This month marks one year since veteran foreign affairs correspondent Marie Colvin and award-winning photographer Rémi Ochlik were killed in the city of Homs, reporting from the Syrian frontline.
As the targets of government shelling, many have speculated their deaths were a warning to the outside world; scare tactics designed to drive foreign journalists out of a war that has so far claimed the lives of over 60,000 people.
Similar strategies deployed around the world saw 2012 become one of the deadliest years for journalists on record. Overall, journalist fatalities soared 13 per cent, with a total of 121 losing their lives in Syria, Pakistan, Mexico, Brazil, Iraq, the Philippines, and Somalia, described by the International Federation of Journalists as a “media killing field”.
Sadly, rather than uniting journalists, it appears these figures have opened a rift in the industry. Earlier this month, Press Gazette broke the news that the Sunday Times would no longer accept speculatively submitted pictures from the Syrian front because they did not “wish to encourage freelancers to take exceptional risks”. The Times, Guardian, Observer and Independent all have similar policies in place.
This boycott of the Syrian conflict does not extend to coverage by staff. It is, in the words of BBC World Affairs producer Stuart Hughes, an attempt to stem the rising tide of fresh-faced freelancers who are “skipping the unglamorous training grounds of local newsrooms” to report from hazardous locations in search of that coveted career break.
Ironically, such commemorative efforts as last Friday’s ‘A Day without News’, imagining the impact 24 hours without war reporting would have on the world, could become reality if foreign editors are no longer willing to accept material from aspiring freelancers.
In many cases the editors’ reservations are justified: a warzone is no place for gonzo journalism and an increasing amount of young, inexperienced journalists are attempting to cut their teeth in regions of the world where they have limited understanding of the cultural or political climate.
For every Kurt Schork Award winning Sarah Topol or tenacious Ruth Sherlock, there is a 20-something adrenaline junkie who will inadvertently damage the profession’s reputation. When Mr Hughes asked freelancer Sunil Patel whether he had taken a flak jacket to Syria, he replied via Twitter: “No… I had my brain which told me use effective cover at all times. Also I’m not a pussy.”
Such brazen attitudes not only make freelancers a risk to themselves, but also to others. Published in Vice magazine, Patel’s self-centered account of the war maybe stark and emotive, but the series of naïve blunders that nearly cost him his life are a frightening example of why newspapers are turning their backs on people playing at war.
Others have not been so lucky. In August 2012, American freelancer Austin Tice went missing in Syria. The 31-year-old, who recently received the George Polk Award for his work, is currently believed to be in the hands of Assad loyal forces. Clues to his whereabouts are scant; a YouTube video posted in September shows armed men leading a blindfolded Tice through mountainous terrain. While some experts have refuted the disturbing footage, the former marine’s disappearance proves that, regardless of age or experience, no reporter is safe in Syria.
Young journalists are now caught between a rock and a hard place. Despite financial constraints, there will always be a place for good war journalism, and those freelancers determined enough to make it in the industry will find an audience regardless of boycott. It falls on editors to ensure this new generation receives the same advice and respect that all journalists are entitled to. Such courage does not deserve the cold shoulder.