Dangers in Syria Are Acute Among Freelancers

With some 30 journalists currently missing in Syria, a group of veteran war correspondents met in London on November 19 to debate the risks of reporting from one of the most dangerous places on earth. The event, sponsored by the Overseas Press Club of America and the Frontline Club, a London-based media club, zoomed in on topics ranging from kidnappings to the heavy flow of reporting from freelancers in the region.

“I think most information that came out of Syria last year came from freelancers,” said freelance photographer Fabio Bucciarelli in a panel discussion moderated by Stuart Hughes, a BBC News producer who lost a leg in a landline blast in Iraq. Bucciarelli, who won the OPC’s Robert Capa Gold Medal Award last year for his photography from Syria, said he appreciates the freedom of freelancing and joked that freelancers are extremely motivated to “leave the hotel” and get the story so they can get paid. 

But freelancers come with a wide range of skills and experience — or lack thereof — which creates a dilemma for the publications that hire them, said Sean Ryan, associate editor of The Sunday Times

Ryan said his newspaper had decided to stop commissioning work from freelance journalists in Syria, unless they’re extremely experienced, in order to prevent them from taking unnecessary risks for The Times. He explained the decision by recounting a specific experience with a freelancer: The reporter had pitched a story on Syria to Ryan after safely leaving the country. It was a “wonderful” story, Ryan said, and he paid well for it. Later, Ryan said, the same reporter pitched a story from inside Syria — a story Ryan didn’t think was worth the risk for the reporter. “I realized I had given him the incentive to go back,” he says. “I felt at that point it was irresponsible to give any freelancer in that position an incentive.”

The Sunday Times lost its correspondent Marie Colvin last year in a shelling in Syria. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls the country the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, with 28 correspondents killed in 2012.

Bucciarelli noted that there’s nothing black and white for publications when it comes to deciding whether to commission freelance reporting from Syria. For instance, he said, publications might have a policy not to commission freelance work, but those same publications, including The Sunday Times, buy photos from photo agencies that do use work from freelancers.

Talk turned to kidnappings and whether it’s safer for a correspondent to be on staff with a large media organization if the reporter gets seized. Emma Beals, founder of the Frontline Freelance Register, a group aimed at uniting and protecting journalists, said it might help in the way the search is conducted to have the backing of a major publication, but with the uncertainty in Syria today, she said she doubted it would make much difference in the outcome. 

Beals, who reports from Syria, noted that in terms of entering the country and traveling around as a reporter, “It’s dangerous to assume that any ways are foolproof.” Hughes called the situation “a lottery.” One audience member mentioned that some reporters had posed as medics, while another person in the audience — a man who had served as a medic in Syria — strongly advised against that, noting that medics are targets themselves, for instance if they are seen as helping an enemy faction.

One audience member asked about female journalists in Syria, and whether they feel a need to take added risks to prove themselves on the frontlines. Beals said, “I think in Syria, I’m going to be controversial and say it’s an advantage, actually. A lot of the great reporting that’s been coming from Syria in recent months has been from women because you can go a little bit more under cover, you can wear a hijab and sort of putter around a little bit more.” She added, “That’s not the same for every country, obviously…but as far as Syria goes, the female thing is, if not a nonissue, almost an advantage.”

The group also discussed the future for Syria, with award-winning freelance filmmaker Mani noting, “The issue for Syria is, is it going to be 10 states, or three states…I just hope inside the rebel areas it’s not going to be total chaos forever.”

When Hughes asked whether it’s worth it to report from Syria and if the public cares, photographer Bucciarelli summed it up this way: “No journalist ever thinks that his picture can stop the world…I like to make people conscious of what’s going on there. If only one person, after seeing one of my images, can think about what’s going on in Syria, I’m happy with that.”