The abandoned freelance journalists trying to report the world’s worst war, Syria

September 03, 2014

Steven Sotloff, RIP



[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach below a piece that I previously ran on this list at the time it was published, in case you missed it, and for people who are new to this list. Francesca Borri, an Italian freelance journalist reporting from the frontlines of the war in Syria describes in graphic terms what we knew already: that war is hell – and that the Syrian war is particularly difficult to report on, partly because of some seemingly heartless news editors in the West who have done little to help or protect journalists covering the war.

I also attach a piece by The Guardian’s courageous reporter Martin Chulov, written after James Foley’s murder two weeks ago, in which he writes that Foley and fellow freelancers were “exploited by pared-back media outlets. In this new age of journalism, publishers should not abdicate responsibility by hiding behind low budgets.”

If only the media spent even a fraction of the budget they allocate to Gaza, and offer bodyguards and other protection to journalists trying to report on the absolutely appalling atrocities continuing daily in Syria – the rapes, the beheadings, the crucifixions, the starvation, the continued use of poisoned gasses, the selling of children as sex slaves…

Yesterday, as I am sure you all know by now, ISIS released a video showing the beheading of freelance journalist Steven Sotloff.

Steven Sotloff was the grandson of Holocaust survivors. The fact that he was Jewish was suppressed by media that knew (including myself) while he was alive in order to prevent further torture by his captors. He had also written for the Jerusalem Post about the Holocaust and about the small Jewish community that still exists in Vienna.

The New York Times mentioned his being Jewish online briefly but it was quickly taken off their website after they were asked by the state department to do so. Other major papers were wise enough not to mention it in the first place, in light of the additional torture that beheaded Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl was subjected to.

Incidentally, as is the case with Foley, and apparently with Sotloff, one of Pearl’s killers also had a British connection and had studied at the London School of Economics.

In the case of the Steven Sotloff video – since I am sure many of you do not want to watch it – what is also noteworthy is the slickness (and sickness) of it: two cameras, microphones, accompanying music, professional-style editing and use of graphics, and so on.


UPDATE, 8 am, September 3, 2014

This could not be made public before but it has now been cleared for publication by the Israeli foreign ministry: Steven Sotloff was also an Israeli citizen. He studied at the IDC Herzliya. He spoke Arabic and was a great admirer of Arab culture.

Further update here: “My ten months with Isis” (& thrown from the rooftops).



James Foley and fellow freelancers: exploited by pared-back media outlets
In this new age of journalism, publishers should not abdicate responsibility by hiding behind low budgets
By Martin Chulov
The Guardian (London)
August 21, 2014

For more than three years now, much of what the world has seen, read and learned about the Middle East has been produced by journalism’s newest hands. They are not recruits, in the true sense of the word: few have the endorsement of established media outlets. Even fewer have been sent to the region with budgets, backing, or even basic training.

But from Tunisia to Syria and all stops in between, freelance reporters and photojournalists have reported history with a determination that old media could rarely match, even during the halcyon days when media organisations could afford to maintain correspondents and bureaux around the world.

Libya was a magnet for many freelancers when insurrection broke out in February 2011. Some had covered the tumult next door in Egypt, others were drawn to journalism, wanting to witness the end of Gaddafi’s cult-like state.

As the battle for east Libya ebbed and flowed around the town of Ajdabiya, the freelancers at times outnumbered the anti-Gaddafi rebels on the frontline. Both groups – with a fair few staff reporters among them – would often surge forward together or scamper for safety when regime forces advanced. James Foley was among them.

Foley, an affable, former reporter for the US military newspaper Stars and Stripes, was typical of the new band. He arrived with a sense of purpose and opportunity and, at times, immunity to the dangers. There were plenty of potential buyers for his frontline images and no shortage of other like-minded young journalists willing to cut their teeth in war reporting.

In 2011 he was captured in Libya with two other freelancers. A friend travelling with them, the South African photographer Anton Hammerl, was killed. Around the same time, four New York Times journalists were outflanked by Gaddafi’s troops, captured and taken to Tripoli. Foley was released after 44 days, and returned to reporting soon after.

For media organisations, ever tighter budgets and an abundance of eager freelancers meant that Libya was a buyer’s market. Many freelance reporters worked with no insurance, no expenses, or even airfares to get them home again.

But Libya soon proved as potent and unpredictable as any other war. The good guy/bad guy narrative that appeared clear-cut at the start drifted steadily to uncertainty. Difficult, important, decisions needed to be made about who to trust and when to cut and run.

For many freelancers, safety in numbers offered the best strategy. Foley formed strong bonds with many colleagues he met along the way, some of whom he would work with, or be imprisoned alongside, in Syria.

After the fall of Tripoli and Gaddafi’s death two months later, Libya rapidly became yesterday’s news. By then, the new war in Syria was dominating. It soon became the most dangerous conflict to cover anywhere in the world. And many of those who had started reporting in north Africa were soon going to the sectarian killing fields of Aleppo, Idlib, Homs and Hama.

But the fact that the Syrian war was far more important did not mean any change in the way coverage was funded. Media outlets which wanted gripping tales and images were willingly taking work from Syria’s frontlines. Foley was again front and centre, along with Manu Brabo, who had been captured with him in Libya and would go on to win a Pulitzer prize as a contract Associated Press photographer for his work in Syria.

All the while, they and other freelancers were using nothing more than their wits to survive in an ever more hostile environment. From the summer of 2012 to mid-2013 the risks taken by many reporters – including staffers with institutional backing – increasingly overshadowed the rewards. By then, working in northern Syria had become close to impossible because of the kidnap threat. Every trip over the border involved a real risk of not making it back.

Foley’s luck ran out in November 2012. He was seized near the Syrian town of Binnish, along with another photographer with whom he had entered the country. Both were on the last day of a two-week trip through dangerous areas that they knew well.

Foley was initially captured by a local warlord who later joined the group Islamic State, bringing his valuable booty with him.

In the year that followed at least 11 more journalists were seized in Syria, including many staff reporters. Yet, still the demands for freelance work came, with few outlets prepared to insure any non-staffer working inside the country.

Stripped down, pared-back journalism has created opportunities for those who dare, but it has also allowed outlets to hide behind flaky bottom lines as a means of abdicating responsibility. Radio stations, television networks and print outlets continue to outsource their coverage to reporters who often work without basic protection.

The price of that dereliction has been paid in the dungeons of north Syria. The meltdown of the Middle East is one of the most important stories of our time, every bit as significant globally as the end of the cold war. Too many outlets have covered it through exploitation.



Woman’s work: The twisted reality of an Italian freelancer in Syria
By Francesca Borri
Columbia Journalism Review (New York)
July 1, 2013

(With the exception of photographer Alessio Romenzi, the names in the article below have been changed for reasons of privacy.)

He finally wrote to me. After more than a year of freelancing for him, during which I contracted typhoid fever and was shot in the knee, my editor watched the news, thought I was among the Italian journalists who’d been kidnapped, and sent me an email that said: “Should you get a connection, could you tweet your detention?”

That same day, I returned in the evening to a rebel base where I was staying in the middle of the hell that is Aleppo, and amid the dust and the hunger and the fear, I hoped to find a friend, a kind word, a hug. Instead, I found only another email from Clara, who’s spending her holidays at my home in Italy. She’s already sent me eight “Urgent!” messages. Today she’s looking for my spa badge, so she can enter for free. The rest of the messages in my inbox were like this one: “Brilliant piece today; brilliant like your book on Iraq.” Unfortunately, my book wasn’t on Iraq, but on Kosovo.

People have this romantic image of the freelancer as a journalist who’s exchanged the certainty of a regular salary for the freedom to cover the stories she is most fascinated by. But we aren’t free at all; it’s just the opposite. The truth is that the only job opportunity I have today is staying in Syria, where nobody else wants to stay. And it’s not even Aleppo, to be precise; it’s the frontline. Because the editors back in Italy only ask us for the blood, the bang-bang. I write about the Islamists and their network of social services, the roots of their power – a piece that is definitely more complex to build than a frontline piece. I strive to explain, not just to move, to touch, and I am answered with: “What’s this? Six thousand words and nobody died?”

Actually, I should have realized it that time my editor asked me for a piece on Gaza, because Gaza, as usual, was being bombed. I got this email: “You know Gaza by heart,” he wrote. “Who cares if you are in Aleppo?” Exactly. The truth is, I ended up in Syria because I saw the photographs in Time by Alessio Romenzi, who was smuggled into Homs through the water pipes when nobody was yet aware of the existence of Homs. I saw his shots while I was listening to Radiohead – those eyes, staring at me; the eyes of people being killed by Assad’s army, one by one, and nobody had even heard of a place called Homs. A vise clamped around my conscience, and I had to go to Syria immediately.

But whether you’re writing from Aleppo or Gaza or Rome, the editors see no difference. You are paid the same: $70 per piece. Even in places like Syria, where prices triple because of rampant speculation. So, for example, sleeping in this rebel base, under mortar fire, on a mattress on the ground, with yellow water that gave me typhoid, costs $50 per night; a car costs $250 per day. So you end up maximizing, rather than minimizing, the risks. Not only can you not afford insurance – it’s almost $1,000 a month – but you cannot afford a fixer or a translator. You find yourself alone in the unknown. The editors are well aware that $70 a piece pushes you to save on everything. They know, too, that if you happen to be seriously wounded, there is a temptation to hope not to survive, because you cannot afford to be wounded. But they buy your article anyway, even if they would never buy the Nike soccer ball handmade by a Pakistani child.

With new communication technologies there is this temptation to believe that speed is information. But it is based on a self-destructive logic: The content is now standardized, and your newspaper, your magazine, no longer has any distinctiveness, and so there is no reason to pay for the reporter. I mean, for the news, I have the Internet – and for free. The crisis today is of the media, not of the readership. Readers are still there, and contrary to what many editors believe, they are bright readers who ask for simplicity without simplification. They want to understand, not simply to know. Every time I publish an eyewitness account from the war, I get a dozen emails from people who say, “Okay, great piece, great tableaux, but I want to understand what’s going on in Syria.” And it would so please me to reply that I cannot submit an analysis piece, because the editors would simply spike it and tell me, “Who do you think you are, kid?” – even though I have three degrees, have written two books, and spent 10 years in various wars, first as a human-rights officer and now as a journalist. My youth, for what it’s worth, vanished when bits of brain splattered on me in Bosnia, when I was 23.

Freelancers are second-class journalists – even if there are only freelancers here, in Syria, because this is a dirty war, a war of the last century; it’s trench warfare between rebels and loyalists who are so close that they scream at each other while they shoot each other. The first time on the frontline, you can’t believe it, with these bayonets you have seen only in history books. Today’s wars are drone wars, but here they fight meter by meter, street by street, and it’s fucking scary. Yet the editors back in Italy treat you like a kid; you get a front-page photo, and they say you were just lucky, in the right place at the right time. You get an exclusive story, like the one I wrote last September on Aleppo’s old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, burning as the rebels and Syrian army battled for control. I was the first foreign reporter to enter, and the editors say: “How can I justify that my staff writer wasn’t able to enter and you were?” I got this email from an editor about that story: “I’ll buy it, but I will publish it under my staff writer’s name.”

And then, of course, I am a woman. One recent evening there was shelling everywhere, and I was sitting in a corner, wearing the only expression you could have when death might come at any second, and another reporter comes over, looks me up and down, and says: “This isn’t a place for women.” What can you say to such a guy? Idiot, this isn’t a place for anyone. If I’m scared, it’s because I’m sane. Because Aleppo is all gunpowder and testosterone, and everyone is traumatized: Henri, who speaks only of war; Ryan, tanked up on amphetamines. And yet, at every torn-apart child we see, they come only to me, a “fragile” female, and want to know how I am. And I am tempted to reply: I am as you are. And those evenings when I wear a hurt expression, actually, are the evenings I protect myself, chasing out all emotion and feeling; they are the evenings I save myself.

Because Syria is no longer Syria. It is a nuthouse. There is the Italian guy who was unemployed and joined al-Qaeda, and whose mom is hunting for him around Aleppo to give him a good beating; there is the Japanese tourist who is on the frontlines, because he says he needs two weeks of “thrills”; the Swedish law-school graduate who came to collect evidence of war crimes; the American musicians with bin Laden-style beards who insist this helps them blend in, even though they are blonde and six-feet, five-inches tall. (They brought malaria drugs, even if there’s no malaria here, and want to deliver them while playing violin.) There are the various officers of the various UN agencies who, when you tell them you know of a child with leishmaniasis (a disease spread by the bite of a sand fly) and could they help his parents get him to Turkey for treatment, say they can’t because it is but a single child, and they only deal with “childhood” as a whole.

But we’re war reporters, after all, aren’t we? A band of brothers (and sisters). We risk our lives to give voice to the voiceless. We have seen things most people will never see. We are a wealth of stories at the dinner table, the cool guests who everyone wants to invite. But the dirty secret is that instead of being united, we are our own worst enemies; and the reason for the $70 per piece isn’t that there isn’t any money, because there is always money for a piece on Berlusconi’s girlfriends. The true reason is that you ask for $100 and somebody else is ready to do it for $70. It’s the fiercest competition. Like Beatriz, who today pointed me in the wrong direction so she would be the only one to cover the demonstration, and I found myself amid the snipers as a result of her deception. Just to cover a demonstration, like hundreds of others.

Yet we pretend to be here so that nobody will be able to say, “But I didn’t know what was happening in Syria.” When really we are here just to get an award, to gain visibility. We are here thwarting one another as if there were a Pulitzer within our grasp, when there’s absolutely nothing. We are squeezed between a regime that grants you a visa only if you are against the rebels, and rebels who, if you are with them, allow you to see only what they want you to see. The truth is, we are failures. Two years on, our readers barely remember where Damascus is, and the world instinctively describes what’s happening in Syria as “that mayhem,” because nobody understands anything about Syria – only blood, blood, blood. And that’s why the Syrians cannot stand us now. Because we show the world photos like that 7-year-old child with a cigarette and a Kalashnikov. It’s clear that it’s a contrived photo, but it appeared in newspapers and websites around the world in March, and everyone was screaming: “These Syrians, these Arabs, what barbarians!” When I first got here, the Syrians stopped me and said, “Thank you for showing the world the regime’s crimes.” Today, a man stopped me; he told me, “Shame on you.”

Had I really understood something of war, I wouldn’t have gotten sidetracked trying to write about rebels and loyalists, Sunnis and Shia. Because really the only story to tell in war is how to live without fear. It all could be over in an instant. If I knew that, then I wouldn’t have been so afraid to love, to dare, in my life; instead of being here, now, hugging myself in this dark, rancid corner, desperately regretting all I didn’t do, all I didn’t say. You who tomorrow are still alive, what are you waiting for? Why don’t you love enough? You who have everything, why you are so afraid?

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.