Dispatch

The Controversial Death of a Teenage Stringer

The Controversial Death of a Teenage Stringer

BEIRUT — On Dec. 20, 2013, Molhem Barakat took his last picture of the Syrian war. He had been photographing a battle for control of Aleppo’s al-Kindi Hospital when he was killed along with his older brother Mustafa, a fighter in a local rebel brigade.

Barakat’s cameras, apparently provided to him by the news agency Reuters, were photographed covered in blood in the aftermath of the attack.

Barakat was just 18 when he died, but his images — transmitted through the Reuters photo service — gave people across the globe a glimpse into his world, and his country’s war. But while his precocious work appeared everywhere from the New York Times to Foreign Policy, his online presence served as a reminder that he was still a teenager. His last tweet brags about unlocking a new level in a computer racing game; his Facebook account is full of smiling selfies.

"I was there the moment he grabbed the first camera — I still remember it. It was a Sony HD Handycam, and he was just so good with it," said Adnan Haddad, a Syrian activist currently in Gaziantep, Turkey, who first enlisted Barakat to work in the pro-uprising Aleppo Media Center in the winter of 2012. "He’s a big loss. He was a young guy, a smart one, a very fast learner, and losing him like this — for the sake of making a few hundred dollars — is not worth it."

Barakat took the sort of risks that would horrify most veteran journalists. One video posted on YouTube shows him trying to aid a stricken rebel fighter (he appears 56 seconds in) as other fighters warn of a nearby tank. He ducks behind a piece of debris for cover as the tank fires, and the picture is lost in the reverberations from the explosion.

This, clearly, was no ordinary childhood. Barakat lived in the heart of the world’s most dangerous conflict, one that has claimed the lives of at least 61 journalists and has resulted in the kidnapping of dozens more. The overwhelming majority of journalists killed have been Syrians like Barakat, the only ones remaining to cover the story after the country became too dangerous for most foreign journalists.

Barakat’s death has raised a furor among war correspondents, who have criticized Reuters for not doing enough to protect the young Syrians whom it relies on for coverage of the war zone. Barakat’s extreme youth was only one aspect of the ethical dilemma: Journalists have raised questions about his lack of protective gear, his political affiliation with a rebel brigade, and whether Reuters violated its own safety guidelines by putting him in harm’s way.

Photographer Stanislav Krupar told journalist Corey Pein, who was one of the first to raise questions about this case, that Barakat was paid as little as $100 for a set of 10 or more photographs. Barakat used this money, according to Haddad, to improve the living conditions of his mother and father, who struggled with poverty even before the uprising and whose financial situation only worsened with the war.

In a statement to Foreign Policy, Reuters said that Barakat was 18 years old when it began working with him, meaning he wasn’t legally a minor at the time. It added that he had begun providing pictures to Reuters in May 2013 and that the news organization had provided him with camera equipment, a ballistic helmet, and body armor. The organization said that it is continuing to look into the circumstances of his death and has been cautious about discussing details of its relationship with him "out of concern for the safety of other journalists in Syria."

The argument that commenting on Barakat could endanger other journalists was also included in a statement that Reuters first gave to BBC journalist Stuart Hughes, shortly after Barakat’s death. The claim, however, doesn’t ring true to some correspondents — including a former editor with Reuters.

"When I saw that statement, it was just a lie," said Andrew MacGregor Marshall, who served as Reuters’s Baghdad bureau chief and Middle East editor before resigning from the organization amid controversy after Reuters refused to publish a story he wrote on the Thai monarchy. "Speaking as a professional combat journalist, there is no reason why they can’t comment on this issue for the safety of their journalists."

Marshall rewrote Reuters’s safety guidelines for operating in war zones in 2008, after two Reuters employees were killed in Iraq by a U.S. Army Apache helicopter team that mistook them for part of a militia. The revised guidelines prohibit staff or freelance employees from accompanying armed people "without the explicit authorisation of your bureau chief or regional managing editor" and advises reporters to "[n]ever cross the line, or give the appearance of crossing the line, between the role of journalist as impartial observer and that of participant in a conflict."

Reuters has not commented on whether its editorial staff granted Barakat explicit approval for his daily trips with rebel forces. Barakat, however, was quite clear that he did not see his role as an "impartial observer" — he considered becoming a fighter at one point, and Haddad described him as someone who "want[ed] to serve the revolution."

Those who knew Barakat also cast doubt on Reuters’s claim that he was 18 years old when the news agency began working with him. Haddad said that he is "sure" Barakat wasn’t 18. Journalists who knew Barakat in Aleppo said he was secretive about his age, knowing that it could place his employment in danger.

Wolfgang Bauer, a German journalist who covers Syria, met Barakat at a rebel-run media center in Aleppo’s Hanano neighborhood in September 2013. He said that Barakat was regularly sending pictures to Reuters at that point and had been filing photographs for some time under the name of an older photographer who served as a sort of "broker," to avoid questions about his youth.

"He asked us several times not to talk to Reuters about his age and that he would probably be fired," said Bauer. "It was a silent agreement between all three parties — the broker, himself, and Reuters — to leave it like this. He was very well aware that they couldn’t accept to work with a 17-year-old."

For Bauer, Barakat’s youth provided him with the very qualities that made him attractive to a news agency like Reuters. "The point is that, as with child soldiers, a guy his age will risk much more than an adult," Bauer said. "If you’re 17 and need to feed your family by photography in a war area, that’s a very, very dangerous combination."

Barakat listed Reuters as his employer on his Facebook page. The news organization, however, didn’t agree, referring to him upon his death as someone who "sold photos to Reuters on a freelance basis."

The tenuousness of Barakat’s employment status goes to the financial dilemma of any major news outlet covering a conflict like the Syrian war: The level of violence means that often it’s only locals who can regularly gain access to the front lines, but the news organizations cannot possibly afford to bring all these people on as full-time staff members — a step that would bring with it pensions and long-term commitments that would make them hard to let go when the story died down.

Marshall said that he faced the same dilemma during the height of the Iraq war, when Reuters, he estimated, employed up to 100 people across the country. They were in practice full-time employees, he said, but were officially referred to as freelancers or stringers to deny them staff status. Whatever they were called, however, Marshall argued that the news organization had to take some level of responsibility for their safety.

"When you’re in a war zone, the ethical issues become more acute," he said. "Because not only is it an issue that you haven’t given this person any job security, a pension, or so on, but they’re taking deadly risks. To me that implies there has to be some responsibility — not only on a moral level, but on a professional level."

The Syrian war, however, has been covered unlike any conflict before it. Media outlets have gotten used to relying on content posted online — whether YouTube videos uploaded by citizen journalists or images taken by activist networks like the Aleppo Media Center, where Barakat worked before signing on with Reuters. Marshall suggested that this might have acclimated news outlets to the idea that they could scoop up cheap content from locals inside the country without doing due diligence on their background or providing for their safety.

For those who knew Barakat best, however, the circumstances of his death left them feeling that he was exploited by a faceless organization for a few pictures.

"I think Molhem’s case is all over the country — there are activists all over Syria that are doing the same thing for big, giant media corporations," said Haddad. "There should be some kind of law during war and during conflicts that would prevent those organizations from using these underage activists, especially when it comes to money."