As the Syrian civil war grinds on into its fourth year, citizen journalists increasingly have filled the gap left by foreign professionals, few of whom now venture into the most dangerous country in the world for working journalists.
The death toll among journalists and media workers in Syria has risen to 257 since the start of the three-and-a-half-year civil war in the country, the Syrian Journalists' Association reported this week. And rights groups say that in October alone seven media activists died, one under torture inside a Syrian government detention center, and another killed by the militants of the Islamic State group.
Since the beheadings by jihadists of American journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff, international media organizations have been highly cautious about allowing their reporters to cross into Syria.
Syria’s citizen journalists now account for the large majority of the media workers killed so far in the civil war. Among the dead, 24-year-old Mohammed Alqasim, who died after gunmen in the north Syrian province of Idlib targeted his car.
His boss, Lina Chawaf, managing editor of Radio Rozana, a pro-opposition but independent multimedia news outlet, said, “He was killed he is shooting by a group of people, we don’t know who, and we don’t why. We think maybe because he is a citizen journalist. They kill journalists.”
Radio Rozana, which is funded by European donors, has 70 reporters on the ground in Syria. They are always courting danger. The militants of the Islamic State are currently holding hostage three of Rozana’s journalists, two have been held for more than a year.
The dangers are mounting for reporters. Islamic extremists and the secret police of President Bashar al-Assad are determined to stop independent reporting. Rebel factions can also turn on journalists when their dispatches are critical. And like anyone else inside Syria, reporters risk being killed or wounded in the ferocious airstrikes being launched by the Syrian air force.
So what drives citizen journalists? Rowaida Yousef, a 35-year-old former math teacher, has already had a long spell in Assad’s prisons, having been arrested at a checkpoint near Damascus in June 2013, when soldiers spotted an audio recorder in her bag.
She said at the beginning of the revolution she believed there was an urgent need for people to report what actually was happening, and that established media outlets -- including foreign Arab ones -- were not reporting accurately.
She said she spent nine months in detention and received severe beatings at the beginning of her confinement.
Large international media outlets say the risks of sending in reporters now are prohibitive. With the dearth of foreign reporters deployed inside the hot zones in Syria, much is falling on the shoulders of citizen journalists.
But few are trained as well as those at Radio Rozana, and many citizen journalists are inexperienced, and can’t always be relied on to report objectively.