The death of a 17-year-old freelance photographer in Syria has raised the specter of responsibility when hiring locals in hostile areas.
With the three-year anniversary of the beginning of the Arab Spring here, journalists across the Middle East are inherently taking more dangerous assignments, leaving major media outlets in the West to reconsider hiring and acquiring practices.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 70 journalists were killed around the world in 2013, with 46 of them coming from the Middle East and North Africa, not counting four from Somalia, which is ranked as one of the most dangerous countries for any journalist to work in every year.
Drew Brown, a former conflict correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and Stars and Stripes newspaper in the Middle East and who authored a separate recent report for the CPJ after a conference for Middle East journalists in Amman, Jordan, told MintPress 25 of the 70 who were killed last year died in crossfire or combat, while 14 were killed on some other kind of dangerous assignment, such as covering street protests.
“Local journalists need to know what the particular dangers are for the situation they’re going into, and make plans to mitigate those risks,” Brown, currently a senior trainer at Global Journalist Security, said via Skype from Da Nang, Vietnam, on Friday. “Everyone should always have a back-up plan in case the first one fails. It’s all about redundancy, really, in every aspect of thinking through the situation, and what you might face and how you plan to deal with it and what you might do in case the first approach fails.”
Major news outlets have the power to back their employees with money, equipment, housing, protective gear and security required to carry out an assignment, but often cases that’s not even enough. In the event an agency hires someone remotely, the dangers can increase because that freelancer may be working alone, which Brown strongly discourages.
“Journalists should never travel or work alone while covering civil unrest and war,” he said.
Another issue facing editors is how to responsibly assign stories to local freelancers in countries where they are unwilling to send their international staff. Molhem Barakat, a freelance photographer reputed to be just 17 years old, was killed while covering the conflict in Aleppo, Syria, for Reuters on Dec. 20. He had been supplying the news agency with photos throughout 2013.
Barakat’s death prompted several questions about working in hostile environments. And there comes a point where news outlets simply should refuse to hire the young and inexperienced.
“As a matter of principle, if a news organization is going to take work from a freelancer in a combat situation, they should try and be ethical about it,” Brown said. “If they start taking work from someone in a situation like that on a regular basis, then perhaps they should make sure the freelancer has proper equipment and isn’t taking crazy risks without consulting with the editor before going out on the story, and perhaps investing in them over the long term with proper safety training … Now a civil war situation like Syria is undoubtedly the most problematic because of the compromises that everyone makes in that kind of situation, but still, media organizations should take responsibility, and not just be the vultures that everyone already thinks we all are.”
Mohamed M’dalla, a Tunisian journalist who worked with the newspaper Le Quotidien and other local and international outlets as both a reporter and and photographer for eight years, told MintPress on Friday by email from Tunis, the capital, that covering the revolution in his country was not easy.
“Just at the beginning of the events I decided to do my duty as a journalist and cover what happens in the interior regions,” M’dalla, 30, wrote. “But I could not publish what I’ve seen on a Tunisian newspaper, (so) I decided to publish them on my personal blog, which was later hacked on Jan.11, 2011. On Jan.14, 2011, police took my camera and I was arrested for two or three hours.”
Later, he covered events in Libya, where he freely admits he was “on the front line without any protection because I was freelance, and I did not have the money to pay for protective equipment. Nothing is safe when working in a country in transition. There is always risk. Each party tries to hide things. Freedom of expression exists, but (is) limited when you are addressing sensitives.”
M’dalla said he is now going through a state court trial for the reporting he did on arms trafficking in southern Tunisia, but remains hopeful that he will not be prosecuted.
Shuaib Almosawa, a freelance journalist for about five years in Yemen who has worked for and contributed to local and international media outlets, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and the Inter Press News Service, told MintPress on Friday that authorities in his country are often suspicious of journalists.
“I was briefly arrested by the police in 2011 for taking a picture of a bunch of soldiers who had set up a checkpoint in the entrance of Change Square, the center of the 2011 mass rallies against then President Ali Abdullah Saleh,” Almosawa said via Facebook. “They wouldn’t release me until they made sure all photos were deleted from my camera.”
But beyond harassment, he said, almost no local journalists he knew of in Yemen have protective equipment of any kind.
Brown recommended local journalists simply do their best to avoid going into dangerous areas if they aren’t prepared. And, he said, they should always avoid getting too comfortable “because then you get too confident; you get careless and you get killed; or if you are lucky, you just come close. Either way, though, when you get too comfortable, and you start pushing the limits on everything, ultimately, it can come back to bite you.”
And that may be what happened to Barakat in Aleppo, when he died covering the conflict there.