, although Freeman says he still spent most of his time not thinking about how good a story his experience would make, but rather about “all the upset you’re causing people at home”.

“Most of the time you’re thinking: ‘I wish we weren’t here’. No story is worth that,” he says.

Freeman says he might be interested in sharing his experiences with other journalists who have been kidnapped, although he notes: “Other people’s experiences are much more serious than mine and they’re all different.

“If you’re caught in Iraq, you’re worried about getting beheaded. If you’re caught in Somalia, you’re worried about the general difficulty of anyone being able to come and help you because of the sheer anarchy of the place.”

Those worries seem long gone for Freeman now. At the time of his release, he reported that he “had absolutely no problems at all either physically or mentally”.

The biggest consequence, he said, was that he’d taken up smoking again.

Now it seems that things are back to normal, with Freeman adjusting to life away from the drama – and the cigarettes.

“I’ve had a few crafty ones since I got back, but I haven’t had a cigarette since Saturday.” he says, “I think that phase is passed now.”

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