Our Man in Syria: The Increasing Dangers of International Journalism

Zach Klamann

In the mid-morning light of revolutionary Misrata, Libya, renowned photojournalist Tim Hetherington was in a situation he’d been in too many times to count: trekking through a warzone with other journalists searching for the shot he needed for his story assignment. It was early 2011, so the war was just beginning to intensify across the country, and against his better judgement and usual practice, Hetherington had placed himself very close to the increasingly dangerous fighting. When he and fellow wartime-photojournalist Chris Hondros crossed the street to get a photo of dead rebel soldiers, a mortar landed on them and the rebels with whom they were working. Immediately, the other journalists present rushed the two of them to hospital. Hondros would succumb to his wounds later that day, while Hetherington would bleed out in the arms of legendary Sunday Times war-correspondent Marie Colvin, who would suffer a similar fate just months later in Homs, Syria as Assad forces mortared her compound.

Hetherington and Hondros were in Misrata a month after four New York Times correspondents, including three Pulitzer Prize winners, were kidnapped and beaten by Qaddafi forces before being released. In the coming years, the public beheading of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by Daesh would elicit worldwide horror. But, these are just the tip of the iceberg. Since 2011, 85 journalists have been killed in Syria alone, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Countless others have disappeared and remain missing to this day.

The danger has forced others out of the game or away from the worst of it. Prominent figures like Lynsey Addario, who considers spending months in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan (“The Most Dangerous Place in the World”) with Hetherington and getting kidnapped by Qaddafi’s military normal hazards of her job, now calls not going to Syria a “no-brainer.” Pulitzer Prize winning Esquire and New York Times correspondent CJ Chivers, whose expertise in artillery and munitions helped conclude that forces loyal to Qaddafi were responsible for Hetherington’s and Hondros’ deaths, has retired from war reporting because of its growing danger

All of this helps explain where the trend has led: war reporting is too dangerous for many of the big players. Looking back just ten years, every major publication from the Guardian to Al Jazeera had a bureau in Kabul and one in Baghdad. But, not a single one retains a reporter in Damascus or Misrata, much less a bureau. The risk of having someone kidnapped and paying gigantic sums for his or her release is too great for most companies, especially with the budget constraints of journalism today.

Consequently, freelancers have filled the void where there were once well run, well organized and well paid organisations. For the freelancers themselves, this is often a bad deal. With regular reporters, there are checks, a system in which someone is constantly aware of where they are, what they’re doing and when they should be back in the bureau. Freelancers are rarely given this kind of support, being asked, instead, to simply get the work done. As Richard Pendry put it in the Columbia Journalism Review, ‘News outlets are happy to reap the rewards of dangerous reporting, so long as freelancers shoulder all the responsibility,’ responsibility that, because they don’t have an organisation to fund them, means getting first aid training, protective gear and, crucially, insurance for themselves..

Yet, the allure of war reporting still attracts some journalists — for some it’s the possibility of glory and thrill seeking, but most are really in it to show the atrocities of war. So for these intrepid few, what happens if or when they get to the border?

In the classic model, because visas in war-torn countries are hard to come by, most reporters are smuggled into the country and start paying translator and “fixers” to help them find drivers, places to stay and other basic necessities to take care of them in an environment they don’t know. Often, major publications have access to and knowledge of reliable fixers who can get their reporters to the story safely. This meant that, even in the old model, freelancers had a harder time getting around safely in war zones. Paying for all these people and the petrol and the hotels and the food is expensive, so without a wealthy media organisation’s funding, freelancers have to pay and make connections for themselves.

Syria has made this all the more complicated. In the early days of the revolution, everything was normal, according to foreign correspondent James Harkin. However, he says, this ‘normal’ only works because journalists bring attention to rebel causes and sometimes the abuses of the regime, which, they hope, will bring action from the West. When the help never came to Syria, they found a new purpose for the journalists: kidnappings for ransom.

Yet, while it started with ransom, it didn’t stay that way. When reporters are kidnapped, they aren’t always put up for ransom. Sometimes, they are traded back and forth between rebel groups, transferring between run-down factories and abandoned Roman-era catacombs. All the groups realise the prize of having a westerner, especially an American, so instead of hoping to shine international light on Assad Regime human rights abuses, they use reporters as trading pieces, as Harkin found in his search for the now deceased James Foley and the still missing Austin Tice. This shift in dynamics, in which no one wants the reporters for anything more than currency, has made Syria more dangerous for journalists than Lebanon, or Iraq, or the Balkans or anything else in recent memory.

For those who do make it out, there’s often a toll to be paid. The University of Toronto conducted a study in which they found the rates of depression among journalists were much higher than they had been in Iraq. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is finally being recognised among war reporters and is being seen in many who return from Syria, especially those who have been kidnapped.

All of this has pushed media organisations like the Times, Telegraph and BBC to outlaw the usage of freelancers for their publications. However, many continue to do so when the need for the story is greatest or skirt their own rules by having the freelancer leave the danger area before filing the story, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

For those of us at home, the dangers facing freelancers are also incredibly important. It means, as Uri Friedman put it in Vanity Fair, ‘This century's worst humanitarian crisis is grinding on as a dwindling number of journalists bear witness to its destruction,’ so we ‘rarely see it.’

While millions of migrants race toward Europe and hundreds of thousands die in the fighting, most of the freelancers have bowed out, leaving news organisations to gather what they can from a complex network of verifiable Twitter feeds and Syrian journalists, who often complain that they lack the training, safety or background to do their jobs properly. Yet, the work they do is often the only way we have any idea what is going on in Syria at all, and they face the same risks as foreign journalists, except they don’t have a home to return to in the West.

So, as the US, Russia, Iran and much of the rest of the Middle East funnel fighters and firearms into the desolate country, most of us have little to no idea exactly what’s happening and what our governments are doing because the situation is just too dangerous to send in a journalist who, if he or she survives, will be treated like currency by those he or she paid for protection.