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Major News Outlet Faces Questions After Teenage Freelance Photographer They Reportedly Used Was Killed on the Job

"He often asked me if he could work with me and I refused, because I didn’t want the responsibility of an eager seventeen year old with no war zone training and little experience on my shoulders."

The New York Daily News, the Independent and other media outlets reported over the weekend on the killing of Molhem Barakat, a freelance photographer who had sold pictures to the Reuters news agency and died while covering the fierce fighting in Aleppo, Syria.

Some reports said he was 18-years-old, while others said that Barakat was 17, which has prompted media critics to ask: Why was Reuters using the services of a teenager in a war zone?

“His photos had appeared in news coverage of the civil war all over the world since May, depicting the life of ordinary Syrians in the decimated city as well as the conflict,” wrote Britain’s Independent, adding that Barakat was killed alongside his brother who was a Syrian rebel.

Reuters published this photo described as "Syrian activist and photographer Molhem Barakat." The news agency said the photo was taken in November 2013.

Barakat was apparently successful at his work, with his photos appearing in prominent publications including the New Yorker, the Guardian and the New York Times.

According to the Reuters report about his killing, Barakat had sent the agency “dozens of pictures since May this year.”

Veteran reporters are asking some tough questions, including journalist Corey Pein who wants to know “how it was that an inexperienced teenager came to be working for a major news organization in a war zone.”

He pointed out that Reuters in its own story about his killing did not report on its freelancer’s age, omitting “this standard biographical detail.”

When asked by BBC journalist Stuart Hughes about what war zone training Barakat may have received from Reuters, according to Pein, the agency still did not provide his age.

They only wrote, “We are deeply saddened by the death of Molhem Barakat, who sold photos to Reuters on a freelance basis. To best protect the many journalists on the ground in a dangerous and volatile war zone, we think it is inappropriate to comment any further at this time.”

Pein wrote that though Barakat was a “freelancer,” the agency had a responsibility to ensure that he was prepared for the work it was actively encouraging him to pursue.”

Andrew Katz of Time magazine tweeted this:

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/katz/status/415539086200299520"]

Former Reuters bureau chief Andrew MacGregor Marshall who resigned from the agency two years ago was even more critical:

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/zenjournalist/status/415502777461518337"]

He wrote of Reuters’ brief statement earlier this week about Barakat’s death, “This is an extraordinary, cynically dishonest statement. As a veteran former Reuters journalist with extensive experience of working in dangerous and volatile war zones, I can say categorically that providing an explanation of why they deemed it appropriate to hire a teenager as a freelance photographer would not put any other journalists at risk.”

Photographer Stanislav Krupar who had met Barakat in Syria told journalist Pein that the teen had pretended to be 19 “though [I] was sure that he must be younger. … [W]e had a feeling that he has a lot of to hide.”

Reuters global head of communications Barb Burg emailed Pein on Tuesday “to say that based on the agency’s communications with unspecified family members, Molhem was born in March 1995 and thus 18 years old when he began contributing to he agency and when he died.”

Huffington Post quoted British journalist Hannah Lucinda Smith who has reported from Syria and knew Barakat. She called him a friend and the first person she met in Aleppo.

She described him as “a seventeen year old who I’d watch change from a happy teenager to a messed up young man who, at one stage, was adamant that he wanted to join al-Qaeda.”

In May, she wrote an article about him she had titled, “My friend, the aspiring suicide bomber.”

“He often asked me if he could work with me and I refused, because I didn’t want the responsibility of an eager seventeen year old with no war zone training and little experience on my shoulders,” she wrote.

"Soon afterwards I saw that he was filing photos for Reuters,” Smith wrote. “I hope that they took responsibility for him in a way that I couldn’t, and I hope that if he was taking photographs as he died in the hope of selling them to that agency, they also take responsibility for him now."

It’s unknown what protections Reuters may have provided the young freelancer. Media companies routinely provide war zone training and protective gear to their staff that serve in conflict areas.

“I know too that wars are messy, and if Molhem hadn’t been taking pictures, he may well have taken up arms. The Reuters team in Syria might have thought they were doing him a favor — and in some ways, I’m sure that they were,” Pein wrote, adding “That doesn’t mean the company gets to blow off questions about the circumstances leading up to this young man’s death.”

Should a news agency let freelance journalists contribute to their coverage in a war zone regardless of their age? Share your thoughts in comments below.

(H/T: Huffington Post)

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