This article first appeared on cjfe.org on 6 October 2014
By Alexandra Zakreski
The recent release of graphic videos of American freelance journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning being brutally beheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has shocked the international community and left media and human rights communities reeling. In addition to the ongoing political and military ramifications of these actions, the gruesome murders have ignited a long-overdue international conversation on the particular risks faced by journalists covering the Syrian civil war.
The videos have sparked a kind of crisis of conscience in the global media community about reporting on them. Debates include important discussions on how to report on them (Should news organizations show them? How much should they show? ) to how to better protect freelancers in volatile environments, and whether media blackouts are an appropriate way of dealing with journalist kidnappings.
CJFE has previously discussed the epidemic of journalist kidnappings in Syria, as well as the unique threats faced by freelancers and citizen journalists now conducting the bulk of reporting on the conflict since international news organizations stopped sending staff reporters to the region. While journalists have been taken hostage reporting from conflict zones before, the murder of two American freelance journalists by the same group so close to one another in timing, and the cruel pageantry of their deaths, is something altogether new. Although this may seem like a tactic limited to ISIS, these gruesome examples could set a dangerous precedent for the potential threats faced by journalists reporting in hostile environments.
Why are journalists being specifically targeted?
There has been much discussion of the ways in which the public beheadings of these journalists by ISIS are designed to strike fear in the international community, and in particular Western governments; they are designed to make Western leaders appear impotent in the face of ISIS brutality. Local Syrian journalists reportedly account for the majority of the estimated 20 journalists currently held by ISIS. The very fact that we have yet to see a video of a local journalist being beheaded by the militants can be taken as evidence that ISIS is using these Western journalists to target the governments of their home countries. However, the use of journalists as weapons of war also serves more nuanced purposes.
Taking journalists as hostages intimidates other journalists, both foreign and local, and discourages them from reporting on the Syrian civil war and ISIS activities, thus limiting the flow of information about the region. In such an information vacuum, ISIS has greater power to shape its own narrative; something that the jihadist group has already exerted in its predilection for social media as a means of disseminating its message. A similar strategy is at play in the recent “lecture series” released by ISIS, in which kidnapped British photojournalist John Cantlie is forced to act as a mouthpiece of propaganda. Reading from a prepared script, he criticizes recent airstrikes by the U.S. and its allies in Iraq and Syria and argues that the Western powers cannot hope to defeat ISIS. Cantlie's position as a British journalist may lend legitimacy to these messages for some who view them without sufficiently appreciating that they are being delivered under extreme duress.
The absence of information breeds confusion and uncertainty, which in turn breeds fear; this is no secret. By acting as the sole provider of information on its own activities, ISIS can continue to style itself as a caliphate and aggrandize itself however it sees fit. This self-promotion not only helps the group attract more followers overseas, but also makes it seem like a more formidable opponent.
The lasting implications
Although journalists have long reported on violent conflict, political upheaval and insurgencies, ISIS' practice of abducting journalists for use as political and ideological capital is something new and adds a troubling dimension of risk to journalism in conflict areas.
What kind of precedent does this set for the coverage of future conflicts? If journalists are used as ammo, and the practice appears to be “successful,” will it be repeated by other violent groups?
Of course, it depends on what the intended goals of these actions are. If the intention of an extremist group is to receive more media attention and notoriety, then the practice is more likely to repeat itself. We've already seen the consequences of this with the beheading of French mountaineer Hervé Gourdel in Algeria by Al Qaeda splinter group Jund al-Khilafah, which ostensibly has no links to ISIS beyond admiration for its mission and tactics.
If however, the goal is to completely cut off information about a particular issue, this tactic is less likely to succeed. The prevalence of social media, digital journalism and affordable technology means that almost anyone can be a reporter and citizen journalism abounds. While individuals reporting from conflict zones face increasing threats, there have also never been more conduits for accessing and sharing content, making it nearly impossible to contain information; even in Raqqa, one of the most significant ISIS strongholds, an intrepid Syrian woman recorded a day in the life of the brutal regime by smuggling a camera under her niqab.
It is almost impossible to guard against the possibility of militant groups attempting to copy the tactic of targeting journalists in the future. However, news organizations can create safeguards to limit the potential for their journalists to be abducted. The tragic murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff have brought awareness to the specific plight of freelancers in volatile environments and opened a crucial global conversation about how to better protect war reporters more generally. The challenge will be ensuring that the conversation brings about meaningful change in newsroom policy.
Ultimately, when contending with the implications of these journalist beheadings by ISIS, we can exert some control over their impact. When reporting on the murders, news organizations are in a position to frame how they are discussed. By focusing on the work produced by these reporters and their contributions to documenting the Syrian conflict, as opposed to fixating on the manner of their death, the spotlight is turned away from ISIS and we avoid giving the group inadvertent and undeserved publicity.
The role that journalists play in bearing witness to violent conflict is invaluable. They take enormous risks to document the atrocities of war for the public interest, thereby helping to hold brutal regimes accountable for violations of human rights and international law. Journalists and activists painstakingly documented the August 2013 chemical weapons attack by Syrian government forces in the suburbs of Damascus that killed as many as 1429 people and spurred an international effort aimed at destroying Syria's chemical weapons arsenal and capabilities. This instance is only one of many that exemplify the special position that journalists occupy as observers in conflict zones.