In repressive regimes and places where voices are marginalized, on-the-ground, citizen journalism has taken hold — and it couldn't be more necessary. Often, these unprofessional stories are the only coverage of events unfolding, and in places like Syria, their existence can make all the difference. A new documentary, City of Ghosts, follows a group of friends who stumble into reporting on the Syrian crisis, and end up forming a rebellion. The film, which premiered on A&E Oct. 2, shows how quickly anyone can shift from ordinary person to citizen journalist, especially in times of utmost crisis.
As depicted in the doc, several years ago Aziz, Mohamed, and Hamoud were middle-class young adults living ordinary lives in Raqqa, Syria. Mohamed, a teacher, had just gotten married, while Abdalaziz (Aziz) was slogging through college, and Hamoud described himself as an insular film geek. But in 2014, ISIS captured Raqqa, and all media in and out of the city became controlled by the terrorist group. Yet the world at large seemed indifferent to Syrian citizens' plight, with few stories shared about the takeover, and none about what was happening on its streets.
So, seeing no other reporting on their city's struggle, the trio and a few friends began recording on their own. They captured it all — a rooftop shot of captured rebels driven through the streets, sidewalk footage of children queueing up for meager rations, handheld video of beheaded bodies with heads stuck on public park fences. As the doc depicts, when Aziz noticed there was no coverage of what he saw in Raqqa, he began writing, despite having little experience. "Doing many projects, I didn't know what I was doing," he says in the film.
Fortunately, expertise isn't a necessity in becoming a citizen journalist, just an urge to share a story not being told elsewhere. The best and fastest way to learn something is by doing it, so if you're inspired by the City of Ghosts' team's efforts, simply get out there and get started. You won't become an expert overnight, but you will start gaining experience, and there's more resources today than ever to help you learn from others and avoid common rookie mistakes. Sites like Lynda.com offer full online courses in almost every industry-level creative program. You can learn audio and video editing, website building and coding — all the next-level nuts and bolts.
In the case of the Syrian journalists, Hamoud provided more technical know-how, editing and compiling, but the doc shows each person contributed whatever they could. Realizing they needed a consolidated space for their stories, the trio created Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), a site devoted to sharing the latest information on Raqqa. To get the world's attention, they turned to Facebook and Twitter, posting constantly. The same sites we use to enjoy makeup tutorials or share memes easily become platforms for social change — these are powerful tools of connectivity and engagement we use every day. This guide to Twitter activism highlights real-world examples and outlines potential campaign tactics worth utilizing to get your story out there if you, too, are reporting a story.
The City of Ghosts stars certainly made an impact with their outreach. Eventually, larger media outlets began to notice RBSS's posting campaign, but unfortunately, so did ISIS. A clampdown began, and while the original group of friends already knew and trusted each other, there was now a fear ISIS would infiltrate, just at the point they wanted and needed to expand contributors to their project. The trio's solution? Ensuring that potential new sources had to have stories and footage confirmed several times by already-trusted sources before the group would work with them. Because their posts were public, ISIS monitored them closely, though, and after a point, members of the group had to leave the city, or risk execution. Hopefully the stories you're covering won't require such extreme measures, but if you're concerned, The Committee To Protect Journalists offers a comprehensive guide on safety in reporting high-risk situations.
City Of Ghosts begins after members of RBSS have been forced to flee Syria for Turkey and Berlin. We see their work in action, as covert photos from reporters still on the ground are painstakingly uploaded, the signal risking being picked up by roving ISIS vans. Having left behind their families, homes, and jobs, the members' only choice is to fully embrace their new mission. RBSS is their sole connection to and only way they can help Raqqa. As Aziz says in the doc, "But I went through this road, not turning back. None of us studied any media, and we ended up being journalists."
Despite that lack of experience, the group made an enormous impact. The film opens with the filmmakers winning the CPJ award for International Press Freedom. In his acceptance speech on behalf of RBSS, Aziz said:
"Members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently are no different from any of you. We love our home and we have ambitions and dreams of raising a family and living happily....We carry out graffiti campaigns on the walls inside the most dangerous strongholds of ISIS, attempting to prove to the world that we will defeat arms with thoughts. Maybe we're not professional journalists, maybe we're only 'citizen journalists.' We don't care a lot about labels. We just want to prove ourselves on the ground as a force facing the most brutal regime, Assad, and the most dangerous organization, ISIS."
But when asked at the Q&A what he would say to the U.N. General Convention happening just a few blocks away, Aziz replied that he would say nothing. "Syrians call the U.N. United Nothing. They've been saying the same things since I was five years old. They're supposed to protect, but right now they have tons of dictators drinking white wine and chatting and doing nothing. Friends tried to get me in, actually, but I didn't want to be there."
Maybe that sounds cynical, but it confirms Aziz's belief the only way to achieve change is by getting out there yourself. If you're ready to get started, the Society of Professional Journalists has an amazing list of resources, articles, and guides on every element of mobile journalism, from best recording practices to uploading on the go. As said, expertise isn't necessary, just an activist urge. As City of Ghosts shows, sometimes you have to tell your own story in order to be heard.