Posted on June 12, 2013

War Reporting and the Rise of Citizen Journalism

by Heather Blake

After President Morsi announced his above-the-law November 22 constitutional declaration, tens of marches were organized by opposition leaders and politicians to voice their rejection. I was assigned to cover one of these protests led by Al-Dostour party leader and Nobel laureate Dr Mohamed ElBaradie, where he started the march from Cairo’s popular neighbourhood of Shubra to Tahrir. In the middle of the crowd, I struggled to push my way through the march to be able to take good quotes and help my photographer take a professional shot of ElBaradie as he appears in the march. As I saw ElBaradie approaching I quickly got to my phone and called my editor, my voice was heard as saying, ‘tweet quickly, ElBaradie has arrived, I will try to get a quote from him.’ In an instant, I was surrounded by three men, grabbing me from almost everywhere and one of them managed to take my belt off and undress my shirt. I screamed and fell on the ground. A few seconds later I was lifted from the ground and pulled away from the crowd, but I could still hear insults about how much I deserve this abuse for being a female journalist allowing herself to enter through a crowd.”  – Egyptian Journalist


Over the past decade, Reporters without Borders has documented a steady rise in the number of journalists becoming targets within conflict-afflicted countries. The ideal of a press respected as a neutral entity reporting in conflict zones is far removed from the world in which we now live. Along with aid and private sector workers, journalists are increasingly the targets of kidnapping, execution, detainment and torture, committed by government forces as well as by non-state actors ranging from criminal gangs to insurgent or terrorist groups. This alarming trend is symptomatic of the changing character of warfare.

Reporters Without Borders research found that the level of violence against media workers was unprecedented with a record number of journalists killed last year (our research and record keeping dating back to 2002). In 2012, 90 traditional journalists, 6 media assistants and 48 netizens (citizen journalists online) and citizen journalists were killed in the course of doing their jobs. Our research also indicates that grave media violations in a country are a useful indicator of other problems and violations taking place or on the rise. Impunity is not just reflected in the execution of journalists. RSF’s press freedom barometer for 2013 shows that to date, in addition to the 19 journalists already killed this year, 185 journalists and media assistants and 162 netizens have been imprisoned.

The systematic targeting of journalists came to our attention at the height of the Iraq War. 47 journalists were killed in Iraq in 2007 alone, and the Iraq war has taken the heaviest toll on journalists of any recent conflict. Iraq was a slightly less dangerous place for journalists in 2012, as opposed to the unrelenting violence in Syria and the highest fatality rate on record for Somalia. Furthermore, 18 journalists were killed in car bombs and assassinations- and deteriorating conditions in Pakistan accounted for a third of all journalists killed.

At the same time, the most important trends in the changing character of reporting have grown from the emergence of new communications technologies. Such technologies have been seized upon by a new breed of citizen and netizen journalists, who have creatively harnessed digital media platforms to report on the unfolding events in conflict-afflicted countries and to exchange ideas, information, content and opinions. While not confined to the Arab Spring, this trend came of age during the Arab uprisings, with citizens filming demonstrations and crackdowns on mobile phones, sending information by text message, email and Facebook, blogging and tweeting to a worldwide audience. While netizen and citizen journalism does not negate the work of professionally trained journalists and news organisations, it is a crucial part of the changing character of news reporting, particularly in insecure and authoritarian settings.

Threatened by these developments, some governments have responded aggressively with a raft of measures targeting digital media users. RSF research has found that some governments are using spyware to hack into and retrieve contents on digital media users’ hard drives to recover passwords or to gain access to instant messaging in skype chat rooms or mobile phones. RSF research has also found that governments are using phishing malware and IP address hacking. Surveillance software is installed surreptitiously through false updates, email messages or email attachments to identify and then target netizens and citizen journalists. RSF’s 2012 internet enemies report found that the top five countries using surveillance to monitor and then target journalists are: Syria, China, Iran, Bahrain and Vietnam. In Iran, press crackdowns since 2009 have seen detentions, interrogations and torture. In addition to the more traditional methods of targeting the press the Iranian Intelligence Services have used sophisticated surveillance equipment to monitor and target perceived enemies ranging from online dissidents and their families to citizen journalists.

Though a prime target, the press has been resourceful in responding to the opportunities and new risks presented by digital media platforms. Journalists reporting in war zones have long sought to protect themselves with the right equipment and training for hostile environments. This training has expanded to include digital and cyber security training to help protect their identity, sources, information and even location when reporting and travelling for work.

The use of digital media platforms have allowed for real-time information to shape the international communities response, using locally sourced knowledge, real-time evidence and reporting which has assisted in local and international actors being able to respond to many violations against individuals and groups who, otherwise, would have been unknown and forgotten. Human rights offenders and war criminals are exposed in real-time, which helps equip the international community with real-time rapid response.

The changing character of reporting is now being targeted with an aspect of the changing character of warfare. This aspect, or tactic, is invisible and silent. Many citizen journalists and netizens who have fallen victim to technology being used to monitor their online activities, and then to target them, don’t even know it until it is too late.


Heather is the UK Director for Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières) and an Associate of the Changing Character of War Programme, Oxford University.