today’s 24-7 satellite news cycle, citizen journalists
have become indispensable sources for breaking news from
conflict zones. They often take great risks to expose the
realities of war. But what ethics govern this fast-growing
field of journalism? How is their work protected under the
rules of war?
An airline employee living in Damascus, Fadiyah El Amin*
has long dreamed of becoming a journalist. "Unfortunately,
life decided otherwise," she laments.
But when the “Arab Spring” uprisings spread
to Syria in March 2011, the 25-year-old revived her love
for journalism by creating a Facebook group with four friends
to try to report on events more clearly.
"Because of the lack of information, nobody really
knew what was happening,” she says. “The best
way to know the truth was to contact trustworthy people who
lived in the hot spots of the country."
This enterprising citizen journalist went on to become director
of "Akhbar al-Shabab Surya," a social media network
that claims over 12,000 members, and which functions somewhat
like a participatory news agency: each member can publish
available information, while others are free to confirm or
disprove the facts as presented.
An explosion in Aleppo? The event is reported, verified
or disproved quickly online. A convoy of Syrian troops spotted
on the outskirts of Deraa? The information only has value
if it is validated by several members, El Amin says.
"There are some rules,” El Amin says. “Members
must indicate what their source is: are they witnesses or
do they rely on things seen on social networks? Above all,
we do not accept opinions or commentaries, unless they provide
This is just one example of how grassroots social media
news groups, bloggers, tweeters are changing the shape of
conflict reporting. In Syria, which has remained a perilous
assignment for all journalists, social media has played a
major role with major global networks routinely rebroadcast
cell phone video footage posted by bloggers, activists and
citizen journalists representing all sides of the conflict.
This phenomenon raises difficult questions for professional
journalists and media outlets, who must judge whether information
is credible. It also poses questions in terms of rules of
Do these emerging journalists deserve the protection, respect
and support from international media groups due to the importance
of their reporting? Or does the quasi-activist nature of
some of their work muddy the water, undermining journalistic
independence and making war reporting more dangerous for
all media workers?
For mainstream broadcasters such as Tania Mehanna, a reporter
with the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, online citizen
journalism is sometimes given too much credibility by networks
eager for a scoop. They run great risk of being manipulated
if they rely on footage that they cannot verify.
On the other hand, these social media reporters are not
only holding government troops and armed groups accountable
for their actions, but making mainstream, traditional media
more accountable as well. “Things cannot be so easily
ignored,” she notes.
To make her point, she compares the media attention to civilian
deaths during the current Syrian conflict, to the scarce
media coverage of a massacre in 1982 in the Syrian city of
Hama. “This city was almost wiped out, completely destroyed,” she
said. “But we didn’t have any reporting about
that. Now because of the current violence, the media is talking
about it, but before that, no one outside knew about it.”
But for conflict reporting to be effective, and get the
attention it deserves, it must be credible. This is why Akhbar
al-Shabab Surya claims to strive for a more fact-based journalistic
stance. Meanwhile, the range of opinion and point-of-view
on the conflict is diverse with pro-government and pro-revolution
bloggers posting actively.
Other online bloggers and reporters see themselves as activists
first and news providers second. Indeed, the line between
activism and journalism is sometimes thin.
Blogger Amer Al-Sadeq* crossed it unwittingly in 2009, when
he saw someone being beaten in the street. "Had I wanted
to become a journalist, I would have contented myself with
recording the scene from my balcony,” says Amer. “But
I went down. My camera was not even on, I just wanted to
help that person and for the police to stop the clubbing."
Since then, the Syrian revolt has raged on and Sadeq has
given dozens of interviews to news agencies around the world:
Al Jazeera, France 24, BBC or CNN. "I consider myself
to be more of an activist than a journalist,” says
Sadeq, a founding member of the online Syrian Revolution
Coordinators Union. “The result is sometimes the same,
but an activist does not just report facts: he takes concrete
actions to change things."
While journalists debate the role of citizen journalists
in reporting the news, their status in terms of international
humanitarian law (IHL) is fairly clear: they are protected
as civilians as long as they don’t participate in hostilities. "International
humanitarian law only distinguishes between two categories
of people: civilians and combatants,” reminds Dorothea
Krimitsas, ICRC’s deputy head of public relations in
Geneva and manager of the organizations hotline for journalists
during conflict. “Whether a journalist publishes in
a national print media or participates in social networks
does not change his status: he is entitled to the protection
granted by IHL."
For his part, Sadeq has heard of IHL. But he doesn’t
appreciate theory. "Hundreds of citizen journalists
have been imprisoned,” he says. “One of them
has even been killed under my eyes." The activist regrets
not getting direct assistance from international organizations. "We
should have received helmets, flak jackets and satellite
phones. It's too late now."
Would the tragic fate of Bassel Al-Shehade, young director
who came to train the citizen journalists of Homs, and who
was killed in May, have been different had their been greater
awareness and protection for citizen journalists? How about
the others? According to Reporters Without Borders, at least
33 journalists and citizen journalists have fallen since
15 March 2011, and one-third of them between May and June
As the nature of conflict has changed, so has the nature
of war reporting. For some citizen journalists, situations
of conflict or extreme violence are rendering traditional
notions of journalism outdated “Here, holding a pen
is as dangerous as holding a gun," El Amin says.
*Not their real names
By Ombline LUCAS