The Struggle for Principled Journalism / In Honour of Ali, by Andréa Schmidt

Ali Mustafa Memorial 12 March 2016 Exhibit Photo

Photo credit: datejie cheko green @seeksolidarity

On March 12, 2016, the second annual memorial honouring Ali Mustafa, Syria: Faces of Survival and Resilience – The Photography of Ali Mustafa, was held at Beit Zatoun in Toronto. The AMMC invited Canadian journalist and documentary filmmaker Andréa Schmidt to speak. Andréa gave the following presentation (edited for print) which she generously agreed to let us publish.

It’s very humbling to be here to tonight with all of you – Ali Mustafa’s friends and fellow comrades, people who were touched by his work – and to have been asked to share a few remarks about some of the challenges that face journalists working in conflict zones.

I didn’t know Ali Mustafa personally.  I know lots of you here did.  Many of you who did know him have told me I would have liked his approach to the work he chose.  My long-time colleague Stefan Christoff eulogized him beautifully, and called him “ a principled internationalist, thoughtful revolutionary and independent media maker.” And that makes me think I would have liked him too.

There are a lot of ways of doing journalism: lots of honest ways, and also lots of dishonest ways.  A lot of the dishonest ways involve claiming a journalistic objectivity or neutrality that is not so much neutral as it is undisruptive to the view points of the powerful and the monied. It’s doing lazy stenography for those with political, financial and social standing, without chasing those same people with lines of questioning that hold them to account for their actions. The honest ways often involve pursuing the questions that will make the most powerful people in a given context most uncomfortable, whether through investigations, careful documentation, or by seeking out and amplifying the perspectives of those who have little power, few resources, and no platform.

Ali was among the journalists who tried very hard to figure out a way to do this craft in a way he believed had integrity, in a way that reflected his commitment to peoples’ struggles, to freedom, and to social justice.

He had worked with the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra / Landless Workers’ Movement) in Brazil. He had organized with many of you in different struggles for social justice here in Toronto.

And so journalism for Ali was, from what I’ve been told and read, a kind of practice of solidarity, and a way he could bear witness with his photography and words. By standing side by side with people as they struggled, he could use his body and his camera as a bridge between different parts of the world.

And I imagine that this is what brought him to Palestine, and then to Egypt after the revolution and then the coup.

And it’s why he went to Syria – to bear witness to a people’s uprising met with brutal repression that turned into a civil war, and then a terrible regional proxy war… a conflict that’s taken hundreds of thousands of lives, displaced millions, and seems to go on and on and on.  (I think if Ali were still alive there’s a pretty good chance he’d be in a tent camp in Idomeni, Greece right now, taking pictures and talking to refugees shut out of Macedonia.)

Ali thought that the human stories of the Syrian war were being lost in mainstream coverage. He wanted to show the nuances on the ground, the complexity of events and allegiances, and I think he mostly he wanted to stand with the Syrian people who’d raised their voices against autocracy and oppression, for more social justice and more democracy, to make sure their lives and their struggles didn’t get overlooked or forgotten.

So he went.  As the conflict became more and more dangerous for Syrian and foreign journalists alike – he put his body on the line to document what was going on.

The first time he went was in early spring of 2013.

This was a point in the war in Syria when mainstream news organizations were growing more and more worried about sending foreign crews into Syria.  The threat of kidnapping in rebel-held areas was on the rise. It was increasingly difficult to get visas into Assad-regime controlled areas of the country (and if you went into those areas without a visa, chances are you’d be arrested by Assad regime forces). You’ll recall that Richard Engel of NBC was kidnapped at the end of November 2012.  He and his crew escaped. Freelancer James Foley was also kidnapped around the same time.  He was among the journalists and aid workers murdered by Daesh (ISIS) in 2014.

I was visiting Al Jazeera’s Doha headquarters at about that time in November/December 2012. I was working as a producer for Al Jazeera English and trying to convince the powers that be there to let me go into Syria to produce a film about what was going on behind rebel lines. I remember talking to a colleague who was producing on the Turkey/Syria border, an experienced Iraqi-born producer who had worked for CNN in Iraq for many years after the U.S.-led invasion and occupation.  And he warned me against going. He was finding it increasingly difficult to know who to trust and to get crews in and out of the country safely.  By fall of 2013, Al Jazeera English had pretty much stopped sending crews into Syria.  Even my most fearless colleagues, people who were born in the region, were fluent in Arabic, had been reporting on conflicts there since the civil war in Lebanon – even they thought it had become too dangerous to return. If you weren’t kidnapped, you risked being killed by the barrel bombs that the regime was dropping indiscriminately on civilian neighbourhoods.

This was the period in which Ali decided he needed to go to Syria and amplify the voices of those resisting the Assad regime.

And this was also the period in which news organizations increasingly began to rely on independent and freelance journalists like Ali for photos and reports from Syria.

This wasn’t a totally new trend. Over the years before, media outlets in North America had cut foreign bureaux and staff.   They’d started using freelancers instead to cover both breaking news and the hardest to reach stories in places where reporting carried some risk and a significant price tag.

It was basically a cost-cutting measure for those media organizations.  You don’t have to pay freelancers salaries. If you work the system the right way, you don’t have to pay for their insurance. You don’t have to pay for their drivers and interpreters or the local journalists known as fixers who often guide foreign crews and help keep them safe with their intimate knowledge of the landscape –geographic, social, and political.  Freelancers cover those costs from the fee you pay them for their work. You don’t have to pay for them to stay in well-guarded hotels, or make sure they have appropriate security details, the way you do when you send your own crew. You don’t even have to pay for what’s known as hostile environment and first aid training, which usually costs about $4000 for a 5-day certification course.  In fact, if the freelancers are working on spec – which means your organization hasn’t commissioned them to do the work, you just buy the photos or print or video report once you see the material – you don’t have to pay them an advance or even ask if they’ve had hostile environment training or their own insurance.

So many young journalists like Ali freelance. They care passionately about the stories they see unfolding and the people they meet – whether in Syria, Egypt, Yemen or Libya.  And to keep reporting, to do the work they love and think is crucial, and perhaps to chase their first big break, they work in these kinds of precarious conditions, filling the void for news organizations at a fraction of the cost of what it would cost those organizations to train and maintain their own staff.

And in some cases this set-up gives freelancers a lot of independence – it’s not all bad.

Freelancing means you have the independence to choose to go work in a conflict zone to begin with. You don’t have to wait to be promoted to one of the highly sought-after foreign producer/correspondent gigs at a big news organization, and then wait to be deployed.

If you don’t have a big news organization paying for the best, most secure hotel in town – whatever that means in a context like besieged Homs or Aleppo under attack – chances are you’re going to be sharing the living conditions of the majority of the people you’re reporting on. And that gives you a much better appreciation of what they’re going through, much more detail, greater empathy, that you can communicate to your audience.

Maybe it means you don’t need to bring along the kind of foreign security detail that a big media outlet might demand their own crew work with for insurance purposes – that kind of security that is sometimes (but by no means always) superfluous and can add another layer of distance and distrust between you and the people to whom you want to speak.

But the flip side of freelancing in a conflict zone, especially if you don’t have a substantial commission from a very ethical media company, is that you’re likely short of funds and working on shoestring budget.  You’re probably waiting for payment for work you’ve sold previously. And you might not have the funds to get a safer hotel if you need one, or to hire the most reliable driver when someone less trustworthy or experienced is available for less. You might not have the means to get out of a situation in which you suddenly feel you’re in danger as quickly as you’d like or as you need to. Sudden movement is always expensive.

It means you’re not tapping into the oversight systems that big news organizations have in place  — or should have in place:  rigorously kept check-in times with the news desk and electronic tracking by support in the region so that there’s early warning if you go missing or run into trouble.

As a foreigner – and not just as a white foreigner, but as a foreigner who carries a foreign passport and may be seen as an access point to cash –there are places like Somalia, or Iraq at certain points in time, where you genuinely do need a security detail of some kind. That can cost hundreds of dollars a day and is way beyond the means of your average freelancer working on spec.

As a freelancer, you’re more often than not trying to recuperate the funds you’ve invested traveling to a place, and maybe you cut corners, or you stay longer than you should, or take risks you might not otherwise, in order to have a story you can sell.

I think as the conflict in Syria has worn on, the additional risks placed on journalists have become much more dire and more apparent. And not just foreign journalists. In fact, local journalists and photographers face the greatest risk and carry the greatest burdens – and are often treated with the greatest indifference by media organizations.  This is true not just in Syria, but also in places like Mexico, Honduras, Yemen.

As a result, there are groups like the Frontline Freelance Register who are doing the important work of representing freelance and conflict journalists, and lobbying media organizations to uphold a set of principles regarding the fair treatment and proper care for the freelancers they employ – the ones, in fact, upon whom they rely.

That set of principles states:
“News organizations should not make an assignment with a freelancer in a conflict zone or dangerous environment unless the news organization is prepared to take the same responsibility for the freelancer’s wellbeing in the event of kidnap or injury as it would a staffer. News organizations have a moral responsibility to support journalists to whom they give assignments in dangerous areas, as long as the freelancer complies with the rules and instructions of the news organization.”
You can read the full principles for both freelancers and news organizations on the site of the International News Safety Institute (INSI).

Now 90 media organizations including Reuters, Bloomberg, Newsweek, PBS Frontline, VICE have all signed on to these principles. But I can tell you as someone who has spent the last couple of years executive producing inside these big media organizations – sometimes sending our my own staff, other times commissioning freelancers in conflict or post-conflict zones – it’s a constant battle to get media organizations to practice these principles. I may have a visceral understanding of the importance of making sure freelancers are paid quickly, or making sure they’ve been properly trained and that we’re insuring them before they go out in the field. But try explaining that to the accounting department.  Or try explaining it to the people at the top – the upper-level management who haven’t worked in those contexts, and who mostly just want the most sensational stories for the lowest price. These are the battles that those of us who move between the office and reporting in conflict and post-conflict environments have a responsibility to fight. It shouldn’t just be left to freelancers.

In 2014, at least 72 journalists, fixers, drivers and other media workers were killed around the world for doing their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).   And Syria was the deadliest country for journalists that year.

That number, 72, leaves out the those who CPJ can’t confirm were killed because of their work, and those who were imprisoned, kidnapped, disappeared, or threatened with their lives.

But Ali was one of the 72.

He’d returned to Syria and to the city of Aleppo. On March 9 a Syrian military aircraft dropped barrel bombs on the neighborhood he was in. They struck once and then as Ali tried to help rescue the injured, they struck again and hit him.

I think everyone has their own important reasons for being here today and celebrating Ali, especially those of you who knew him.

But for me, his story has served over the past two years as a reminder to work toward more just and responsible systems of media production, with far better support for and accountability toward freelancers.

And that’s also why I think that the initiative of the Collective to support  independent journalists with the Ali Mustafa Memorial Award for People’s Journalism is so worthy of praise.  We know that institutions are slow to change,  and big media organizations aren’t going to support all the independent journalists out there doing meaningful work. So the communities that value their work have a role to play in supporting them too.

Thank you.

Andréa Schmidt is a Canadian journalist and documentary filmmaker. Reach her via @whatescapes.