As the death counter in Syria continues to tick along dispassionately, leaving an uncertain statistic where there was once a human being, it is important to take a moment to think of those who risked their own lives to tell the sorry tales of others, and maybe – just maybe – make a difference.
Syria is by far the most dangerous place on earth for local and international journalists alike. The risk of abduction is higher than in any other region in the world. Even the most conservative figures put the respective death tolls of journalists and citizen journalists killed in the field at more than 57 and 100 since March 2011.
Yet, foreign reporters, photojournalists and filmmakers are still entering the country, braving ever-greater risks to shed light on one of the most tragic humanitarian emergencies in recent memory.
Most of those who cover the conflict in Syria today are freelancers, a reflection of both the reality of foreign reporting in the modern day and the particular dangers of reporting from Syria, as most international media outlets refrain from sending their staff to the field.
Often constrained by tight finances, or simply unaware of best practices, many of these freelancers have not undergone the appropriate hostile environment training nor acquired sufficient know-how to minimize risks to themselves and others.
The potential risks to unprepared journalists, their colleagues and contacts are self-evident. But even innocuous practices by inexperienced journalists, such as not encrypting confidential information or deleting phone numbers, could have potentially grave implications for journalists and their contacts.
Journalists have a responsibility to themselves and others to best prepare for reporting from conflict zones. But they should also have the right to expect support from commissioning news agencies in all stages of newsgathering, even if they get into dangerous situations. While some commissioning outlets admirably go out of their way to support freelancers, there are too many stories of news agencies that wash their hands of responsibility once a freelancer is in a tight spot. This cannot continue.
Among staff journalists the situation is generally better, but is also in need of reform as even some of the largest news outlets do not provide insurance cover for staff reporting from conflict zones, not to mention fixers, drivers or other locals who are so vital in the gathering of news content.
There is broad recognition among journalists that the situation needs to change, but how to go about doing this is an issue the industry is still grappling with. To help reach some form of consensus, the Samir Kassir Foundation’s SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom organized a retreat for international journalists who have reported from Syria since conflict broke out there in early 2011 to discuss this very issue. Drawing on their experiences and challenges in the field, they helped produce a set of minimum professional and safety standards for journalists reporting from conflict zones and their employers.
The recommendations, which are included towards the end of the report “Journalists’ Security in Conflict Zones: Lessons from Syria,” are directed at journalists and their employers, covering issues at various stages of the news gathering process. Recommendations range from common sense procedures, such as undergoing training and having proper equipment, to more technical issues, such as evading surveillance and facilitating early response to emergencies.
Examples of the latter include implementing a communications plan with trusted contacts and using data encryption programs. The document also highlights moral obligations to third party employees like fixers, and provides recommendations to journalists and their employers to address issues related to mental health, which unfortunately remains laden with stigma.
The document is not intended to be an exhaustive list of principles to be adhered to. Rather, the hope is that it will serve as a starting point for discussions between journalists and their employers, defining the conditions and requirements that should always be taken into account before sending reporters to the field.
A broad endorsement of the minimum standards will contribute to strengthening the negotiation power of journalists and improving their security. Not only will this help save lives and ensure contacts are better protected, but with fewer lives lost and journalists more in control of the risks they take, the quality of news gathering as a whole is bound to improve.
With strong backing, this is a goal within reach.