Omar Qatifaan and Syria's Citizen Journalists Cover the War Like Mainstream Media Can't
This post is dedicated to Omar Qatifaan, the youngest citizen journalist and the bravest man in Syria.
The war in Syria seems to have no end, and as it usually happens, a lot of media debates unfold around it. One of the recent ones was about the role of women in covering the civil war. Although gender is a very important angle through which we look at conflicts, the issue of the role of local journalism has been completely ignored.
Since the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011, the local population has started actively participating in it as journalists, hand-in-hand with their foreign colleagues. But if famous foreign journalists are backed by media corporations, these citizens report from the hotbed of violence just because it's their home. Unlike many foreigners in Syria, these citizen journalist Syrians are not interested in making a name in journalism or receiving an award. Instead, they seek to distort international coverage that is completely centered around the power struggle and which ignores local social problems.
The government equates citizen journalism to terrorism, because their cameras and notebooks are a dangerous weapon. Networks of local non-professional journalists started forming right after the beginning of the conflict and as of now they present an inspiring example of how people may unite in the face of war. You probably won't find out their names and specific locations as it's unsafe to disclose those, but an account of how these people work was given by Kathleen Bartzen Culver from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She met with three Syrian citizen journalists visiting the United States. It appears that in order to counterweight the pro-regime biased journalism a group of independent professional journalists volunteered to host multiple video conferences to teach citizens practices of journalism. As a result, groups of impartial reporters and war photographers began operating in Syria and providing coverage from inside the war-torn towns. They work on the ground collecting audio, text and video data, on which foreign reporters often rely.
Syrian youth has been particularly active in covering the events of the civil war. Young Syrians have better understanding of computer technologies and modern media tools, thus they are more successful at using the new media to deliver the message to the international community. There are very well organized groups, such as the Shaam News Network or the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. And there are also smaller projects, such as the Syrian Documents youth project and Yalla Souriya news platform that has links to Twitter accounts of its local contributors.
Reporters Sans Frontiers argues that in 2011 alone — out of 68 deaths among citizen journalists throughout the world — 65 took place in Syria. You only learn the name of a citizen journalist when he dies. This is what happened to a member of the Daraa Media Union, an independent union of citizen journalists attempting to provide impartial coverage of events in Daraa in Southern Syria. In late May, Omar Qatifaan, a 14-year old member of the union (in the photo) was killed in action while covering a battle between the Syrian army and the Free Army. Omar had joined the union out of necessity, as many of its members were wounded or killed. Coming from a poor family, Omar Qatifaan was forced to drop out of school and go work after his father had abandoned the family. The young photographer, who was doing "the most dangerous job in Syria," was shot in the head by a sniper. After his death, he was named the "spirit of Syria".