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Citizen journalists: a new kind of war reporting

 

In 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 additional information."

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 war.

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 2012.

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



 

 

 

 

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