Skip to content

A Guide to Syria’s Best Citizen Journalism

August 30, 2013

By Nora Caplan-Bricker

Well before the United States weighed an intervention, Syria had become the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Legacy media outlets have, understandably, sent fewer and fewer of their reporters into harm’s way—but the result has been a dearth of reliable reporting on the country’s civil war. Helping to fill the journalistic void are not only intrepid freelance stringers, who reliably show up at any conflict, but also countless citizen journalists, nearly all of whom are activists who openly support the opposition. In fact, the Pew Research Center calculates that 73 percent of the journalists who have died in Syria were citizens, not professionals.

“In order to cover the conflict, there is no other choice than citizen journalists to get the images out,” says Soazig Dollet of the French NGO Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders, or RSF). “But that does not mean the conflict is properly covered: both, the authorities and armed opposition groups, are spreading disinformation. And despite the emergence of citizen media—usually pro-revolution—there are very few independent observers, and a very limited number of foreign correspondents.”

Syria’s activist journalists aren’t a uniform bunch. Some use extensive grassroots networks to triple-check the cause of each death and the veracity of every macabre photo; others inflate their grisly statistics to press for international aid. Below is a rough guide to the sources, out of hundreds working in Syria, whose names most regularly appear in the mainstream press.


Much of the news from Syria is transmitted through activists who have fled the country but maintain extensive contacts at home. Among these, a man based in England who calls himself Rami Abdul Rahman (a pseudonym he used to criticize the government long before the revolution began) has won the most trust from mainstream media. His Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has become The New York Times’s go-to source for the war’s rising body count and is often cited in Reuters, the AP, and others. According to a profile in the Times, “four men inside Syria help to report and collate information from more than 230 activists on the ground, a network rooted in Mr. Abdul Rahman’s youth, when he organized clandestine political protests.” Though Rahman is open about his politics, western journalists and human rights groups who rely on him say his sympathies don’t skew his figures. He told theTimes, “I make sure nothing is published before crosschecking with reliable sources to ensure that it is confirmed,” and that if anything, the dead number many more than he has reported. In April, the total death toll he gave the Times was 62,550—below the United Nations’ estimate of over 70,000. The Observatory’s latest count is 106,423, while the UN has raised its estimate to over 100,000.

Despite its cautiousness, the Observatory’s work has still drawn criticism, such as when it said this March was the bloodiest month of the conflict thus far—a claim disputed by James Miller, who writes about Syria and the region for The Interpreterand Dissected News. Miller points out that other groups found that some months in 2012 had much higher tolls than March 2013. One of the networks Miller used to question the Observatory’s March findings was the Violations Documentation Center, which, like the Observatory, is among the most cited sources in the western press. Miller says he likes the VDC because it strives for transparency, maintaining a public database—which, at the time of this writing, reports a total of 71,647 “martyrs,” not including regime casualties—with information about each individual victim, such as name, age, cause of death, place of death, and even Facebook pages or videos of the fatal attack if available. Lama Fakih of Human Rights Watch, which uses the VDC as a reference, says the group has described its method to her: “They basically endeavor to have more than one activist in a location, and the activists are not in touch. They collect info separately, and they use that separate analysis to corroborate the info they’re receiving.”

Similar praise goes to Syria Tracker, which worked with the MacArthur-winning nonprofit Ushahidi to make an interactive map of deaths. It pulls data from multiple other activist databases, including the VDC, and crowdsources reports on social media. Its team told the New Scientist that it “works hard to weed out duplicates by comparing the images, video and written statements associated with each event. It acknowledges that some will remain, but thinks that missing records are a much bigger source of error. ‘I think the total is an underestimate,’” in the words of one team member.


Other groups sacrifice some accuracy for a faster turnaround. The Shaam News Network, for example, heightened its profile this week when its gruesome photos were the first to convince western outlets that the chemical weapons attack had indeed occurred. According to CNN, Shaam, which is based in Damascus, “was founded in 2011, after the conflict began, by a man named Abulhassan Abazeed … Even [the organization’s spokesman] does not know how many people contribute to Shaam News. ‘There’s no specific number of activities as some of them have been arrested, killed, or wounded the remaining volunteers are not dedicated to reporting to the network,’ he said.” Read more in the New Republic.


From → Analysis

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s