Ahmed Abu al-Hamza, "Software" as he was known by his friends, stood behind the camera on November 6 as a gunman explained how rebel forces took Tel Sukayk, a strategic hilltop north of Hama, from government forces. Suddenly the camera's sound recorder picked up the faint thud of a mortar shell firing in the distance. A few seconds of confusion then turned to horror as the shell exploded right in front of the camera, killing Abu al-Hamza and the rebel fighter and injuring several others.
Abu al-Hamza's friends shared the last moments captured on camera in a graphic YouTube video that garnered more than 1.7 million views. Copies of the video also spread quickly, some by accounts that confused the rebel fighter for Abu al-Hamza. Abu al-Hamza's colleagues and news outlet told CPJ he had just joined the local pro-opposition SMART News Agency for a try-out period and he died filming for SMART. But it turns out the other accounts were not so wrong after all, as his colleagues also said Abu al-Hamza was a member of a media center of a local affiliate of Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful rebel group with ties to Al-Qaeda.
Abu al-Hamza was one of 90 cases researched by CPJ of journalists who reportedly died while covering the Syrian conflict this year. Of the 90, CPJ could only confirm 13 cases in which a journalist died as a direct result of their journalism. Even this fraction made Syria the deadliest country in the world for the press, for the fourth year in a row. But as in previous years, CPJ could not find in the majority of researched cases evidence of a direct link to journalistic work or even determine that the journalist had died.
But this year, one trend stood out: nearly one third of cases researched were either members of armed groups or had so many pictures of the "journalist" wielding weapons that CPJ could not rule out the possibility they were combatants. This fact poses significant ramifications not just for CPJ's research but for journalists in Syria and elsewhere.
In a handful of cases like Abu al-Hamza's, the journalist was working for a news outlet and an armed group simultaneously, or had previously worked for an armed group. Saleh Laila, who was killed by a car bomb in Aleppo in October, was both a correspondent for the Turkish state-run Anatolia News Agency and a founding member of the media center for the rebel Tawhid Brigade, according to the respective groups. Anatolia did not respond to CPJ's requests for comment. Thaer al-Ajlani died reporting on assignment for Sham FM from the Damascus suburb of Jobar, but he was well-known for propaganda he made while working as a press officer for the National Defense Forces, a pro-government militia. Another SMART News Agency correspondent killed this year, Obada Ghazal, had previously worked with Ahrar al-Sham. SMART told CPJ the organization has a strict rule that all of its correspondents must be independent of all armed factions as a condition of employment.
Ahmad al-Mesalama, who was gunned down in Daraa in September by unknown assailants, worked for the local Nabaa Media Foundation. According to Nabaa director Ibrahim Hamad, al-Mesalama had worked as a press officer for the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's official branch in Syria, until July 2014 when he joined Nabaa. After al-Mesalama's death, Al-Jazeera published on its website that he corresponded for the network and that he died covering fighting, although Al-Jazeera spokesman Hasan Patel later denied to CPJ that he had worked for Al Jazeera "in any official capacity" and said the network has a "thorough vetting process" for both permanent staff and freelancers and does not knowingly hire anyone who has a current or prior relationship with armed groups or rebel groups.
The intermingling of journalism and fighting is nothing new for Syria, where combatants view the media sphere as yet another battlefield in the civil war. Not all working for media centers for armed groups carry weapons, but CPJ has uncovered photos and videos of purported journalists carrying guns and cameras simultaneously. This year, the proportion of such cases or cases with direct links to armed groups has increased compared with previous years.
The reasons behind this militarization of the press are complex. But the primary driver is undoubtedly the past five years of brutal censorship. Since 2011, at least 92 journalists have died covering the Syrian conflict. Approximately 25 journalists are missing or held hostage, and at least seven are jailed by the Syrian government. In the face of such dire threats, international journalists have largely stopped going into Syria and scores of Syrian journalists have fled the country. Those left behind are either increasingly members of armed groups or pushed to rely heavily on those armed groups to ensure even a modicum of safety.
The implications for the newsgathering process and our ability to understand the conflict are clear. We are left both thirsty for information from Syria and drowning in it at the same time. The very same armed groups on all sides of the conflict that have worked tirelessly to censor the press have in turn become some of the leading producers and exporters of information. And there are fewer independent journalists to interrogate and verify that information from the inside.
This makes CPJ's research all the more difficult. Abu al-Hamza's case is a rare exception. With his death so well documented on video, by eyewitness testimony, and by his news outlet, CPJ could confirm that his death was related specifically to his role at SMART News Agency and not his work filming battle scenes on behalf of Ahrar al-Sham, which CPJ would not consider journalism. But in the vast majority of cases where CPJ found close ties to armed groups, such clear evidence does not exist.
Part of the issue also stems from language. The Arabic word ea'lami literally means someone involved with the media and information; an ea'lami could designate a journalist, but it could also refer to a spokesman in a government office or a propagandist for an armed group. This elision of roles makes it easier for an ea'lami to work interchangeably for media outlets and armed groups.
Many Arabic reports about such people do not sufficiently distinguish between the two jobs. Only recently did the pro-opposition Syrian Journalists Association start keeping separate lists for those working as journalists and those working for armed groups. The Violations Documentation Center in Syria does not have separate lists but clearly identifies all cases it documents as either civilian or combatant.
While propaganda has always been part of war, it is of course distinct from journalism. For journalists, their best protection in any conflict zone is their civilian status under international law. Every time a journalist carries a weapon, and every time we confuse a member of an armed group for a journalist, that protective shield is dented.
That shield has not just come under assault in Syria, but throughout the Middle East. This year CPJ investigated the deaths of journalists in Gaza, Iraq, and Yemen that we could not report because of evidence the individuals were participating in violence. In the West Bank, a Palestinian man also posed as a journalist in order to carry out a stabbing attack on an Israeli soldier. All of these incidents fuel the dangerous narrative by both repressive governments and non-state actors that journalists are terrorists, spies, or combatants.
This blurring of the line endangers the lives of the journalists who continue to work in Syria, like ANA's Rami Jarrah. Jarrah, who has recently been reporting from Aleppo, told CPJ there is no excuse to carry out journalism while armed or directly associated with armed factions. While he said he has not seen any journalists carrying guns recently, he said he had previously fallen out with someone over the issue because the practice is "threatening, selfish, and endangers all journalists."
It was only a few years ago that activists all over Syria picked up cameras to tell the world what was happening to their families, friends, and neighbors. They were met with brutal force, first by the government and then by the armed groups that spread throughout the country. They continued to report, in the face of that brutality and in the face of perceived indifference by the international community.
At that time, the most frequent question CPJ researchers had to ask ourselves about Syria was, "How many YouTube videos does a journalist make?" Now we are more often forced to ask, "How many gun videos does a combatant make?" The militarization of the press in Syria may present a research challenge for CPJ, but it presents by far the greater challenge to journalists reporting there and beyond.
Hopefully it is a reversible trend. Many media workers who work with armed groups have done so out of necessity, not preference, Jarrah told CPJ. "I'm sure that the vast majority of those that work with the armed groups would not let down an opportunity to walk away to any alternative."
AUTHOR'S NOTE: CPJ strives to independently verify every case of journalists killed in Syria and elsewhere. We are able to do this thanks to the help of our Beirut correspondent Nadia Massih and former MENA interns Lori Baitarian, Ian Cash, and Nadine Mansour.