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Disposable journalists? Local injured journalists and the future of conflict reporting

Author: Olga Komarova | 1. December 2020

Between March 2011 – the start of the Syrian revolution – and May 2019, 695 journalists were killed in Syria according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. A large number of local injured journalists did not receive proper – or often any – support from their employers.

On 12 November 2020, GFMD hosted a webinar focusing on a recently launched ASML/Syria report “Disposable Journalists? Local Injured Journalists and the Future of Conflict Reporting”, exploring the working conditions of local Syrian journalists. During the webinar, Yara Bader (Head of the Media and Freedoms Unit at Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression), Chamsy Sarkis (current ASML/Syria Director), Armand Hurault (former ASML/Syria Director), Ayman Mhanna (the Executive Director of the Beirut-based Samir Kassir Foundation), Ignacio Miguel Delgado Culebras (Committee to Protect Journalists, Middle East and North Africa Representative), and Mustafa Dahnon (freelance Syrian journalist) joined GFMD’s Advocacy and Engagement Manager, Michael Oghia, to discuss the issue.

A full recording of the webinar is available here.

Research and Context

Nine years have passed since the beginning of the Arab Spring and the military conflict in Syria. From 2011 to the present day, events in the hotbed of tension have been constantly covered by local and international journalists, whose health and physical condition has been to varying degrees affected by the war. Many local injured journalists experience a shortage of assistance or complete absence of help from their employers and contractors. This trend is not unique to Syria; journalists and media workers face a lack of support in many ongoing conflicts.

ASML/Syria has conducted research on the safety conditions in which local journalists were immersed when they were injured, and potential respect of the international consensus around minimum safety standards by their employer at the time of injury. The research covered 72 surveyed journalists who amassed a total of 119 injuries. A little less than half – 44% – of reporters who took part in the research were injured once, the same number of participants were injured twice, and 11% were injured 3 or more times.

Based on already existing safety-related documents for journalists, ASML/Syria researchers identified three widely-recognized obligations which form an internationally accepted pillar of the relationship between the employer and journalist:

  1. News organizations should ensure the journalist is appropriately equipped and trained, and if not, the organization should provide the journalist with the appropriate training and protective equipment.
  2. In case of kidnapping or injury of a journalist, the media organization should take responsibility to provide the necessary support.
  3. Editors and news organizations must take the same care for the welfare of local journalists and freelancers as of their own employees.

Local JournalistsAs shown in the figure above, across 119 recorded injuries only 24% of journalists received some support from their employer, 22% had received safety training (provided by the employer only in 12% of cases) and 16% had been provided with security equipment (provided by the employer only in 8% of cases). Among the factors potentially affecting these indicators, the lack of awareness of journalists of their rights and the acceptance of unsolicited content from local freelance journalists by news organizations are particularly emphasized.

Experience of Freelance Journalists

In 2011 when the revolution in Syria had just begun, Mustafa Dahnon was one of the revolutionaries protesting against the regime and watching the army brutally abuse demonstrators fighting for freedom. Willing to tell the world about the crisis situation in the country, he started covering events and publishing stories on Facebook, which led him to work with local outlets as a correspondent by 2015.

In May 2019, Mustafa was covering events in the city of Hama when a missile struck a few meters away, causing body injuries and destroying his technical equipment. Many institutions and charities that help journalists have contacted Mustafa and promised their support, but only two organizations have actually helped.

Controversial Liability

At the same time, the issue of responsibility for the lack of adequate assistance to local journalists remains unresolved. Since 2011, many international and local organizations have conducted safety training for journalists, but the percentage of reporters who have received such training is still very low as only those journalists who had the opportunity to come to Turkey or Lebanon were able to undergo the required training.

“Given the size of the tragedy in Syria, asking international organisations, media development organisations, general safety organisations alone to put all the Syrian journalists into safety would be way too much to ask”, noted Ayman Mhanna, Executive Director of Samir Kassir Foundation.

In addition to shortcomings in the mechanism of providing adequate knowledge and training, the failure to provide support to injured journalists is also affected by the budget of the employer. The majority of media organisations are donor-funded which imposes certain obligations on donors in terms of competent funding, which cover the cost of safety training and security equipment provision.

As well as uncertainty around financial issues, there is concern about the quality of the training received by journalists: some training sessions were held in hotels over several days, where the environment was significantly different from that in which Syrian journalists work in reality.

Global Tendency

Committee to Protect Journalists has documented 138 killings of journalists in Syria with 90 of them being local and 38 being freelancers, and over 100 cases of abducted reporters. These figures inevitably led international organisations and media outlets to start relying heavily on local journalists to report the news as it was no longer safe to send international reporters to Syria. However, journalists affected by the conflict face a lack of assistance not only in Syria, similar conclusions could be applied elsewhere in the Levant region and globally.

The region is currently characterized by two trends: a general worsening of press freedom and increased disregard of journalists and their work. The “fake news” rhetoric is increasingly being used when journalists criticize local leaders, reporters are being attacked while covering protests, and armies ask permissions to shoot at media workers.

The international community should focus on addressing a huge gap between how international and local journalists have been treated, providing appropriate support to those who have been injured in the line of journalistic duties in a conflict zone.

A full recording of the webinar can be found here.


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