As the tributes poured in to celebrate the life of the venerable Marie Colvin, killed while reporting in the area of Baba Amr in the besieged Syrian city of Homs last Wednesday, there naturally followed a discussion about journalistic safety in the field. Colvin was a journalist with years of admirable experience, and many of the comments that have followed her untimely death have been from other seasoned professionals, many of whom speak of the growing dangers of war reporting in an age of increasing weapons and technological capability. For the younger, less experienced journalists who are just beginning to get to know the smell of tear gas or the sound of an approaching army, there is a temptation to just hope that we can crowdsource all future news from the frontline via Twitter and citizen journalists. For as often as we are told that a flak jacket and an ability to shout "PRESS!" at the right moment is becoming insufficient protection in areas of conflict, we are also told that the new generation of journalists will be inexorably tied to social media to get information. More than ever, the practical, life-saving solution appears to be to go home, open our laptops and cross our fingers.
Even as the journalistic profession continues to grieve for Colvin as well as Anthony Shadid and many of the others who have died during the Arab Spring, it is crucial to remember that reporting from the frontline is of increasing importance. Believing the fallacy that we must stay at home is what will kill off quality journalism, not the death of heroic figures like Marie Colvin. She, as well as the French photographer Rémi Ochlik, were killed by Assad's callous regime because, as Martin Chuvlov wrote in the Guardian on Feb. 24: "We are enemies of the state and the deaths of Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik this week show we are being treated as such." A regime that has relied for so long on secrecy, censorship and most importantly, a lack of ways for those inside it to show this to the eyes and ears of the outside world, fears journalists like Colvin and Ochlik, and will continue to do so. This is precisely why young journalists cannot be overwhelmed by the message of fear that their deaths seem in some ways designed to inspire. The Assad regime announced following the deaths that they would issue press visas to foreign journalists trying to enter Syria: Only a fool would believe that this is not simply a method of information control in the same vein as we saw early on in Libya, or the tours of Pyongyang offered to visiting journalists in North Korea. Assad wants to know where the journalists are, not for their own safety but as a means to control their access to precisely the kind of things that need so badly to be seen, to be told, to be communicated by those with the connections to ensure that they are widely seen and read.
This is not to say that every aspiring war correspondent should pack their bags and head immediately to Homs: It is clearly not the place for anyone with limited experience. This is also not to underestimate the work done by a growing movement of citizen journalists and bloggers, without whom our access to places like Syria would be immeasurably poorer. But as Ghaith Abdul-Abdad also wrote in the same Guardian piece, such situations require the journalistic credibility of those such as Colvin to give "a historical sense of what was going on." While those of us just starting out are unlikely to be heading to Baba Amr in the coming days and weeks, we need to mentally prepare ourselves for future opportunities, and confront not just the realities and the nature of the profession, but also the growing need for such reporting.
The sad truth is that as situations of conflict become more dangerous, so the need for credible reporting from the field becomes more necessary. The deaths of Colvin and Ochlik will remain a tragedy: I have no wish to play down this element of the situation or to advise anyone to behave irresponsibly. Reporting from situations such as Homs, or Syria overall, requires a great deal of in-depth knowledge of the situation and how to behave, and as we have seen, even this is no guarantee of safety. Colvin and Ochlik are equally a reminder that we need to be increasingly better prepared when we do enter such situations, and that there should be nothing brave or heroic in young journalists (or even activists) wandering into conflict zones and getting needlessly injured or killed because they thought they knew better. But in this moment, as the debate around the price of a story and journalistic safety rages, we cannot allow regimes like those in Syria to convince us that we should stay away. There need to be as many journalists ready to witness the atrocities of tomorrow as there are today.
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