Journalism and humanitarianism in Syria

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(Stephane de Sakutin/Getty Images)

Some tragic news came out of Syria this week that reminded me of our discussion last Monday about the separate but sometimes overlapping roles of journalists and human-rights workers. On Wednesday in Syria, two journalists were killed in the opposition stronghold of Homs: Marie Colvin, a writer for Britain’s Sunday Times, and Remi Ochlik, a photojournalist from France.

Colvin and Ochlik died when a barrage of missiles hit the house in which they were working. They died doing their job as journalists. The Syrian regime has officially barred journalists from the country, but these two were there without permission because they believed in getting the story no matter what, and they were brave enough to take the risk.

What’s interesting to me is that, in most recent stories I’ve seen coming out of Syria (usually Associated Press stories), the dateline is usually Beirut, Lebanon. This is because the AP hasn’t been reporting from inside the country — they’ve been relying on reports from humanitarian groups in order to let those overseas know the death toll and the extent of the violence. They have relayed calls for foreign aid by these humanitarian groups. The line between journalists and human-rights workers has been deeply etched: Journalists have reported the facts as best they can, and human-rights workers have done their best to get the word out (often through remote journalists) about the escalating crisis in Syria.

But Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik and the handful of other journalists working in Syria have blurred that line. They have been journalists first and foremost, factually reporting on the situation, but they are in the country right alongside aid workers, right in the thick of the battle, able to relay the horrors of the violence better than any secondhand account ever could.

In Colvin’s last report for the Sunday TImes, she wrote these powerful words: “On the lips of everyone was the question: ‘Why have we been abandoned by the world?’ … The scale of human tragedy in the city is immense. The inhabitants are living in terror. Almost every family seems to have suffered the death or injury of a loved one.”

Colvin and Ochlik were more than just reporters, getting the facts out about Syria. They were in the country because they believed that letting others know about the violence might make a difference. And they believed in that cause enough to sacrifice their lives in its name.

In 2010, at the British Press Awards, Colvin spoke about the dangers of war reporting.

“Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices,” she said. “Sometimes they pay the ultimate price.”