In early March, Canadian freelance photographer Ali Moustafa died in Aleppo; he was 29. Gigantic barrel bombs, dropped from regime helicopters, were to blame. Moustafa, like many other freelancers, had traveled to Syria with the intention to document the horrors of the country’s civil war. Just two weeks before his death, he had relayed photos of the aftermath of another barrel bombing on Aleppo to the European Pressphoto Agency.
Moustafa’s death is, unfortunately, no anomaly. And with today being International Press Freedom Day, it’s appropriate to spare a moment to think about just how one of the ugliest and most dangerous wars in recent memory is being reported.
In 2013 and 2012, Syria topped the list of the most dangerous places in the world for reporters, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). 31 were killed in 2012 and 28 in 2013. “This is a really savage war”, Rania Abouzeid, a veteran Australian-Lebanese freelance journalist who has reported from Syria over a dozen times for the New Yorker and TIME, told me. “All wars are savage and all wars are dehumanizing. But this [one] is particularly savage.”
Because of the irregular nature of the conflict, the embedding model for reporting used in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, where journalists were placed within a military battalion, just isn’t viable in Syria. Reporters instead have been forced to roam from rebel group to rebel group while steering clear of the Syrian army and extremist militias, both of which have developed a track record of being openly hostile towards journalists. And even before reaching the frontline, the risks are considerable. Reporters often enter the country illegally, as government approved visas are hard-to-impossible to come by. Being shot at by nervous border guards or getting kidnapped or sold out to hostile groups by their smugglers is par for the course.
Because of these kinds of unprecedented dangers, Syria has become a stringer’s war—much of the first-hand reporting that comes out of Syria today is done by freelancers operating with varying degrees of institutional affiliation. With financially squeezed big news bureaus getting skittish about putting their seasoned reporters in unreasonably dangerous situations, young people looking to break into foreign correspondence have flocked to the Syrian killing fields to make a name for themselves. With little to no support structures, and sometimes with scant training and preparation, it’s no surprise that the number of journalists kidnapped or killed in Syria is higher than those in those in Libya, Afghanistan or Bosnia.
The Syrian war started out normally enough, at least as far as the established news organizations were concerned. In March 2011, they sent out teams of staff writers and photographers, just like they had to many previous conflicts. But by early 2012, the bureaus started pulling their people out. The death of the seasoned American war correspondent Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik in Homs by regime shelling was the most visible manifestation of just how far the situation had deteriorated. News organizations didn’t want to lose their best people, and even the most seasoned war reporters started getting cold feet. Freelancers however were happy to fill the void.
Some of them were veteran conflict reporters out of a job due to news media downsizing, and some were just adrenaline junkies. But many were young journalists who had cut their teeth covering the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia and the civil war in Libya, and who were now looking for the next notch on their belts. Each stage of the Arab Spring—Tunis, Tahrir, Tripoli—was a stepping stone in their careers, with each new revolution being slightly riskier than the one before it. But Syria was a different beast altogether. “Libya seemed a lot more simple,” Nicole Tung, a young photojournalist who followed just that career path, told me. “In Syria, the frontlines are very, very blurred.” “You accelerate [your career] by taking risks, there’s no doubt about it,” Anna Therese Day, another 25 year old freelance who first ventured into Syria in 2012, said. “But Syria is a different story.”
Day returned from Syria transformed. She was appalled by the risks faced by young people going into war zones without the kind of support traditionally enjoyed by foreign correspondents working for established news bureaus. She therefore joined with some of her colleagues to found the Frontline Freelance Register (FFR), a kind of professional organization for freelancers. Launched in June of 2013, FFR already has over 400 members worldwide. By providing access to hostile environment training, affordable insurance and an online network of emergency support, the FFR is trying to fill the role that traditional news organizations have often played for their intrepid foreign correspondents.
But there are several ways in which a well-intentioned non-profit just can’t match a well-funded news organization. Working through a kidnapping is one of them. The rate of kidnappings in the Levant today surpasses any war before it. “Every time a journalist enters Syria, they are effectively rolling the dice on whether they’re going to be abducted or not,” Jason Stern, a researcher at CPJ, told the AP. “Simply no other country comes close.”
Many journalists are taken with no ransom demand or contact from the kidnappers; people simply disappear. According to the CPJ, around 30 have been kidnapped so far, but the real number is probably higher. Families and news agencies often choose not to immediately go public with the news of a disappearance as publicity can embolden kidnappers and increase ransom demands. Regime forces, extremist groups, rebel militias and criminal gangs are all taking part.
When salaried staff writers disappear, news bureaus have a multitude of resources to deal with in getting them back: professional search teams, a record of the journalists’ past whereabouts, and a detailed list of people that the journalist had last been in contact with recently, to name a few. But when independents get nabbed, an organization like FFR has to start from zero, scrambling to collect crucial details within the first forty-eight hour period from the time of kidnapping (after which the chances of the journalist being found drop considerably).
And it is precisely kidnapping that has driven away the established, credentialed journalists. “The bylines have thinned from inside,” as Rania Abouzeid put it. It’s the one risk factor that’s most difficult to mitigate that has spawned such a demand for freelancers and stringers.
The other major issue, of course, is pay. “[Pay] is the main concern for most of our members,” says Balint Szlanko, a veteran conflict reporter who sits on the board of the FFR. Day, who describes what some publications are paying freelancers as “criminal” goes on, “The pay isn’t enough to give us the basic things; whether it’s health insurance, a flak jacket—all these costs add up.” In a now infamous diatribe written by Italian freelance Francesca Borri for The Columbia Journalism Review, the author claimed that editors paid her $70 per piece for reporting from Syria. This was barely enough to cover the $50-a-night mattress she was sleeping on. “Freelancers are second-class journalists,” she lamented.
And money is affecting the quality of the reporting. The logistical costs of operating in Syria can get up to around $400 a day. Freelancers working on a fixed budget can’t always commit as much time to a story as may be necessary to get the full picture. When the cash runs out, they have to get out. As Jonathan Spyer, a veteran conflict reporter who has worked in Syria for The Weekly Standard, noted, “Mainstream media organizations can afford to keep journalists in the field for as long as it takes if they think the story is sufficiently important…because [they] have budgets that can do that.” Well-established freelancers with deeper connections to established outlets feel the pinch less than newbies, but it’s easy for no one.
As the Syrian conflict drags on with no clear end in sight, it’s likely that news bureaus will continue to disproportionately rely on stringers—who will in turn continue to risk their lives without the kind of support traditionally afforded to journalists in war zones. And unfortunately, as long as the news business is struggling to get its financial footing, this is an arrangement that is likely to persist into future conflicts.
But just because the status quo may well persist, it doesn’t mean we as a society should be content with it. A detailed report by the Samir Kassir Foundation, in conjunction with Reporters Without Borders and the CPJ, recently compiled and analyzed data collected from interviews with freelance journalists working in Syria. It closes as follows:
There is no doubt that reporting from conflict zones serves the public interest, a fact that is sometimes lost as the focus is put on more commercial, trivial news. War reporters often lay the foundations for how history will be written and events remembered. At the best of times, war correspondents have had a positive impact on policy decisions and provided witness accounts for criminal proceedings; crimes for which the perpetrators would never have been brought to justice otherwise. Such reporting helps cut through opposing, often propagandistic, narratives and present facts as they really are. It is in society’s interest to maintain the quality of journalism, and, by extension, it is in society’s interest to have minimum working standards for all journalists working in conflict zones.
Groups like FFR and advocates like Anna Therese-Day are part of a movement that is really moving the needle on improving the working conditions for those that choose to risk their lives to give us insight into some of the defining conflicts of our generation. We can’t afford to let them fail.