On Tuesday, Marie Colvin, an American reporter working for The Sunday Times of London, told the BBC the violence happening in the Syrian city of Homs was “absolutely sickening.” Colvin compared the siege of the city to that of Srebrenica, the massacre in the Balkan wars the veteran reporter also covered. Hours after she spoke to the BBC Ms. Colvin was killed, along with French photographer Rémi Ochlik, when the makeshift media center they worked in was shelled by government forces.
With the government of President Bashar al-Assad denying most news agencies admittance to the country, many reporters have entered secretly (as New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid did and, tragically, suffered a fatal asthma attack as he made his way out). The dangers and obstacles have kept many away, and for those who are in the war zone, broadcasting and filing have been tremendously difficult.
That has made the work of bloggers and citizen journalists living and reporting inside the country much more prominent. As these reporters post their images and video on YouTube or stream events live on sites like Bambuser, major news organizations have turned to them for coverage. This has been true throughout the past year as clashes and protests have marked the Arab Spring. Some of the most indelible images and stories from the uprisings—from reports by computer-engineer-turned-journalist Mohammed ‘Mo’ Nabbous in Libya to the vicious treatment by police of the “girl in the blue bra” in Egypt—have been captured by amateur videographers and citizen reporters.
Their work is equally, if not more, perilous as that of their professional brethren (they cannot easily flee when their personal safety is at stake). Mr. Nabbous was killed in fighting in Libya just over a month after the conflict there began. And, as Robert Mackey reported on the New York Times’ Lede blog this week, Syrian blogger Rami al-Sayed whose live streams and images from Homs were widely seen on international broadcasts, was killed on Tuesday along with three friends in the attacks on the Baba Amr neighborhood.
News organizations who use material by citizen journalists must perform due diligence to determine the veracity of the reporting and images, and balance its use with other sources to get a more complete picture of events. But during attacks like those happening in Homs this week, the work of Mr. Sayed and others like him becomes even more vital. Their cameras bear witness and keep events from happening in isolation.
In 1982, then-President Hafez al-Assad ordered an attack on the Syrian city of Hama that led to the massacre of thousands of residents. There are few, if any, images of that assault, no visible proof of what happened there except for the rubble photographed in the days afterward.
His son, Bashar al-Assad, cannot easily hide his government’s actions as the country slides into civil war. In Homs and elsewhere, web video journalism—and the citizens who risk their lives to practice it—becomes the world’s eyes and ears.