The many ‘citizen journalists’ who have lost their lives reporting on Syria and other troubled parts of the world were honoured last night at a commemorative service held at St Bride’s Church on Fleet Street.
The annual service is held to remember those in the media who have died covering conflict around the world.
This year the address was given by Channel 4 News international editor Lindsey Hilsum who began by recalling the images broadcast in the wake of a chemical weapons attack in Syria in August.
“On August 21st I, like everyone else here, woke up to news of an attack in the suburbs of Damascus. Within a few hours I was watching some of the most distressing video I've ever seen. Children gasping for breath, choking, succombing to a hideous death. Men and women screaming in pain. Rooms of tiny bodies in shrouds. It was a chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, south east of Damascus.”
No foreign correspondents were there, she noted, all the images came from activists and citizen journalists.
She said: “Tonight I want to think of the risks those citizen journalists have taken in Syria. Without them we would have had no images of the chemical weapons attack. No visual evidence.”
She added: “The plethora of graphic pictures from Ghouta, coming out immediately, were essential for our journalism. They pressured goverments and made a difference.
“The activists who filmed and posted pictures online ran a huge risk of secondary contamination from the nerve agent Sarin. It's a mark of how difficult it is to cover Syria that I have been unable to confirm whether any of them died.”
Quoting figures from Reporters Without Borders, Hilsum said that 85 citizen journalists have lost their lives since the conflict in Syria began and 25 mainstream journalists (five of them foreign) – making it the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist at present.
She noted that according to the Committee to Protect Journalists a further 37 foreign journalists have been kidnapped since March, with 18 thought to be still held hostage (some alongside their fixers and drivers).
Three years ago the address at this annual service was given by Sunday Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin (pictured above). She was killed on assignment in Syria in February 2012.
Hilsum said: “It's hard to stand here tonight. Some of you were in this church when Marie Colvin made this address. She was my friend, I sometimes thought of her as my partner in crime on the road.
“You know how as a journalist you worry whether you’re in the right place – if Marie was there I knew I was in the right place. I miss her terribly and I probably always will. I often think of what she said that evening, about how this job inevitably involves taking risks but it's worth it.”
Hilsum also paid tribute to Sky News cameraman Mick Dean (pictured above), who was shot dead covering a protest in Egypt in August, and also to Richard Wild, an inexperienced freelance killed at 24 shortly after arriving in Baghdad in July 2003.
She said: “I’m not the only one who wishes I’d discouraged him (Wild) from going to Iraq, but I didn’t. Young reporters have always gone to war. I did it myself, and survived more by luck than judgement.
“Syria is like Bosnia – much too easy to get to. Chancers, adventurers, bloggers, war tourists are all there, and young freelances. They’re British, American, Spanish, Italian and more besides.”
She added: “Sometimes the risk calculation is simple: it's too dangerous. I would say that about going into Syria with the rebels at this time. Being a war correspondent has always had an allure but I am concerned that we should not – like the jihadis – develop a cult of martyrdom. Of course we honour those who lose their lives – that's why we're here tonight. But must not fetishise it.
“Non-journalists – civilians, we call them – often ask me, baffled, why I do this job. The answer is that I believe in eye witness reporting by professional journalists, and I want to be where history is happening. But there's a secret answer too – the colours are brighter, the mountains are clearer, there's nothing like cheating death to make you feel gloriously, wonderfully alive. I don't believe we should leave it to activists and citizen journalists.
“Their lives are as important as our own, but they're usually promoting a cause and we're not doing the same thing. What we do matters and what's more we love it. I understand any young reporter who wants to do it too.”
Talking about the dangers she personally has faced, she said: “Luck and happenstance play their part in survival but I think it's important to assert that you can pull back, you can trust your instinct when the warning bells start to ring.
“It's not easy. In Libya during the 2011 revolution, every day I went up to the frontline I felt like a fool, and every day I didn't, like a coward. I aways feel I'm not brave enough. Not as brave as Marie.
“So I would say to those starting on this career: you prove yourself by getting great stories not by taking insane risks and talking about it in the bar afterwards.
“You shouldn't file for any outlet or editor who doesn't care about your life, but I know that's rarely the problem. We are ones who push too hard and go in too far because we want that story.
“We fear failure more than danger. It's less about being beaten by the competition as failing in our own eyes. But that's not the point. Success is living to tell the tale – this one and the next.”
Prayers were said by Canon David Meera for journalists who have died “on the frontline” over the last year and for “those facing legal proceedings at this time” and to urge God to “keep us firm in defence of freedom of speech”.