The changing state of reporting on Syria

November 20, 2013

by Sally Ashley-Cound

Mani, Sean Ryan and Stuart Hughes discuss reporting on Syria

Mani, Sean Ryan and Stuart Hughes discuss reporting on Syria

It is becoming more and more dangerous to report from inside Syria. At the Frontline Club on 19 November a panel chaired by Stuart Hughes, a senior world affairs producer with BBC News and in association with the Overseas Press Club, discussed how reporting has changed since the conflict began and how journalists at all levels should approach it in the future.

Freelance filmmaker and photojournalist Mani said that there has been a notable change on the ground:

“I started working in Syria in October 2011… Of course there was danger but at the end of the day the people that were around me I could somehow trust them… Now what has evolved is that you don’t know who to trust and the dangers that you’re facing are really much closer than they were before.”

Emma Beals, freelance journalist and a member of the founding committee of Frontline Freelance Register (FFR) said that the risk is not just injury now it’s kidnap:

“I think the problem now is even if you trust them when you go in with them some of those groups are now fighting against other groups…they potentially don’t have the power either militarily or politically to overcome the groups that would seek to kidnap you.”

Sean Ryan, associate editor of The Sunday Times and formerly foreign editor, said that his position on freelancers has changed since the beginning of the Syrian war, in particular due to his experience with one freelancer. Ryan felt that giving him work had been an incentive for him to take unnecessary risks for a story:

“I probably paid him quite generously for a very good story which was an excellent page lead…and it was only when he offered me the second story from Aleppo that…he was now offering the story expecting to get money from our paper. I felt at that point it was irresponsible to give any freelancer in that position an incentive.”

Another audience member asked if it made a difference to journalist’s safety on the ground whether they were part of a news organisation or freelance?


“When you have a media organisation behind you it’s much more clear…you have a discussion with them, there are boundaries. But when you’re really on your own you get excited by all the stories and if you know you want to report on it…you can make more mistakes.”

Beals added:

“It’s an expensive enterprise to go into Syria with the proper equipment and the proper security and proper communications kit and if you’re not getting the backing of the larger organisations then that becomes infinitely more difficult.”

Beals pointed out, in response to a New York Times article, in which writer and former editor Bill Keller said that news organisations were increasingly reliant on ‘replacements’:

“It’s important to realise that freelancers…want to be freelancers, not because they’re a ‘replacement’… because they want the freedom to cover the stories they want to cover…it’s a choice…an option that they’ve got that they’re embracing.”

Documentary photographer Fabio Bucciarelli agreed:

“I feel fine doing freelancing. . . . A lot of time freelancers have more motivation than staff… a lot of time they [staff] don’t want to go out of the hotel because they’ve already got the money.”

Hughes: “Welcome to my world!”

reporting syria panel02

L-R Mani, Sean Ryan, Stuart Hughes, Emma Beals and Fabio Bucciarelli

With newspapers reluctant to use freelancers within Syria, Hughes asked, is reporting on Syria becoming impossible? Beals replied:

“A lot of what we’re doing at the moment is picking on activists, little Skype interviews, verifying the story that you already had cooked up in your head. Which isn’t great, if anyone’s got any ideas? …It’s something we all need to think about, how do we report Syria if we can’t report Syria?”

Bucciarelli said that journalists would need to think of different ways of reporting:

“We can think a bit more about …trying to report from the refugee camps…talk with the Syrian people that already scattered from Syria… If it’s not possible now or it’s too dangerous to now go into Syria we can talk about Syria [with] the people who are escaping from there.”

But what about using citizen journalists and activists on the ground, an audience member asked?

Ryan said categorically:

“It would be unacceptable because they would be at the same risk as a freelancer would be if we sent them in and it would be a risk that we couldn’t quantify.”

Watch the full discussion below


One thought on “The changing state of reporting on Syria”

  1. Dee says:

    I wonder if you ever go out with the Syrian army? Speak to a spectrum of Syrians?
    Or are you all beholden to the BiBiCorporations et al media mafia nauseatingly transparent theme of the ‘Assad Regime’ committing atrocities against the noble ‘Rebel’ forces in a spontaneous ‘Civil War’ being righteously fought by mostly those who are not a foreign Wahhabi proxy army of savages, not bankrolled by Saudi et al, not trained by the wests finest agencies, not armed nor supported by the Insane McCain, Hideous Hague, Bandit Bandar, incongruously Innocent Israel, Horrible Hollande – oh, and Mother Agnes a bad Ba’athist too deluded and dangerous to debate in an anti war forum.
    Bah and humbug to the MSM so called journalists of this war – that only fools would follow.
    Why not just do as CNN’s Anderson and others do : Save yourself the risk and hire a few actors to stage whatever agenda and angle your want to / are required to report on?

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