Reporters in Syria: Cannon fodder in the chase for news

AMMAN: Mulhem Barakat, a teenage freelance photographer working for Reuters, was killed in Aleppo city in 2013 while covering a battle between the opposition and the Syrian government. His death, and a photograph of his blood-smeared camera, caused a media uproar at the time, as did reports that Barakat was under 18 years old when he started sending images to Reuters in May 2012.

“Reuters gave this Syrian kid a camera,” read an article in Foreign Policy after Barakat’s death. “Seven months later he was dead.”

As a freelancer, Barakat did not receive the same privileges granted to journalists working within the news agency.

The use of Syrian correspondents such as Barakat by international and domestic news outlets to cover the war without training or protection has led to dozens of them being killed and injured in recent years. This months-long investigation, conducted with the support of the Syria in Depth project, documents dozens of cases of what activists consider to be violations of the rights of Syrian journalists by TV stations, news agencies and websites in light of the war and the absence of any union or legal protection.

Youssef Homos, a photographer from Outer Damascus who currently lives in Turkey, said he worked for Reuters as a freelancer from February 2015 until June 12, 2015, when the news agency decided to stop using his services and those of some of his colleagues.

Two other former Reuters freelancers, who requested anonymity, also said the news agency suddenly severed ties with them in June 2015 after their colleague Hossam Qattan was injured in Aleppo on May 20 while working for Reuters. Both confirmed that Reuters did not sign contracts with them or provide them with any training courses, protection or safety gear.

“Safety is very important to us,” a Reuters spokesperson said in response to an emailed request for comment on reported cases of freelancers working without protection gear or safety training in war zones. “We are currently reviewing this, so we cannot say more at the moment,” added the spokesperson.

The spokesperson did not clarify further.

Reuters’ response confirming its commitment to safety and stating that the matter is under review was similar to its response to freelance photographer Barakat’s death in Aleppo approximately five years ago. At the time, the news agency claimed that it was not stating details about the incident for the protection of other journalists in the field.

A report by France24 at the time compared the response by Reuters to an ostrich burying its head in the sand. Professional media workers also criticized the response.

“Just because Reuters calls Mulhem a freelancer does not mean that he was a freelancer under the law,” wrote American investigative journalist and blogger Corey Pein. “And whether he was a freelancer or not, legally speaking, the agency had a responsibility to ensure that he was prepared for the work it was actively encouraging him to pursue.”

Reuters did not reply to a message requesting comment on Mulhem Barakat’s story.

Four freelance correspondents with Turkey’s Anadolu Agency, who have worked in many areas in Syria, said that the news agency did not sign contracts with them, nor did they receive any training or protection gear. The four added that they rely on expertise gained from working in the field. Some of them watched YouTube videos about how to do coverage in hostile zones.

The four correspondents, who requested to remain anonymous, said that some of them have worked with Anadolu for two to three years.

Anadolu did not reply to an information request sent to the email address listed on their website. Messages sent to Ali Dimir, Anadolu’s Syria affairs manager, via Facebook, appear to have been “seen” in his inbox, but he did not reply.

Underage journalists

In addition to reports that Mulhem was a minor when he started working with Reuters, this investigation documented other cases of minors working with Arab and Western news outlets.

A relative of Mohamed al-Asfar, a photographer who worked with Al Jazeera in southern Syria and was killed in late June 2015, said that al-Asfar was 17 when he started working with the Qatari network. According to al-Asfar’s Facebook page and statements by his relatives and colleagues, he was born in June 1996 and started working for Al Jazeera in September 2013.

Yasser Abu Hilala, Al Jazeera’s general manager, said the network did not know that al-Asfar was a minor when he started working for them.

Photojournalist Diaa Al-Din Samout rescues an injured child in East Ghouta after a bombing earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Ammar Al Bushy.

After al-Asfar’s death in 2015, Al Jazeera sent $30,000 to al-Asfar’s family: his mother, 15-year-old sister and 10-year-old brother. The family now resides in a hotel in the Qatari capital Doha, and Al Jazeera is paying for their accommodation, according to Abu Hilala.

“In a country like Syria, it is hard to ask people you deal with about their birth certificates,” said Abu Hilala. “And it is hard for us to provide training courses for everyone cooperating with us or everyone we buy photographs from. The situation in Syria does not allow for vetting identification documents.”

Even the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which international media outlets rely on for their Syria reporting, was the subject of complaints. SOHR did not compensate the family of reporter Sami Jawdat Rabah, who worked for the monitor and was executed by the Islamic State (IS) in June 2016, alongside five other individuals accused of working for media outlets.

SOHR reported the killing of five media workers, including Rabah, on its website.

Rabah’s sister said she sent an email to SOHR in December 2017 demanding compensation for her brother’s death considering the dangerous environments in which he worked. She did not receive an answer, and the family has received no compensation.

Syrian media outlets also violated the rights of correspondents. Ahmed al-Musalma, a freelance correspondent for Qasioun News Agency, did not receive compensation for a shrapnel injury sustained in March 2017 while covering the fighting in the al-Manshiya district of Daraa city in southern Syria. His shrapnel injury required several surgeries.

An official from Qasioun, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the agency works with freelance correspondents. The agency uses the services of 10 such freelancers in Daraa, while it has two people on the payroll: the office director and a correspondent in the northern Daraa countryside.

Qasioun freelancer al-Musalma covered the news in hostile environments without protective gear or training. “I was more like the armed fighters,” he said.

Bashar Kamal, the manager at Qasioun, did not reply to multiple emails requesting information about how the agency’s freelance correspondents work and about their work conditions.

‘No better alternatives’

Omar al-Halabi, a Syrian correspondent for the Shada al-Hurriyah television channel, said he was injured three times in as many years while working for the station. Shada al-Hurriyah is owned by Sheikh Adnan al-Arour, a Syrian cleric in Saudi Arabia who is well known for his debates against Shiite clerics.

Al-Halabi appeared in reports from the frontlines in Aleppo while not wearing a helmet or body armor. He said that the channel, which closed in October 2017, did not report the injury of a correspondent on any of the three occasions he was injured. Al-Halabi did not receive any compensation.

Al-Halabi, alongside Omran Abu Saloum, the Shada al-Hurriyah correspondent in East Ghouta, confirmed that they did not receive any kind of training on covering the news in conflict and war zones. The channel did not provide them with any protection and safety gear, or any safety instructions.

Al-Halabi said that he took the job with Shada al-Hurriyah because he could not find a better opportunity. “There are no better alternatives,” he said, “I mean this is the only way to do it.”

Both correspondents said that the channel delayed sending them payments for three months in order to make sure they kept working.

“We were filming in conflict zones, on the front line,” said Abu Saloum. “We got extraordinary and scary footage for news clips in exchange for 40 dollars at best.”

The manager of Shada al-Hurriyah, Hazim al-Arour, did not reply to an email and WhatsApp message asking for comment.

The Shada al-Hurriyah correspondents provided audio recordings of al-Arour shared from the channel’s WhatsApp group in which he denies correspondents’ requests for their salaries and confirms they have no work contract or written employment agreement.

Arbitrary dismissal

Correspondent Khalaf Jumaa said he worked for about two years as a correspondent for Radio Al-Kul in northern Syria, starting in May 2016. During that time, he covered battles and hot zones without protective gear or taking safety courses.

Then, in February 2018, the radio station severed ties with Jumaa after he had to move with his family from the Aleppo countryside to the Idlib countryside. He requested to take leave for a while until he found housing for them. The radio station said, “Take your time, no problem.” But the editor, Maher Badhli, told him after severing ties that “all correspondents are suffering,” adding that “the decision is made, and we can’t amend it.”  

The radio station’s manager Yassir Khairallah did not reply to requests for comment, and messages sent to the station’s official email account listed on its website did not receive a reply.

Saif al-Ahmad, 25, from Homs, said that he used to work as a correspondent for Orient News, a Syrian opposition media outlet owned by the Syrian businessman Ghassan Aboud, who lives in the United Arab Emirates.

Orient News cut ties with al-Ahmad after he corrected a piece of information during an on-air phone call on the morning news hour on May 20, 2017. Al-Ahmad corrected the reported number of people to be displaced from the Waer district of Homs city on that day.

The channel sent an email to all correspondents threatening to dismiss them if any behaved the way Saif did on air, calling on them to work “smartly” around such situations.

When Muhammad Aba-Zeid (also known as George Samara), a correspondent for the Nabd Syria television channel was killed while covering the fighting in Daraa in March 2017, the channel only published his obituary on its website. Muhammad appeared on his Facebook page minutes before he was killed, in al-Manshiya, Daraa, without any protective gear.

Aba-Zeid’s widow, Hanan Muhammad a-Lafi, said that Nabd Syria did not sign a contract with him and did not contact her after he was killed to offer any compensation. Hanan provided a copy of a letter she sent to the channel in December 2017 requesting compensation for her husband’s death. She did not receive a response.

“George Samara was working as a correspondent for the Syrian Media Organization,” said Emad a-Saadi, the manager of Nabd Syria, which shut down the same month Samara was killed. “He offered to coordinate with us. We stated the nature of our work and that we don’t have any contracts, and that we were in a pilot stage. The channel operated without a license until it closed down in March 2017.”

“I can’t help his wife because the channel is closed,” said a-Saadi. “All the employees and myself lost our jobs.”

As part of this investigative report, a survey was distributed to 14 randomly selected Syrian journalists about their work conditions. Some 35.7 percent of the respondents said they work as war correspondents, and most of them had been subjected to more than one type of the violations stated in this report.

No documentation or union coverage

Representatives of rights groups that monitor the situation in Syria consider poor working conditions for correspondents to be primarily a labor issue. They say the absence of professional unions is the reason such violations occur.

Nidal Mansour, the Executive Director of the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) in Amman, Jordan, said that media outlets which disregard the basic rules of journalism while working in dangerous environments are violating “the rights of journalists and press freedom.”  

Mansour added that if such violations occur in European and global outlets, “I think they must have complaints filed against them in these countries and be sued.”

“There, justice could be served,” he added.

Mohamad Zaid Mastou, the manager of Accuracy Press Institute, a non-profit organization in the United States that works to monitor Syrian media and provide journalism trainings, said the absence of labor laws protecting journalists opens the door for outlets to ignore the protection of journalists.

“In the case of the absence of legal responsibility, there is an ethical responsibility that media outlets should fulfill,” added Mastou.

Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said “we do not document cases of working conditions in media outlets, but we issued guidelines and reached out to international and regional media outlets to stress the need to protect journalists, especially in conflict zones”.

Violations against journalists by media outlets are “outside our mandate,” said Mansour. “Usually, professional unions focus on such issues.”

Ali Eid, the head of the Syrian Journalists Association in Turkey, stated that the phenomenon of media outlets seeking to hire journalists as “freelancers” is problematic, with ethical and legal repercussions. He added that outlets seek to stay clear of any responsibility when a journalist is kidnapped, injured or killed.

The freelance system, in which a journalist is paid on a piece-by-piece basis, became widespread in Syria after 2011, Mohamed a-Satouf, a researcher at the Syria Center for Media Freedoms, which belongs to the Syrian Journalists Association, said. Freelancing allows reporters to work for multiple outlets with no contracts.

A-Satouf said there should be an ethical commitment towards journalists from each outlet, especially if the outlet is Syrian, was established after the revolution, claims to abide by the media’s ethical codes and seeks to support media freedoms in the country.

A-Satouf also provided numbers and statistics that the Center for Media Freedoms has documented of violations against Syrian journalists and the parties responsible for them between March 2011 and February 2018.

Unless demands for better working conditions move from calls by rights organizations to measures implemented on the ground, it is impossible to know how many other young Syrians could face the same fate as Mulhem and his colleagues.

This investigation was completed with the support of the Syria in Depth project, an initiative by International Media Support (IMS) and The Guardian Foundation, alongside Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.