The Most Dangerous Job in Journalism?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Earlier this week, I noted the detention of three Vice journalists—two Britons and an Iraqi fixer—in Turkey, where they were charged with aiding ISIS. Thursday morning, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that the two Britons, Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, have been released, according to a statement from Vice. It’s not clear whether they’ll be allowed to leave the country, and they had already been transported to a jail 300 miles away from where they were arrested and had lawyers.

But Mohammed Ismael Rasool, an Iraqi fixer, remains imprisoned.

“Fixer” is often a misnomer, or at the very least muddies the waters—it suggests a junior status, when foreign journalists often rely on their fixers not only for help in arranging interviews and translating, but in all the work of reporting and newsgathering.

It in no way minimizes their ordeal to note that Hanrahan and Pendlebury entered jail knowing that they would have the advantage of the British government behind them—a giant on the world stage, and an important NATO ally of Turkey, even in a time of some tension between the Turkish government and the West.

Rasool, presumably, cannot rely on the same sort of heft and help from Baghdad. In other cases, fixers are in their own countries and can’t rely on the sort of protection (including ransom or exchange value) that Western journalists can. They may, meanwhile, be particularly disdained or distrusted for working with foreigners, making their position even more tenuous.

The result is that being a fixer is one of the most dangerous jobs in journalism. That’s a story told in painful detail by the 2009 documentary Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi, which tells the story of how Daniele Mastrogiacomo and Naqshbandi, his translator, were abducted while trying to interview a Taliban commander. Mastrogiacomo was eventually freed. Naqshbandi was murdered.

“Somehow, it’s always the fixer who dies. Of course, this is a false statement of fact on its face—at the very least, an exaggeration. But it feels emotionally true,” George Packer wrote in 2004, after the death of another fixer, Sultan Munadi, in Afghanistan.

Rasool is by all accounts alive and well, but this story isn’t over until he’s free, too.