With 28 journalists killed while covering the conflict, Syria was by far the deadliest country in 2012. The country is now one of the most challenging locations to report from. Reporters Without Borders recently released its 2013 Press Freedom index, placing Syria the 176th country with less media freedom out of 179 countries in the list.
The Syrian conflict gave birth to a new vocation to some people. Citizens learnt to handle the camera to film from the closest angle the repression of the regime. But nowadays in Syria holding a camera is almost as dangerous as holding a gun. But Syrian citizens take the risk to spread information about their situation.
The majority of occidental media depends on this precious source of images to relate an almost inaccessible war. The access to the ground is very difficult for foreign journalists, so the citizens became the actors of the Syrian crisis.
Recently, The Guardian released an article about the rise of citizen journalists in Syria. Who are these novice journalists and how do they affect journalism?
The so-called “citizen journalists”, refer to citizens playing an active role in the process of gathering news and information. Syria was an information hole for decades and international journalists were banned and the few who managed to get accreditations only visited places approved by the Syrian regime. It became necessary to rely on the citizens’ information available on the Internet, as it is, as of now, the only trustable source to know what is really happening over there.
Leila Nachawati, Syrian communication strategist and human-rights activist based in Spain, is passionate about new media and the changes it is helping create, particularly in the Middle East. According to her, “Through the tools at their disposal, citizens in Syria are now covering their own historical events, risking their lives to do so. They are aware of the importance of sharing events on the ground and they´re not only taking part, but also narrating them in first person.” These novice journalists are playing a very important role, and it is actually the first time a war is told by the ones living it. “They are providing the world with information that would be extremely difficult to access otherwise and their work should be respected”, she added.
With the improvements in technologies these last years, it is now much easier to spread information. Mobile phones in their pockets, these Syrian citizens are not basically journalists but very often activists motivated to show the world their situation. With the apparition of social networks, everything can be posted in a second and showed to the whole world.
The Syrian youth broke free from the chains of silence and are committed to spread the truth regardless of the high price they will have to pay. “There is an increasing professionalization due to the evolution of events on the ground and the need to adjust to emerging needs for coverage in extremely dangerous situations. Citizens are performing a role that no one else is performing in a much-needed situation”, Leila Nachawati explains.
A lot of them have deep explanations for their choice of taking part of this. Some decided to start covering the conflict because they saw some of their friends getting killed by the Assad regime, others to simply let the world discover the truth under this extremely violent situation.
It is difficult to verify the authenticity of the videos posted in the Internet. Since the conflict started and citizen journalism expended in Syria, there has been some manipulation or journalistic mistakes, for example when a video was released on YouTube showing dead children bodies lying on the ground supposedly shot in Holms, but it was actually from Iraq.
Day and night, they record the bombings, the destruction of cities and the moving of refugees, defying the censorship of the regime. Armed with a rifle and a camera, they risk their life but keep their eyes on the target: filming everything happening.
They started with their mobile phones but the contents become more and more professional as some release videos in HD. Social networks raised the hypothesis that when social networking, everyone becomes a journalist. Professional journalists have very varied opinions about this. According to Leila, “Some of the work citizens are producing (videos, photos, chronicles) is not very professional, but other contents are. Some part of the production is brilliant, and could compete with any professional piece. She added, “How we choose to call that work, I´m not really interested in that debate, and I think it´s a debate created and fed by professional journalists who are worried about the future of their work. In my opinion each of us should worry about doing the best work possible instead of blaming others for covering the gaps we leave.”
According to Gilles Verlant, Belgian Journalist, citizen journalists are not “citizen journalists, but only citizens, who – if they have access to an important information and can witness it – should have the reflex to communicate it to a real journalist, or let people know about it that they can be contacted by a journalist who knows its work, and will put it in shape.”
Facebook, YouTube and Twitter became sources of information for the demonstrations in Syria as much for citizens than for journalists. The Facebook page “The Syria Revolution” attracted thousands of members after the first publications of videos.
“Syria has gone from being an information black hole until very recently to being the number one producer of YouTube videos in the region. If we compare the silence around the country for 40 years with the amount of contents coming out of Syria today we can get a hint of how revolutionary this is in itself” explains the Syrian activist.
The Arab spring made a real change in Journalism where citizen journalism is now playing a big role. But the real role of a journalist shouldn’t be forgotten: someone who searches, gathers information, puts in context… It is not a vocation we can improvise. But it is necessary nowadays to adapt to the changes of the profession and use all the tools available. The work of citizen journalist is one of them.