Homs, a city of 823,000 in the western Syria is one of the flash points for the year-old uprising against Bashar al-Assad's regime and it is also the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. Between February 22 and 24, four journalists were killed in the city due to shelling from Syrian government forces. Venerated American Sunday Times of London journalist Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik have taken up most of the headlines. But two local freelancers—17-year-old Anas al-Tarsha and Rami al-Sayed, both videographers—also lost their lives in Homs.
As Beirut-based CNN correspondent Arwa Damon and CBS News Foreign Correspondent Clarissa Ward emphatically stated on CNN's Reliable Sources, battlefield journalists are still not shying away from covering the story in Syria. This point should not be taken for granted. Now more than ever, professional journalists are needed in the world's most dangerous locales.
With the proliferation of blogs, YouTube, and social media, anyone can now say that they are a reporter. The aforementioned CNN has a whole website dedicated to citizen journalism. But raw YouTube footageof the shelling of Homs is not really journalism. Just showing a video without any sort of narrative is too simple a proposition for a situation as complex as the Arab Spring. To reduce the crisis in Syria to bombs being dropped in Homs glosses over the many nuances of the situation.
Deeper reporting from the front lines, though, sends vital information in two very significant directions. For readers and viewers removed from the conflict, they can gain a greater understanding of why the conflict has happened and, possibly, what they, their governments, or their NGOs can do to help. An in-depth analysis of the conflict in Syria can engage the reader/viewer and lead to more substantive questions: What about the influence of Iran? What about the Arab League or a possible UN intervention? What about Russia's economic concerns? These questions can work their way up to policymakers and, maybe, lead to more substantive solutions.
For readers and viewers in the midst of the conflict, a detailed report from the front lines can mean the difference between life and death. Perhaps an interview with a well-informed citizen on the streets of Homs could convince a resident of nearby Hama that it is time to flee to Lebanon. Maybe an article saying that Assad's forces deliberately targeted journalists could finally convince an on-the-fence Syrian to join the protest movement.
This idea, that more detailed reporting leads to more humanitarianism and greater protection for at-risk civilians in conflict zones, led to the creation of Integrated Regional Information Networks(IRIN) in the wake of the Rwandan genocide. This UN initiative provides a network of humanitarian reporters in 70 countries and is a trusted source for aid workers, academia, and other media members. It is impossible to say that a project like this could stop the next genocide before it starts, but it could at least provide a narrative that goes beyond government propaganda or simple YouTube shots and paint a more honest and rounded picture.
IRIN, though, is not enough. More money and resources need to be poured into journalism to make sure these hard-to-get stories do not fall through the cracks. Banks, insurance companies, and the auto industry have all been bailed out by tax dollars in the last four years. Why were newspapers and wire services passed over? Few industries were hit as hard by the financial crisis as the media was,but there was no outcry, governmental or otherwise, to try to help the laid-off journalists and struggling news companies.
The private sector can help out in this regard, as well. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and many other billionaires have pledgedmost of their wealth to charity. Why not use some of this money to create a fund for battlefield journalists?
The average journalist coming out college or graduate school today, cannot be blamed for taking a job with TMZ in Los Angeles over Reuters in Beirut, but some truly do have a calling to report amongst falling bombs and dying civilians. These reporters should be given every opportunity to make sure they can work comfortably in their chosen field. Battlefield journalists are often the first chance for the public, both in the conflict zone and watching from afar, to decide how they feel about a war, an issue, or a public figure. And if a large segment of the public feels a certain way, then successful action will likely follow. The events of the past year have shown this to be the case over and over again.
[PHOTO CREDIT: Rémi Ochlik, the night before he was killed. Courtesy of Freedom House.]