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Journalism under fire: Remembering Ali Mustafa

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Canadian freelance journalist and humanitarian Ali Mustafa died in Aleppo one year ago this month. He and seven others were killed by a Syrian government bomb as they searched for survivors among the rubble from a blast that had struck the same spot just minutes before.

I first met Ali through union and student solidarity at York University (YU) in 2008 and '09. I saw the spark of his journalistic vision take form in the bold cooperative newspaper he created there with friends and allies: the YU Free Press. He was a colleague, a comrade, and the softest soul of a man you could find.

Ali came from loving, humble, yet disconnected beginnings in a neighbourhood in Toronto excluded from the city's wealth. Early on he observed how establishment media neither reflected nor welcomed his Canadian experiences and perspectives. Nevertheless, he believed his stories were of value, as were those of the majority like him. He knew their lives mattered.

Unlike many who change themselves in order to access powerful environments exclusively for the enfranchised, Ali didn't waste time trying to fit in. Instead, he banded with peers to create new outlets for journalism, forums for dialogue, and avenues for cross-cultural and transnational expressions of love and possibility. He journeyed from Canada independently to meet people organizing collectively to transcend poverty and sectarian violence in Brazil, Palestine, Egypt and Syria. He was determined to document their lives where few with the power of a Western camera and English language networks bothered to venture.

In spite of his meagre means and lack of formal institutional legitimacy, Ali hustled as a freelancer to learn and practice as much as he could about the craft of photojournalism. He followed the path of so many forerunners and contemporaries, chronicling uprisings, witnessing atrocities, and recognizing the everyday heroes. His images were powerful, his documentation meticulous, and his photographic works managed to humanize the dehumanized on all sides of the conflicts he covered. This is no small feat for a self-trained photographer in an age of ubiquitous digital image creators.

Ali put his skills to use and his body on the line to share the urgency of people whose lives he knew to be fundamentally more precarious than his own.

He felt it was the least he could do.

Ali was present for the protests at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo, August 14, 2014, where he remained day and night to document what is now known as "Egypt's Tiananmen Square." It was a state-orchestrated massacre, the biggest mass killing of civilians in modern Egyptian history, and like all who survived and witnessed it, Ali came away traumatized.

With his increasing exposure to the violence and disparity, Ali's brightness shifted toward depression over time. Friends whose journeys between the Middle East and Canada paralleled his own, remarked how Ali became burdened by the historic, tragic events he witnessed. And his sense of frustration and loss was compounded by his professionally marginalized and occupationally vulnerable position as an independent journalist.

The International News Safety Institute says that photojournalists like Ali "who take extreme risks to get a story but are subsequently unable to find a way to get it on air are particularly at risk [of post traumatic stress disorder] – probably because at the core of PTSD is the concept of meaning."

For freelancers, it's a constant struggle to get news agencies to take your journalism, your acuity, and your safety, seriously. Despite successfully making reliable contacts and building tight networks in the region, Ali found that it was constantly a hard sell to find takers for his work and then, to get paid. Even worse was how the agencies were most responsive to the work that put him at the scene of highest exposure to violence. And for these photographs, according to a close friend and colleague, he would be paid a mere $20 per image.

In the winter of 2013-14 Ali grew distant, slept less and was confused and disoriented about where he should go (and could afford to go) next in his work. He worked furiously to map out new plans for documenting the lives of Syrians who were caring for each other amid the violence and crushing scarcity of war and international isolation.

Friends found it difficult to get through to Ali, not just practically, but amid his mental fog. If he'd had access to the support of an editor, an agency, an association or a media union, perhaps they could have recognized the signs and got him the assistance he most needed: the funds to return to Canada (or to safety in the region), health insurance to cover acute and ongoing counselling, more extensive and appropriate safety training, protective personal equipment.

We will never know if comprehensive institutional support and intervention could have spared Ali. What we do know, is it would certainly help those freelancers currently in the field, and those who will, sooner or later, find their way to such engaged reporting.

As the world of news media shifts irreversibly toward more and more precarious journalism, how will we organize in support of freelancers' safety? Do news consumers, governments and advocates seeking documentation, and media companies who buy their works have a role to play in the health, welfare and livelihoods of the independents on the frontlines?

I certainly believe we do, and I applaud and join with the organizations and advocates that have taken forward action on this urgent issue. I invite readers here to share your thoughts and suggested strategies as well.

datejie cheko green has 25 years of experience in public broadcasting, civil society, scholarly, arts and human rights sectors. She has worked in Canada, Sudan, Kenya and Eritrea on transnational projects with local and international reach. She has also worked as Freelance Organizer with the Canadian Media Guild, building supports for independent journalists, communications, technical, creative and knowledge workers toward equitable occupational health and sustenance. Find her on Twitter or LinkedIn. This piece was originally published on datejie's Linkedin and at J-Source. It is reprinted here with permission.

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