In Syria, the quandary of freelance news coverage

By Jean-Paul Marthoz/CPJ Senior Adviser on February 6, 2013 10:07 AM ET

As Syria becomes riskier for both staff and freelance journalists, news organizations are more reliant on images from citizen journalists. An example is this image showing devastation in Aleppo, which was taken by the Aleppo Media Center and transmitted by The Associated Press on Sunday. (AP/Aleppo Media Center)

Forces on all sides of the Syrian conflict that have tried to censor news coverage through violence have won a round. By sharply increasing the risk for reporters covering the civil war they have forced news organizations to think twice before sending their staff to the battlefields. In a worrying development they even have led a leading UK newspaper, the Sunday Times, for which Marie Colvin was on assignment when she was killed last year in Homs, to refuse photographs submitted by freelancers.

According to the UK Press Gazette, seasoned photojournalist Rick Findlar has been told by the Sunday Times' foreign desk that the paper could not buy his pictures because they "do not wish to encourage freelancers to take exceptional risks."

"This is not a financial decision. It is a moral one," said Graeme Paterson, deputy foreign editor for the Sunday Times. "In the light of what happened to Marie Colvin we have decided we do not want to commission any journalists to cover the situation in Syria. The situation out there is incredibly risky. And we do not want to see any more bloodshed."

News organizations are obviously nervous about being accused of enticing freelancers to throw the dice and plunge recklessly into war zones. They are also known, however, to be wary of being called to account if a freelancer who gets into trouble claims that he or she is working for them.

The Sunday Times' announcement has fanned the long-running debate on the status of freelancers on assignment for news organizations that no longer dare to send their own staff to particularly perilous destinations. What forms of support (insurance, protection, exfiltration) should these freelancers expect from the media that have commissioned them? To what extent are these news organizations accountable if a freelancer is taken hostage or wounded?

"The Sunday Times lost one of their best, and I can understand that sending back someone to Syria is a tough decision to take," award-winning photo-reporter Bruno Stevens told CPJ, referring to Colvin's death. "Too many young photographers leave for extremely dangerous theaters without enough experience, and it is reasonable to try to slow down the movement. But the absolute refusal to publish even after these freelancers are back seems to go too far. They are right to condemn the general hypocrisy of using uninsured freelancers instead of staff or of freelancers for whom they are ready to assume the risks involved. But if that leads them to just take photos from the wires quality journalism will be hurt."    

Agence VU photojournalist Cédric Gerbehaye said: "If the Sunday Times wants to deter rookie and unprepared journalists from going to countries of immense risk, that's understandable. But there have always been and there will always be young freelancers who will try to make their debut in a particular conflict. If a major actor like the Sunday Times withdraws from the market it will become more difficult for the younger generation that was born with the Arab Spring to make its mark and move ahead by, for instance, publishing a two-page spread in Paris Match or securing a slot at the Visa pour l'image festival in Perpignan [France]. This generation has demonstrated its hyper-reactivity and sophisticated use of technology and social networks, and it deserves a chance to be published."

The Sunday Times policy raises another crucial issue: Who decides what is news? The freedom to cover particularly brutal conflicts is at stake if thugs from security forces or rebel groups are able to turn away journalists. "I understand that news outlets are anxious about the risks, but it strikes me as alarming that a major newspaper has taken the decision not to take freelance copy from Syria," said Jamie Dettmer in a comment posted to the Press Gazette article. "If other papers follow the Sunday Times, then we will get even less media scrutiny of the civil war." 

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