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Behind the numbers: Researching Syria's killed journalists

Mourners carry the coffin of Yasser Faisal al-Jumaili, who was killed on assignment in Syria, at his funeral in Falluja, Iraq, on December 8. (Reuters/Thaier Al-Sudani)

This year, CPJ researchers confirmed that at least 29 journalists died while covering the Syrian conflict. How did we arrive at that number?

Our research begins with the collection of possible cases to investigate. By closely following reports from news outlets, local journalist associations, press freedom groups, social media accounts, and human rights organizations, CPJ compiled a list of 159 names of potential cases where journalists died covering the conflict this year. This means CPJ learns of a new potential killed journalist in Syria almost every other day.

Every case must then go through a rigorous research process to ensure it falls within our mandate: journalists killed as a direct result of their work. This year, less than 20 percent of the cases that we reviewed made it through that process.

The first step is to ensure the individual is a journalist. CPJ does not distinguish between professional and amateur journalists like some organizations. We also do not fixate on labels commonly used in the Syrian conflict such as "media activist" and "citizen journalist." Instead, we care only about what the individual was doing. Did he or she show a consistent effort in gathering, producing, and publicly disseminating the news? That's a journalist in our book. 

Especially in highly polarized environments such as Syria, so-called journalistic objectivity does not factor into our decision whether to consider an individual a journalist. We have documented the killing of journalists in Syria from across the political spectrum, including those employed by pro-government and opposition outlets. We draw the line at direct incitement to violence or participation in violence.

But not every journalist falls within our mandate. The second step is to confirm the journalist died as a direct result of his or her work. In Syria, where more than 75 percent of journalists have been killed as a result of crossfire, that task is usually straightforward. It becomes much more difficult in cases where journalists were targeted individually. In those cases, CPJ looks for a motive that would link the murder with the individual's work.

All this can admittedly lead to what can only be described as arbitrary categorization in the chaotic brutality of war. Take for example the case of Syrian photographer Murhaf al-Modahi, who contributed to Agence France-Presse. He survived countless shells and bullets on duty, only to be killed by a rocket attack while returning home from a family party. We therefore did not include him in our list of journalists killed for their work--even though his death is no less tragic.  

Even in a perfect reporting environment, our strict mandate leads to difficult debates over what constitutes journalism. We're constantly rehashing questions with no easy answers. You tell me: just how many YouTube videos does a journalist make?

And Syria is anything but a perfect reporting environment. Rumor, exaggeration, and mistruth fill the vacuum of reliable information. As much as possible, CPJ sticks to a strict journalistic standard of confirming our information with two independent sources. That means we have great confidence in what we report, but it also means we sometimes cannot confirm cases for a lack of trustworthy information. For many of the 159 cases we reviewed this year, we could not corroborate vital pieces of information, and they remain under investigation today.

If the motives behind a killing are unclear, but it is possible that a journalist died for his or her work, CPJ classifies the case as "unconfirmed." For example, Abdullah Sobhi al-Ghazawi, a videographer for SMART News Agency, was killed on his way to cover clashes in the southern city of Daraa on November 8, 2013. His record of journalism is undeniable, with work documenting the intense fighting and shelling all around Daraa. But CPJ found photographs of al-Ghazawi with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder as he is filming. His colleague, Jawad al-Musalama, told CPJ that al-Ghazawi was only posing with the rifle, but we are still investigating to determine whether he was carrying a weapon the day he died; if so, this would undermine his protected status as a non-combatant under international law.

CPJ's combination of a strict mandate, difficult reporting environment, and stringent journalistic standards means that our data are conservative and likely underestimate the true number of journalists killed for their work in Syria. But our data are reliable precisely because of that conservatism.

Other organizations that do similar reporting, like Reporters Without Borders, SKeyes, and the Syrian Journalists Association, all do tremendous work. They face the same challenges and debate the same questions we do, even as they may differ in mandates and methods. As a result, we have all arrived at different numbers of journalists killed in Syria this year. But ultimately we all agree on one fact: Syria is the deadliest country in the world to work as a journalist.

Mark Robson recently completed his internship in CPJ's Middle East and North Africa program.

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