After Teen Freelancer's Death, Ethical Questions About Reuters Photos In Syria

Molhem Barakat's November 20, 2013, self portrait from his Facebook page
Molhem Barakat's November 20, 2013, self portrait from his Facebook page


By Donald R. Winslow

NEW YORK, NY (March 13, 2014) – After Molhem Barakat, a teenage Syrian photographer who freelanced for Reuters, was killed in December while covering rebel fighting in Aleppo, questions arose in the journalism community about what exactly was going on in Syria with freelancers. Most if not all news agencies had decided Aleppo was far too dangerous for their staff, either because of the risk of being killed or kidnapped, and so they were not putting photojournalists in harms way. But Reuters, using stringers like Barakat and local residents, continued to send their photo clients images from street battles.

After Barakat's death there were reports that Reuters had provided him with digital cameras, and that he was paid regularly and received a cash bonus if his photographs made it into The New York Times. Reports of the circumstances surrounding his death, and his access to the rebels – including his brother, Mustafa, a fighter who was killed alongside Barakat during fighting at the Kindi Hospital – raised ethical concerns among some American newspaper editors about the Reuters network of local photographers in Syria and their practices.

Exactly who are these stringer photographers? How is it that they appear to have such close access to the fighting when it's too dangerous for news organizations to have staff in the same spots? And have these freelancers been trained in important things like safety, first aid, and journalism ethics?  

Today some of these questions have been answered when The New York Times reported that the Reuters News Picture Service, operated by Thomson Reuters, has been sending their clients news photographs from the Syrian civil war that were shot by "activists" who supported the rebels. In one case, one of the photograhers was an activist spokesperson. The report says that editors at Reuters were aware of the photographers' activist status but continued to use their photographs. In addition, some bylines were pseudonyms or the pictures were credited to someone other than the person who shot the picture. And some of the photographs appear to have been staged.

The details were published today in the newspaper's photography blog written by the Times's longtime staff photographer and LENS co-editor, James Estrin, along with Karam Shoumali.

In response Jim Gaines, the Reuters global editor, told Estrin that Reuters would not use combatants but did rely on activists for pictures.

Three photographers who shot for Reuters in Aleppo told Estrin that sometimes when their photographs didn't turn out as desired, some of the freelancers staged the images. One of them directly admitted to staging photographs.

"The practice of using participants in a conflict as visual reporters is deeply troubling, or at least should be, for any journalist and is not one that should be even considered in anything but the most extreme circumstances," NPPA Ethics Committee chair Sean D. Elliott said today from NPPA's Northern Short Course in Warwick, RI.

"To do so treads on our duty to report accurately and fairly and to do so and not fully disclose the practice to the public is a grievous affront to well established ethical standards. The trust of our audience in our work is our greatest asset and any practice that might give our audience cause to lose that trust is a disservice to journalists everywhere."

A statement from a corporate public relations spokesperson at Reuters denied the allegations. 

Read the entire story in today's LENS blog online here.