The filming of James Foley’s brutal execution has grabbed headlines and shocked the world into examining the safety of freelance journalists. Near the end of the gruesome video, released by the Islamic State, people got a glimpse of Steven Sotloff, another journalist who IS declared ‘was next’ if their demands weren’t meant.
Then earlier this week, to everyone’s surprise, journalist Peter Theo Curtis was released from the grasp of Syrian militants. Although he was being held captive by the Nusra Front rather than the Islamic State, his release came as a surprise. The recent spike in news about freelance journalism in Syria has sparked the question: how many more are still being held?
According to Reporters Without Borders, 39 journalists have been killed so far, with 11 being currently imprisoned. However, the Committee to Protect Journalists puts that figure much higher, with 20 imprisoned in Syria. For journalists who rely on low tech methods of reporting, also known as citizen reporting, nearly 122 have been killed, while 17 remain in jail. These, by the way, are only the ones we are able to document and confirm.
To further examine the situation in Syria we also must understand that journalism was never a ‘protected’ profession there. Journalists had a habit of either fleeing the country to escape the regime or simply disappearing and never being heard from again. For local journalists, the situation is particularly tricky because they are facing pushback from both sides. Militants in rebel camps don’t want them around, and certainly journalists pose a threat to Bashar al Assad. Because Syrian journalists lack the freedom of movement that say, an American journalist has, the idea of escaping is nullified. Escape to where? Turkey? Into refugee camps? The prospect are dim.
Yet the foreign correspondents and war journalists who come over also lack protection. With little in terms of funds, they seek story after story, putting themselves in inordinate amounts of danger for what usually amounts to a few hundred dollars per story, and that’s if they’re lucky. Obviously most journalists don’t do their job because of the riches involved, but most would appreciate it if a few more security measures were put in place.
I remember the first time I started working as a journalist in Central and East Africa. I remember sitting on a balcony in Kisoro, near the Congolese border, with a few NGO friends who worked in human rights. “So what’s your bug out plan?” one asked me. I had no idea what he was talking about. He tried to explain further, “Where will you meet your group, what airport will you fly out of, or what border do you cross if things go bad?” he asked. That’s always been my favorite term around here, ‘if things go bad.’ It’s such a nice way of saying: if a massacre begins.
“I suppose I’ll cover the story,” I told him.
“No but do you have a security bag you’ll grab that’s filled with all important documents and a couple days? Did your organization give you a plan or training?” he asked, completely confused. I laughed, not because I wanted to. It would be nice to have a security plan here and there, but those are often relegated to large name news organizations, rather than low level freelancers. Yet, even the idea of protection and evacuation seemed foreign. It contradicted the whole point of covering the news. Because unlike workers waiting to be evacuated, journalists often find ways of sneaking into a burning country, rather than sneaking out of one.
And this is one of the major cruxes of the issue. It’s predicated on the fact that we do put ourselves in dangerous situations because that is a job requirement. However, your backing absolutely matters. If you can call your editor, who will then rally the news organization behind you, calling lawyers, arranging transport fees and conducting diplomatic talks, that’s amazing. But more often than not, there’s not a whole lot they can do for their freelancers.
In the case of Peter Theo Curtis, he had Qatar on his side, vying for his release. There is hope that more journalists can and will be brought home. The UN, during a recent conference, stressed that threats and attacks against journalists were the responsibility of the state they were in to protect them. And that’s all well and good, but when the state has a murderous dictator at the helm, it guarantees very little in terms of journalistic protection.
Photo Credit: Flickr user zabielin
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