Syria: No country for journalists

How does this golden age of news actually impact freelance journalists working in places like Syria? By KHADIJA PATEL.

The word “freelance” is believed to have been coined by Sir Walter Scott in his novel Ivanhoe. His “free-lance” characters were medieval mercenaries who pledged their loyalty, and skill with weapons, to lords and kings, for a fee. “I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them — I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment,” one excerpt from the 1819 novel reads.

And freelancers, particularly those of the journalistic variety are certainly men –and women – of action.

New York Times columnist (and former editor) Bill Keller last week remarked that while ours is a golden age for news, freelance newshounds are perhaps worse off than ever. It’s not that there is a shortage of work for freelancers. There is actually a greater reliance on “local hires”, freelancers who have already paid their way into the field in the Western press. But, Keller feels, the widespread use of freelancers in some instances borders on exploitation. This, he believes, is a consequence of a vastly transformed culture of foreign reporting.

Technology has made it so easy to file audio, video and text cheaply and easily from the hotbed of conflict. And so journalists untethered to any particular news organisation have waded into war zones sometimes with little more than a smart phone and laptop.

It is a marked change from the days when foreign correspondents smuggled realms of film and heavy equipment past the beady eyes of airport security in war-torn countries.

It is a change that has nonetheless not been altogether friendly to the freelance journalists, who place themselves at great risk to be in the right place at the right time.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 17 journalists have been killed in Syria this year. The exact number of journalists who are presumed to be either captured or possibly no longer alive is very difficult to determine accurately.

According to Reporters Without Borders, the number of foreign journalists who have been kidnapped in Syria since March 2011 is now 37, of whom 17 are still hostages, detained or missing.

Keller notes that a foreign assignment at a major news organisation “has traditionally come with travelling expenses, medical coverage, security and first-aid training if you are covering conflict, fixers and translators and, in a few instances, paid leave for language training.”

It certainly does sound like nice work – if you can get it.

Some of the freelance journalists who have made the treacherous journey into Syria’s battlefields, however, have done so without flak jackets, helmets or medical kits. But once they’ve braved the fire, they have found bylines in major news organisations. What, though, is the responsibility of the news organisations who use freelancers? And what is the individual responsibility of freelancers themselves in places like Syria?

Yusuf Omar, a reporter with ENCA, who travelled to Syria with aid group Gift of the Givers, says his experience was a more “sheltered” one.  He says, “I would personally feel safe to go alone to Syria if I were going to the right areas.”

He says his experience of the “rebels” in Syria was of a hospitable group of young men who were “honoured just to have someone from South Africa to come out there and tell their story”.

He admits that he’s heard “horror stories” about the experiences of some journalists in Syria.

These stories of terror certainly abound.

Austin Tice, arguably the best known of the foreign journalists missing in Syria, is a freelancer. He was working for the McClatchy newspaper chain, The Washington Post and Al-Jazeera English, when he disappeared in August 2012 in Damascus.

The American government has indicated Tice is in Syrian custody, but the family says it is still uncertain who abducted him.

On 14 August, the Tice family released a statement commemorating the 365 days since they last heard from him.

“None of us want to place special significance on this date because we know that every one of those days has been unimaginably challenging for Austin,” the Tice family wrote. “The most tolerable aspect of this day is that it means we are one day closer to the return of Austin, of all other captives, and relief of the suffering of the Syrian people.”

Last month, Global Post, one of the publications another freelance American journalist, James Foley, had been working for before he was abducted, said it has “mounted an extensive international investigation over the past year to determine who kidnapped him and where he is being held”.

Three other American journalists, whose names have not been publicised, have also been reported missing.

Last month the French prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, revealed that two French freelance journalists – Nicolas Hénin and Pierre Torres, were kidnapped by unidentified groups in Raqqa on 22 June.

Their Syrian driver has also been reported missing.

And of course it is not just freelance journalists who are missing in Syria.

Samir Kassab, a Lebanese national, and Ishak Mokhtar, a Mauritanian, are employees of Sky News Arabia who were kidnapped last month while reporting on humanitarian aspects of the Syrian crisis. The station lost contact with them on the morning of 15 October as they were returning from Anadan (10 km northwest of Aleppo), where they had been filming Eid ul Adha celebrations.

Marc Marginedas, a Spanish journalist for El Periodico, was kidnapped on 4 September, 2012, near the city of Hama.

Bashar Fahmi is a Jordanian national of Palestinian origin. He worked for a US-based television news channel called Al-Hurra and was kidnapped during a firefight in Aleppo on 20 August, 2012, along with Turkish cameraman Cüneyt Ünal.

Didier Francois and Edouard Elias were making their way to Aleppo on 6 June when they were abducted. A month after they were abducted, French officials said they believed the two men were still alive.

Hope for the safe return of these journalists has come from the experience of two American journalists who escaped from Syria after being held prisoner for some time.

Jonathan Alpeyrie was kidnapped on 29 April by a “jihadist” group operating near Damascus. He has said that he was beaten and threatened with execution during his captivity. In late July, with the help of unnamed people inside and outside the country, he was able to gain his freedom.

Matthew Shrier was kidnapped in Aleppo in December last year. He was held there until he managed to escape in late August.

These escapes are not likely to dull the debate on whether freelance journalists should be in Syria at all. And the debate of the role and safety of freelancers in conflict zones is not new.

In 2011, at the height of the war in Libya that led to the ousting and killing of Muammar Gaffadi, New York Times photographer Michael Kamber stirred heated debate with a blog post about a glut of young, freelance photo journalists in Libya. He recalled a discussion with the late Tim Heatherington, whom he said had “betrayed an equal mix of concern for their [the freelance journalists’] safety, unease about their ability to get the story right and irritation that they might end up in his frame”.

“The idea of a 20-year-old running around Libya with a cellphone and no flak jacket is, frankly, quite disturbing. It conveys a disrespect for the profession and for the civilians involved and it incorporates a certain callousness, at least in my opinion, toward the gods of war,” Kamber writes.

But while he highlights the responsibility of the journalists involved to ensure their own safety, others believe that it is the news organisations who profit most from freelance journalism who must ensure higher standards of safety for these journalists.

Two years later, the debate still rages on, albeit with Syria now as its backdrop.

“The situation for journalists in Syria is unprecedented, and it’s getting worse,” the Rory Peck Trust, group dedicated to the safety of freelancers, said in a statement in August. “Freelancers tell us that the situation is becoming more dangerous and unpredictable by the day.”

The Trust quotes Javier Manzano, a freelance photojournalist and filmmaker who has been covering the conflict for the last year, who says it would be unwise (at best) and irresponsible (at worst) to go inside Syria as an independent journalist at this time.

“Our presence there will not only expose ourselves to kidnapping, but can potentially endanger the lives of the locals who are trying to help journalists operate in their country,” Manzano says.

While foreign journalists in Syria are doubtlessly imperilled, the dangers they face are merely one facet of the ongoing conflict. It certainly does not detract from the daily experience of Syrians who are often reduced to mere statistics in a war with no apparent end.

And Reporters Without Borders points out that it is Syrian news providers that have suffered most in the two-year-old war.

“More than 60 [Syrian journalists] have been kidnapped or arrested by various armed opposition groups and more than 200 have been arrested by the regime,” the organisation says.

The plight of journalists in Syria, then, is a not-so-gentle reminder of the high cost of our news. It is also testimony to the horrors of a very, very messy war. DM

(Editor note: Hat-tip for this story idea to Jane Raphaely)

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Photo: Journalists Bryn Karcha (C) of Canada and Toshifumi Fujimoto (R) of Japan run for cover next to an unidentified fixer in a street in Aleppo’s district of Salaheddine December 29, 2012. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman