Working as a war correspondent—anywhere—requires mind-boggling dedication and nerve in the midst of conflict. Reporting from the Syrian conflict, which has turned into a bonafide civil war recently, is another matter altogether. The Syrian government appears to be deliberately targeting journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), four journalists were killed in Syria in the third week of February. Although the worst challenge journalists face in most countries is detainment or expulsion, the stakes in Syria are much higher.
The most prominent casualty so far, legendary war journalist Marie Colvin of the Times of London, died after Syrian government forces shelled the media center she was operating from. Rod Nordland and Alan Cowell of the New York Times strongly implied that Colvin was killed because the Syrian government is tracking journalists’ satellite phone activity. French photographer Rémi Ochlik also died in the attack; photojournalists Paul Conroy, and Edith Bouvier were injured. All four were located in a house that was converted by rebel forces into an impromptu media center.
Journalists traditionally use satellite phones to report from war zones and to escape surveillance. However, satellite phones can be monitored and locations can be triangulated from their signals—it just takes a lot of hard work. A 2011 report from the Horst-Goertz Institute for IT Security in Germany found serious flaws in satellite phone cryptography. The vast majority of satellite phones—even those used by war reporters—send GPS info up into orbit. Security researcher Jacob Appelbaum of Tor told the Electronic Frontier Foundation that it’s easy for satellite phone providers to accidentally disclose the location of users. In addition, technology is also commercially available that lets governments eavesdrop on satellite phone conversations and locate individual users. American government agencies are particular fans of the Portable Thuraya monitoring system for satellite phones, manufactured by Polish firm TS2.
As Fast Company has reported previously, Syrian government officials are actively using Internet surveillance and high-tech tools to track down rebels.
Brian Conley of Small World News, which trains local journalists in war zones in safety/security best practices, told the Christian Science Monitor that the Syrian rebel media center was believed to have had a VSAT hookup for Internet communications that was like a "giant radio beacon" if the Syrian government had the appropriate surveillance equipment. Various international organizations such as Avaaz are actively working to smuggle telecommunications equipment to the Syrian rebels.
What is known is that the Syrian government does have sophisticated surveillance equipment. Last year, American firms Blue Coat Systems and NetApp were caught violating embargo laws by selling monitoring software to the Syrian government.
Reporters are taking various steps to protect themselves. Colvin, before her death, preferred to use Skype when necessary because she believed it was safer than mobile phones. However, Skype presents problems of its own. During the Egyptian revolution last year, security forces loyal to former President Hosni Mubarak tortured dissidents to obtain their Skype passwords. In addition, Skype is a true bandwidth hog of a product—the mere fact that it is being used in a city where shelling and military assaults is taking place will tip off government forces to the fact that either a rebel or a journalist is in the area. And Syria’s government has shown themselves remarkably uninterested in whether an individual is a journalist or a rebel; most caught so far have been killed either way.
Nonprofit organization MobileActive recently launched a project called SaferMobile that provides various encryption and anonymizing apps for mobile phones. SaferMobile’s toolkit is directly intended for use by activists and journalists working under the noses of repressive regimes around the world. Funding for SaferMobile is provided by the U.S. State Department, Google, and a number of other donors.
One of the longest-running advocacy groups around, the Committee to Protect Journalists, runs an education and training program for journalists in dire situations, including financial and logistical assistance in going into exile if necessary. The CPJ is currently warning journalists in Syria not to use satellite phones.
Another organization, Reporters Without Borders/Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), helps loan journalists equipment for covering warzones. In the event that a publication or website won’t provide bulletproof vests or shrapnel helmets (bad employers!) for reporters traveling into dangerous territory, RSF will loan military-grade equipment through their Paris headquarters.
As risk to foreign journalists increases, international media have begun relying heavily on camera-phone footage by local residents cum citizen journalists—who, without the protection of a foreign government or training in war reporting safety—are at much higher odds of being injured or killed.
Rami al-Sayed, the best known Syrian war video blogger, hosted his footage and livestreams on Bambuser's website. Last week, al-Sayed was killed in a government shelling attack in Homs, shortly after his footage was used by Al Jazeera, the BBC, and Sky News.