If one were to ask Rafif Jouejati, the Washington, D.C.-based English language spokesperson for the Syrian opposition’s Local Coordination Committees, how many active citizen journalists there are working in Syria, she’ll tell you that there is no way of knowing, because the number is always in flux.
“It’s almost impossible to give an accurate number, because on any given day, one of our citizen reporters will be arrested or killed.”
On Wednesday, for instance, a Syrian man had crawled under a car in order to record some video of some columns of smoke he had seen rising, when he was captured and killed by president Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
A few weeks earlier, several contributors to the Violations Documenting Centre, a group dedicated to documenting the death toll and various violations by the Assad regime, were captured.
“So what we have to do is continually have new members come in, or recruit other activists,” says Jouejati.
The Local Coordination Committees of Syria are a network of groups located in cities across Syria and abroad dedicated to helping the people in the violence-ridden nation to meet, plan and organize events on the ground within their own communities.
On top of these efforts, members of the LCC have dedicated themselves to documenting atrocities and acts of violence taking place in the Syrian uprising, and to vetting, editing and relaying information and video footage from local citizen journalists to foreign correspondents on the outside.
Safe Practices in Citizen Journalism
Practicing citizen journalism in nations such as Syria can be extremely dangerous, but people living under oppressive regimes take to the streets daily, armed with cameras and intent on documenting the violence and methods of police and government forces.
Often, there are very few resources and very little time available to aid the new citizen journalist in learning the intricacies of safely and effectively documenting the events in his or her country. However, one U.S. organization versed in working with citizen reporters in high-risk environments has developed a couple of guides.
Small World News, an organization that has been covering events in the Muslim and latin worlds since its 25 campaign, Alive in Baghdad, is known for working closely with citizens who would like to take part in telling their nation’s story. From their website:
“Small World News has . . . been supporting, equipping, and training community members and under-served populations to become journalists, storytellers, and documentarians in order to broaden the geopolitical perspectives available to the international community. “
Through these experiences, Small World News has published, under a Creative Commons license, the Guide to Safely and Securely Producing Media.
Additionally, and in light of recent evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been tracking use of satellite phones and directing shells towards their signals, Small World News this month published the Guide to Safely Using SatPhones:
Citizen Journalism – Tips from a Foreign Correspondent
As a citizen reporter working in a high-risk environment, one of your main objectives will be to get your footage onto the world stage. One of the best methods for attaining this level of ubiquity is to get your work into the hands of foreign journalists.
But in order to get your footage into the hands of a foreign correspondent and broadcast on a major TV network or news website, it is important to remember that foreign journalists need to be sure that your material is legitimate and accurate, and that you can be trusted as a credible source.
It can sometimes be quite difficult for a foreign journalist to verify the time, context and veracity of footage coming from inside a war-torn nation’s borders. When this problem arises, a good reporter will often be unable to use powerful, important footage that has been supplied to him or her from a talented citizen journalist.
In order to ensure that the footage you have recorded is used to its full potential, try to follow the tips below, provided by National Public Radio’s senior product manager for online communities, Andy Carvin:
Tips for the Citizen Journalist
Pseudonyms – Many foreign correspondents are comfortable with citizen journalists using fake names. “Obviously their safety is paramount,” says Carvin. “As long as their information is useful and reliable, they can call themselves whatever they want.” Some citizen journalists have been known to share their identities with foreign reporters in case of emergency instances, such as the citizen journalist going missing, but note that this is safer to do in person, as online communication always carries with it the risk of surveillance.
Video channels – By creating your own video channel online, you can provide outside journalists with a comprehensive body of your own journalistic work. “Having a collection in one place allows me to look for patterns in the videos, such as locations, accents, etc, which can help with the authentication process,” says Carvin. He adds that a number of Syrians have taken to posting their videos on networks such as Ugarit News and Shams News Network. This practice is okay, provided you understand that your work will be thrown in with the sea of other users’ videos.
Recording videos – When recording video, always remember that context is key. Try to begin each video clip by recording a piece of paper with the day’s date and your location on it (newspapers work as well). “It’s also useful if the video can capture local voices (for accent detection) and any landmarks that can be authenticated,” says Carvin. Foreign correspondents also prefer raw footage over edited clips.
Titles and tags – It’s important that each video you provide has its own clear, distinct title and description. Avoid using the same title, such as “Massacre in Homs NOW!” on multiple videos in succession. On top of this making it difficult for the foreign reporter to prioritize and establish context to the videos, Carvin notes that providing the same title to multiple clips in a row runs a high risk of triggering YouTube’s spambots. If this happens, your account could be deleted.
Many foreign correspondents find it helpful if you provide descriptions and titles in both English and Arabic. At the very least, try to provide locations and dates in English.
Journalism buzz words – When writing the title of your video or sculpting a tweet, try to avoid using terms such as “BREAKING,” “URGENT” or “CONFIRMED.” Foreign reporters have come to find that some citizen journalists will use these terms more for the sake of grabbing attention than to actually convey that their clips are, in fact, breaking, urgent or confirmed. “Use those words only when absolutely necessary,” says Carvin, “and in the case of CONFIRMED, you better be prepared to back it up.”
As a citizen journalist, your credibility is always on the line. Try to be as accurate as possible with the information you have: ”Did they witness it themselves? Do they have multiple independent sources? Are they getting reports something has happened, but they’re still looking into it? And if it’s a rumor, call it that. I have no problem with rumors as long as people are clear about them.”
Accuracy – If you are a citizen journalist in a nation such as Syria, foreign correspondents will understand where your allegiances lie. With that in mind, it is very important that you try to maintain as much fairness and accuracy as possible in your coverage:
“We know that citizen journos are going to be against the regime, so a certain amount of bias is to be expected in their reporting. But they need to be aware of this as well. If it becomes clear that someone has let their bias get in the way of the facts, it’ll kill their credibility. Some Syrians, for example, have openly admitted that they exaggerated facts (regarding) the situation in Homs. I can understand why they did it, but it’ll make it harder for me to believe them next time.”
Twitter and Facebook – If you are trying to report under an oppressive regime, foreign correspondents will understand if you have limited or no access to your Facebook and Twitter accounts. It is still beneficial to them, however, if you let them know about your usernames so that they can keep an eye out for any updates from you.