Reuters maintains dogged silence on allegations of ‘staged images’

After allegations surfaced that some of Reuters' freelance photographers have fabricated photographs of the Syrian conflict, the news wire organisation remains tight-lipped, refusing to answer any questions

Olivier Laurent — 2 April 2014

Issa, 10 years old, fixes a mortar launcher in a weapons factory of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, September 7, 2013. Issa works with his father in the factory for ten hours every day except on Fridays. (REUTERS/Hamid Khatib)

Issa, 10 years old, fixes a mortar launcher in a weapons factory of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, September 7, 2013. Issa works with his father in the factory for ten hours every day except on Fridays.

© Hamid Khatib / Reuters

“Reuters photographers, staff and freelancers must not stage or re-enact news events,” reads Reuters’ Handbook of Journalism. “They may not direct the subjects of their images, or add, remove or move objects on a news assignment. Our news photography must depict reality. Any attempt to alter that reality constitutes fabrication and can lead to disciplinary action, including dismissal.”

The integrity, professionalism and independence of the news-gathering process is paramount for organisations such as Reuters, Agence France-Presse and Associated Press. In January, when the latter learned that one of its employees had used Photoshop to remove an object from one of his images, the photographer, Narciso Contreras, was promptly and publicly dismissed, his reputation in tatters, and his archives of images withdrawn from the news agency’s database.

In 2006, Lebanese freelance photographer Adnan Hajj, who had worked with Reuters for more than 10 years, was fired after he was found to have digitally altered some of his images while covering the Israel-Lebanon conflict. The agency removed Hajj’s 920 images from its archives and launched an internal investigation that resulted in the dismissal of one of its photo editors.

Today, Reuters finds itself at the centre of another controversy, after allegations have surfaced that some of its freelance photographers in Syria have been staging images. The New York Times first raised the issue on 13 March.

Investigation

As the security situation in Syria has forced many news agencies and media organisations to scale back their operations in the conflict zone, Reuters has developed a network of local freelance photographers. Molhem Barakat was one of them. The 18-year-old Reuters freelance photographer was killed in Syria in December 2013, alongside his brother, Mustafa, who fought against the Syrian government for the Tawhid rebels.

As The New York Times investigated Molhem’s death, it quickly ran into troubling questions regarding “Reuters’ network of local photographers in Syria and their journalistic practices,” wrote the US newspaper.

“Interviews with numerous Syrian photographers, most requesting anonymity because they have worked as freelancers for Reuters, said many of the freelancers are activists — in one case a spokesman — who supported the rebels,” wrote James Estrin and Karam Shoumali for The New York Times. “Three of them also said that the freelancers had provided Reuters with images that were staged or improperly credited, sometimes under pseudonyms.”

In an internal memo, Reuters’ global editor at large, Jim Gaines, and global pictures editor, Reinhard Krause, expressed their disbelief at the reporting by The New York Times. “We know that some of you have seen – and were naturally infuriated by –yesterday’s New York Times Lens blog, which raised questions about Reuters’ use of freelance photographers in Syria. We frankly do not understand how the piece ran,” read the memo, which BJP has seen. “To be honest, it seems to be a case in which a prosecutorial approach lingered long after the solid evidence was gone.”

However, five days later, the National Press Photographers Association followed up on The New York Times‘s investigation, reporting that “a set of photographs by a Reuters freelancer in Syria [had] been brought into question for their authenticity in a picture story called ‘Boy Rebel Makes Weapons’.”

The photographs were credited to Hamid Khatib and distributed by Reuters on 07 September 2013. The images and captions present a 10-year-old boy named Issa working in a bomb factory, “fixing” a mortar launcher and assembling a “locally handmade mortar shell”. For many picture editors and wire service photographers, anonymously quoted by the National Press Photographers Association for fear of retribution, the images raised alarms. “Many questioned the credibility of the images at the time,” writes Donald Winslow, an editor at NPPA. “Reporters and photographers were sent out to find ‘Issa’. They came back saying they were unable to turn up the young boy.”

For Reuters, the images are authentic and weren’t staged. In a statement released to the National Press Photographers Association, as well as Bag News, a visual politics and media literacy blog that closely analysed Khatib’s images, Reuters explains the images’ context: “On September 4th, photographer Hamid Khatib was working on a story about factories making munitions and weapons. Hamid visited a number of factories and at one he spotted the child, Issa. Reuters thought the story of child worker Issa in a munitions factory was one that we could develop for our photography app and website Wider Image – which features Reuters images expanded into deeper, more contextual stories – so Hamid spent the day with the father and his child on September 7th.”

The images were not staged, says Reuters, which nevertheless declined to provide more details about the conditions in which these photographs were created.

Another set of images has also raised questions, as documented by Michael Shaw of Bag News. In the images, also shot by Khatib over several days, members of the Syrian Rebel Army are depicted with a “dysfunctional guitar” with distinctive and recognisable marks. Reuters dates these images as 24 and 26 February 2014. The same guitar also appears in Khatib’s hand on his Facebook profile image, which is dated 22 February 2014. The find prompted Bag News to ask the following question: “Does Reuters deny that Khatib supplied the guitar as a prop in any of the photos?”

For Reuters, the guitar belongs to a 12-year-old singer identified as Nasma, who Khatib is said to have followed for three days. However, writes Shaw, Reuters only published one photo of “Nasma that was taken by Khatib” and “none of Khatib’s published Reuters photos including a guitar show Nasma”. He continues: “On top of that, I could find no image at all, still or video, that shows Nasma using, holding or even in the same frame as a guitar.” Reuters has so far refused to provide further evidence that the guitar belonged to Nasma.

Unanswered questions

When contacted by BJP, Reuters refused, numerous times, to share the specific details of the internal investigation it says it conducted after The New York Times first contacted the news agency three months ago. It also declined to clarify when that investigation took place and who took part in it. Instead, Reuters continues to say that “setting up pictures is a firing offense, strictly against policy. It is the responsibility of Reuters’ chief photographers, photo desks in the region, and the filing desk in Singapore to question every picture we serve to clients where a set-up is suspected. Reuters will not use any photographer, freelancer or staff who is found to have passed off a set up picture as a spontaneous one.”

When asked whether Khatib still worked for Reuters, the news agency refused to comment.

When asked whether the recent allegations had resulted in a change in Reuters’ news-gathering practices in Syria, the news agency refused to comment.

When asked whether Reuters would consider opening another investigation following the recent and specific allegations against its news operations in Syria, the news agency refused to comment.

And, more importantly, when asked why Reuters had been using Syrian activists as freelance photographers without informing its clients, the news agency again refused to comment.