The case for: Can journalists be activists?

Activist-journalists in Syria inform international media about the war, and sometimes it is hard to leave views aside.

Zouhir Al Shimale is a Syrian journalist
International media relies on citizen journalists and activists to show the world what is happening in Syria [Zouhir Al Shimale/Al Jazeera]

March 18, 2011, will forever be recorded in Syrian history as the day that marked the beginning of demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad.

Protests that first took place in Deraa extended to the entire country, resulting in one of the bloodiest conflicts of modern history.

Since 2011, the conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions has received significant international interest. And the way the world is being informed about the war is also part of the story.

Abuse that plagued demonstrations was not broadcast on Syria’s mainstream media outlets, such as the arrests, shootings and massacres. And so, a new era of information in Syria began: citizen journalism.

READ MORE: Syria’s war – ‘Hope is all I have’

There was, and remains, a lack of journalists able to report the reality of the conflict and its harrowing consequences.

Six years ago, by the time the revolution had begun, the majority of Syrian media was managed by the regime.

They were in absolute control of the “news” that they wanted people to know.

At the same time, the regime tried to shut down all sources of information that showed actual numbers of arrests, real footage and other information coming out of the conflict.

Relying on citizen journalists

As Syria became a no-go zone to foreign correspondents due to its danger, international media relied on citizen journalists and stories from activists to show the world what was happening.

So who are these citizen journalists?

When you live inside a conflict and are directly affected - with family members and friends being killed, mutilated, or displaced - it is quite hard to leave your own views on aside


As their name suggests, they are regular citizens who, as a moral duty, turned around their careers or extended their hobbies into reporting to show the world Syria’s reality, without altering facts and truth.

Videographers, photographers, media students, legal professionals, writers and activists, to name just a few, are among those who turned their paths to citizen journalism.

READ MORE: Syrian journalists struggle to make ends meet amid war

The following list includes just some of the people who have committed to report on Syria, exchanging their careers for journalism and activism:

Hadi Al-Abdallah – Hadi won Reporters Without Borders press freedom prize in November, 2016. A trained nurse, he has been arrested and injured during the war. In June last year, he was seriously wounded after an attack in Aleppo on the home of his fellow journalist Khaled al-Essa. Essa died.

Khaled Khatib – Khaled documents the work of the Syria Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets. Without his work, the world would know less about the horrors of war, of being pulled from rubble, of fighting for your life.

Lina Shamy – Lina was a student when the revolution began. An architect by trade, she chronicled the violence when Aleppo was besieged by the regime via social media, risking her life to do so.

Malek Tarboush– Showing the world how the war looks is Malek’s chosen job, from the aftermath of an attack and heartbroken victims to the stolen moments of simple life such as children playing in liberated areas of Aleppo to a fresh plate of spaghetti.

Being both objective and passionate should not be a sin in war reporting


Where, then, does citizen journalism end and activism begin?

Being a citizen journalist in Syria, affected by the conflict and passionate in trying to help others, blurs the line between citizen journalism and activism, which is not a bad thing.

Journalists are taught to not show preference to one side over another and to keep their personal views to themselves.

However, for Syrian citizen journalists, some of whom spent their final teenage years and early adulthood living a horrible war, not expressing a point of view while reporting is simply challenging.

Blurred lines

Being both objective and passionate should not be a sin in war reporting.

Citizen journalists and activists bloggers are fighting against governments, which want to mould the media in their hands, to direct societies to their story – which is mostly propaganda.

Activists take on the duties of journalists in their work on social media and traditional media channels.

They share resources and reports from the ground showing the raw reality as the world wants to see it.

Activist-journalist Hadi al-Abdallah says his prizes were not for work in activism, but journalism. Over the course of the past six years, he has become one of the most reliable sources of news and truth for many global agencies.

OPINION: The case against – Can journalists be activists?

The difference between journalism and activism is the source of much debate. I believe this difference is quite simple. Journalists are storytellers and they are trained to remain objective. When a reporter attempts to help by calling for action, this is where journalism ends and activism begins.

Indeed, the line between citizen journalism and activism is quite blurred.

A threat to objectivism?

Activists and citizen journalists present news and content on what is really happening: killings, arrests, sieges and more.

Citizen journalists and activists in Syria try to be objective most of the time and, as I mentioned earlier, try to leave their personal views aside to focus on providing information.

However, when you live inside a conflict and are directly affected – with family members and friends being killed, mutilated, or displaced – it is quite hard to leave your own views on aside.

Activists base their reporting on their motivations towards the cause they are fighting for, whereas citizen journalists – in most cases – simply summarise the event they have been commissioned to cover.

A citizen journalist becomes an activist when they get too passionate and blame people, governments or organisations for the situation they’re covering, and as they start to call for action in order to help.

This call can be anything from adding links on their pieces to funding aid groups in Syria or taking part in street movements in Europe to pressure governments to take action.

So, does activism and citizen journalism represent a threat to objectivism? Does this open the door to “fake news”, I hear you asking.

As with all news events, audiences have to be cautious when deciding which media sources to trust. 

However, in situations when all activists, citizen journalists and members of the public in Syria broadcast the same message in their own words, then it is hard to disbelieve the veracity of their stories.

Zouhir Al Shimale is a Syrian journalist based in east Aleppo.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.