From left: Anas al-Tarsha, 17, Syria; Ahmed Addow Anshur, 24, Somalia; Mahad Salad Adan, 20, Somalia; Hassan Osman Abdi, 24, Somalia; Mazhar Tayyara, 24, Syria.
From left: Anas al-Tarsha, 17, Syria; Ahmed Addow Anshur, 24, Somalia; Mahad Salad Adan, 20, Somalia; Hassan Osman Abdi, 24, Somalia; Mazhar Tayyara, 24, Syria.

Syria, Somalia, Bahrain–where fathers bury their sons

The 17-year-old videographer Anas al-Tarsha regularly filmed clashes and military movements in the city of Homs in Syria, and posted the footage on YouTube. On February 24, he was killed by a mortar round while filming the bombardment of the city’s Qarabees district, according to news reports. The central city had been under attack for more than three weeks as Syrian forces stepped up their assault on opposition strongholds.

Al-Tarsha was the youngest of all of the journalists killed on duty this year, and he is one of at least seven journalist killed in 2012 that fall within the United Nations’ definition of youth (age 15 through 24). To mark International Youth Day on Sunday, I took a close look at each of the seven cases to determine why we are losing journalistic talent at such a young age.

At least three young journalists were killed while covering the uprising in Syria and three while working in war-torn Somalia. One was killed in Bahrain. While the context of the deaths in Syria and Bahrain appears similar–young citizen journalists stepping in to record unrest as foreign journalists are restricted–the background in Somalia is different, reflecting the exit or increasing cautiousness of an older generation worn down by decades of conflict.

Last month, the International Committee for the Red Cross categorized the Syrian conflict as a civil war, according to news reports. Reuters cites opposition sources saying that at least 18,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in March 2011. CPJ research shows that at least 13 journalists have been killed this year while covering the conflict, making it the most dangerous place for journalists in the world.

All of the journalists who lost their lives in Syria this year, except one–the internationally renowned journalist Marie Colvin–were 30 or younger. Often, they were local citizen journalists like al-Tarsha. (CPJ was unable to confirm the age of Mohammad Shamma, a journalist killed in Doursha, Syria, on June 27.)

As has been the case in past conflicts and wars, young journalists seem drawn to the frontlines, eager to cover a story that might give them their big breakthrough. Several veteran war photographers and journalists covering the Arab uprisings have observed an increase in the number of young, inexperienced reporters covering war-torn regions.

Because foreign journalists have been virtually banned from the uprising in Syria and the protests in Bahrain, news coverage has relied heavily on citizen journalists and international reporters working with sources inside the country. Academic research has repeatedly shown that young people are quicker to embrace technological innovations–and it seems safe to assume that this is also the case in journalism.

With high demand and low cost combined with a desire to amplify the civilian populations’ cry for help, young journalists in Syria have been given an unprecedented opportunity to document and share the atrocities with the outside world. But along with that opportunity comes the great risk of being on the ground in armed conflict. At least three young Syrian journalists, including the 17-year-old al-Tarsha, faced that risk and paid the ultimate price.

In their effort to impose a media blackout of the uprising, Bahraini authorities have obstructed and harassed foreign journalists, making video footage from citizen journalists like the 22-year-old videographer Ahmed Ismail Hassan vital in informing news coverage of the unrest, CPJ research shows. Hassan was shot while filming a pro-reform protest on March 31 in Salmabad, a village southwest of the capital, Manama, according to local journalists and news reports. After the protest was dispersed by riot police with tear gas and rubber bullets, unknown assailants in a Toyota land cruiser began shooting live ammunition at the protesters, news reports said. Hassan was shot, and died in a hospital later that morning.

Six journalists in Somalia have also paid the ultimate price this year. Half of them fall under the definition of “youth.” Five out of six are under 30.

Unlike Syria and Bahrain, where all but one journalist killing documented by CPJ has happened within the past year and a half, Somalia has a long history of being a deadly country for the press. Without an effective central government since President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991 and with years of fighting in between rival warlords, Somalia is often categorized as a failed state haunted by famine and disease. With 11 unsolved journalist murders in the past 10 years, Somalia ranks second for the third year in a row on CPJ’s Impunity Index, topped only by Iraq. The Somali press corps has faced an onslaught of attacks, most coming from Al-Shabaab militants, but transitional government forces have also menaced Somali journalists.

I asked Sahal Abdulle, exiled veteran Somali journalist and former correspondent for The New York Times and Reuters, why so many young journalists have been killed this year. “In Somalia, everyone over 30 fled the country,” was his short answer.

According to CPJ’s annual report on exiled journalists, a whopping 78 Somali journalists facing threats, attacks, and harassment have gone into exile over the past five years. The high number puts Somalia in first place among countries like Iran and Ethiopia, where journalists are forced to flee their homes. The exodus has decimated the local press corps and left a significant void in news coverage.

Even when a veteran reporter is able to stay in Somalia, the younger reporters are still at greater risk. “While youth are taking risks to report the story,” said Abdulle, “the older generations have grown more cautious and practice self-censorship.”

One thing characterizing the situation for many young reporters these days is the lack of institutional backing by a large news organization. Previously, reporters covering war would have an employer to call on if they ran into trouble. Likewise, the traditional news organizations could provide basic security training or, at least, a space where journalists could meet and learn from their older colleagues. Today, young journalists are often on their own.

When acclaimed photojournalist Tim Hetherington returned in March 2011 from a reporting trip to Libya, he told his colleague, Michael Kamber, “There are an unbelievable number of young kids running around Libya with cameras.” (A month later, Hetherington, 40, returned to Libya, where he died in an explosion in the western city of Misurata).

As Kamber notes, before smartphones and digital cameras were made available to the average consumer, the number of photojournalists that could potentially cover a conflict was limited to the few that had the institutional backing and “who could keep their wits while taking pictures, process film in the field, and work out the tricky logistics of shipping film from a war zone to stateside.” Today, the situation has completely changed, as anyone equipped with an iPhone can cover a story and later upload photos and videos to sites like YouTube.

Still, anyone heading out on a dangerous assignment should heed some simple advice:  Make sure you are prepared. A starting point could be CPJ’s newly updated Journalists Security Guide. I am not sure that it would have saved al-Tarsha or the many other brave young journalists who are no longer with us. But it would be a start.

As Herodotus put it long before the invention of the printing press, the fundamental problem is: In peace, sons bury fathers, but in war, fathers bury sons.

So, on Sunday, International Youth Day, let’s honor the sons that have been buried, and also celebrate the youthful eagerness to go out, explore, document, and ultimately change the world.