Journalism in the wake of the Syrian Crisis: Evolutions and Standstills
While the Syrian conflict has widely been discussed from different political and social perspectives, hardly any attention has been paid to the role of international, Syrian, and Arab journalism in shaping the events and influencing the public opinion, the political response, and the humanitarian programmes on the ground and in the neighbouring countries.
TRENDS Research & Advisory has interviewed Andrea Glioti, a freelance journalist who spent three years covering the Syrian political and humanitarian crisis in the Syrian North-East as well as Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Lebanon. Glioti also witnessed the Syrian uprisings erupting in March 2011 in Damascus. Glioti will therefore provide the professional perspective of someone whom has long witnessed and reported events from the ground. To complement the pragmatics of journalism with a scholarly perspective, TRENDS has also interviewed Dr Enrico de Angelis, a Cairo based media scholar who has been actively involved in the creation of the “Syrian Untold” platform giving voice to the Syrians and internationals engaging with the support for Syria inside and outside the country.
The two experts, discussing how international and Syrian journalism have changed prior to and during the present Syrian conflict respectively from a journalistic and a scholarly perspective, provide particular insights on how ideology and politics impact the production of information. In particular they are able to speak about key issues such as the increasingly problematic authenticity of sources and mobility of journalists on the ground, and on the rapid rise of citizen journalism throughout the uprisings and the warfare which followed. Indeed, the Syrian conflict represents a meaningful case study to explore in depth the trajectory of professional journalism with respect to political violence, and how the former can progress while necessarily dealing with ideological bias.
TRENDS (T). Do you reckon that international and Syrian journalism, on the whole, has played a valid role in recounting the events in Syria since 2011? If so, what is different from the past? What was the access of journalists to Syria, and in what modalities, prior to the uprisings of 2011?
Andrea Glioti (A.G). In terms of international journalism, Syria wasn’t certainly holding the media spotlight prior to the uprisings. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict was definitely having the major coverage. The regime’s measures, for sure, were curbing the possibility of having access from outside to what was going in the country, apart from the time of the conflict; whereas now that the regime is not fully in power, international journalists can have access even to a larger range of information regarding Syria. I think this is something new.
Enrico de Angelis (E.d.A). Inside Syria, I tend to see a watershed before and after the 2011 revolts. Local journalism was evolving before the repression and after the Damascus spring: journalists were negotiating spaces of inclusion and expression, whereas, in countries like Egypt, blogs were already populating the private press and the Internet. In Syria this evolution was much more gradual and slower. With the revolts this progression got frozen, as this sort of websites, previously far more critical, was eventually “recruited” by the Asad regime, whilst others got repressed and shut down straight away. Nevertheless, we cannot certainly know if this gradual progress would have gone on or would have discontinued.
On the one side, there’s a move backwards, with some media continuing to further the regime’s propaganda. On the other side, new political opposition media were being created. It is what we can name citizen journalism, in which single groups of activists, using Twitter and YouTube are employed to narrate the events on the ground. These groups, from 2012 onwards, organised themselves into the first relatively “independent” media in Syria, receiving support from European and American non-governmental organisations. Now these media outlets count more than 100 radio, TV channels, and online magazines.
Through professional training and the consequent evolution from activists to journalists, we witnessed a change in terms of professional identity. At this stage, a new media system was created with different funding sources which were ideologically free or carrying their own political agenda. The construction of a new journalism seems to be related, thus, to the attempt of being more objective and of monitoring as a watchdog. The interplay between international and Syrian journalism was then shown by the creation of organs aimed at testifying about the violation of human rights from the opposition forces, not only the regime and the Islamic State/Daesh. In a certain sense, the local values of reporting things on the ground were incorporated with the western approaches.
T. In covering the conflict and its dynamics, how can we characterise Syrian journalism? And how does this differ from/compare to Arab journalism in general, especially in relation to the ongoing coverage of the conflict?
A.G. I would premise that I conceive of journalism as an anti-power functional tool and inherently critical. As George Orwell would put it “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations”. But journalism is also about sources, authentic information, and the genealogy of these sources. These are the classical criteria able to define professional journalism. Under a dictatorship, as Syria is, it is hard to comply with authenticity standards. And I highlight that this is a current problem in the western coverage too: Nowadays, few journalists verify the authenticity of the videos from Daesh, as well as those of the other warring parties.
In this sense, I would say that prior to the uprisings in Syria there was no real journalism, as the circumstances made it unfeasible. Al-Watan was critical of the economic and social measures taken by the government, as well as the ad-Duniya channel, which was more critical than the state news agencies. So, it was possible to see real journalism to a small extent and only in the private sphere. Some dissidents were tolerated in Damascus, and they were known to everyone… However, a few issues like the Asad family business or the 1982 Hama massacres remained matters unlikely to be covered by Syrian media. That’s why I would say that professional journalism, which is even rare in the West as I see it, is a recent phenomenon inside Syria.
E.d.A. Well, if we mean by journalism the mere transfer of cultural meanings and events, and the professionalisation of this task, it is something that was definitely ongoing in Syria before the uprisings. However, in those circumstances, professional journalism with no partisan attachments was mostly unfeasible.
T. How did the uprisings contribute positively to the development of Syrian journalism, despite the ongoing, unprecedented predicament of the country?
A.G. Young journalists were mushrooming since the outset of the uprisings, as activists and bloggers turned their activities into journalism, and this, most of the time, was done out of need. The Syrian media had the chance to work on the ground much more than before. Therefore, for sure, the post-uprising phase contributed to a certain development of domestic journalism. Watching the opposition channels it was initially encouraging, as some of them weren’t embracing the sectarian rhetoric too often representing facts in the region. After the uprisings, external contacts with media companies and workshops were much more frequent than before. Gradually, many Syrian journalists started complying with western standards of journalism. They were evidently influenced in the way of working and writing, and probably such compliance was also the unspoken condition for becoming more visible in the international media. To give a concrete example of how authors needed to adapt their writing style contextually, when Michel Kilo from the Syrian opposition used to write in Arabic for ash-Sharq al-Awsat, which is a London-based newspaper, his writing was markedly different from his articles on the Lebanese daily newspaper as-Safir, on which he was writing much more extensively about his days in prison and adopting emotional tones. I would say that this is a general feature of the Arab writing with respect to the western press (although in Arabic), such as ash-Sharq al-Awsat.
T. What have been the difficulties in reporting faithfully the events on the ground? What ideological battles have impinged on quality journalism?
A.G. The regime was still controlling the whole territory at the outset of the uprising, so freedom of movement was very restricted. As soon as the conflict escalated, journalists started having direct access to armed groups who mostly smuggle them in, when journalists refuse to have official access through the Syrian state authority. This way, access to the war-hit areas was implemented. However, in this case, the journalist is always escorted by opposition militias, and again freedom of movement remains limited. Moreover, the kidnapping of journalists became a daily practice in the conflict, constituting a major problem, in that we became unable to access the country or movement was heavily escorted. This leads to the fact that, in this way, international as well as Syrian journalists become unable to produce any information at all, and, consequently, the issue of being able to witness in the field only one perspective (either that of the opposition or the regime, functioning as gatekeepers) becomes a smaller problem. In this framework, ideology is always behind what you write. So ideology defines the areas you decide to be smuggled to in order to cover events. And the compromising acceptance of accessing the country via official permit is still blatantly ideological.
E.d.A. Since a faithful and convincing reconstruction of the events is not possible by merely departing from technological material, ideology remains at the helm with much greater importance than in the past. Also in the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) the media were all divided on information coverage, but, in that case, the several political parties were taking clearer sides than in the current Syrian conflict. In other words, ideological associations were immediate at that time. Today is has only happened with the Kurds fighting against IS/Daesh. In fact, in Syria there is no specific political party with which the public has an immediate identification. Personal ideology guides the reconstruction of reality, as well as the belief in, and the use of, particular material and its selection from the very start. None of the warring parties in Syria currently has absolute power of narrative reconstruction.
T. The massive visibility of news on the Syrian conflict through social media has rendered access to knowledge easier, as well as more dangerous since information is not always fully explained by experts and, therefore, remains susceptible to varying public interpretations. These interpretations on social media occur without the proper historical and social background that professional media can provide. Would you depict this phenomenon in terms of progression or regression? Can you discuss the pros and cons of this phenomenon?
A.G. The advantage of social media is that one can have access to several perspectives on factual events. However, I would specify that the verification of the information spread out by social media remains an individual choice. There should be further clarification from experts when events are widely misrepresented. Even official newspapers sometimes quote social statuses without filtering or ascertaining facts. This is due to the media industry increasingly abusing these social networks. A further reason behind the lack of authentication of reported facts is the speed at which news making must be produced. This made professionals unable to verify sources accurately. For instance, in Kassab town where Christians were allegedly crucified by the opposition armed group, Jabhat an-Nusra, the published material was not verified before being disseminated. A similar case is when we all heard about female mutilation by IS/Daesh, along with many other cases.
E.d.A. I think that with no social media, however, this war would have been invisible, and journalists could not have done any reporting. The reporting itself implies singular acts of responsibility. We are living in an era in which journalism has largely lost public credibility, and direct witnessing has become much more relevant than before. In this sense, however, making things invisible or unsaid does not make them more comprehensible in a conflict. That’s why I see more pros than cons here. At least, experts can still reconstruct, albeit controversial events. Also, through what is diffused in social media, we are better off with an abundance of material than scarcity. A video taken by a witness on the ground, however, does not say that much by itself. The general public lacks context and a professional authority driving the process of understanding. Moreover, one of the downsides of social media is that the organisation of the visual and textual materials has often been confusing. This is not unique of the Syrian conflict, but rather a common problem rising with the proliferation of social media. Through satellite channels some populations would have been able to know more about the Holocaust in the 1940s; yet, a major exposition of the public to information has evidently not led to major human awareness and better political action, as the Rwandan and Syrian crises have proven. Likewise, nowadays, with the diffusion of the Internet, no reality can be hidden, and the public becomes ideologically fragmented in commenting and absorbing the news. As the exposition of informational material is always controversial and unpredictable, it is far better to be exposed to it rather than not being exposed to any information. Furthermore, civil wars constantly end up making each warring party evil to the same extent and it becomes difficult to create consent on any point, as Syrian events presently show. So the challenge, to me, goes far beyond the sort of information that, per se, social media creates.
T. If we had to reason as to how the media are able to shape and represent real facts, and not only the other way around, what are the stages of the Syrian conflict that you deem more critical in this respect?
A.G. Due to the regime’s access restrictions, the coverage of large and small-scale massacres conducted by the Syrian national forces has definitely been critical, such as al-Bayda and Baniyas, Daraa, and Houla,. Similar was the case of the chemical attack of 21 August 2013 in Eastern Ghouta. Activists tell the story and then they are blamed because they are considered as biased against the Syrian government. If journalists are supposed to be the ones verifying these massacres, as we discussed, they need to negotiate their own access, and this, again, biases the whole process of reporting from the ground. With the rise of IS/Daesh it has become more critical to have access to war-stricken areas. The exceptions, where access occurred, actually ended up showing things as mere propaganda rather than proper journalism, like the case of their British prisoner John Cantlie.
T. Is there anything about international journalism that has developed after the experience of the Syrian war and the related coverage?
A.G. Well, I cannot really see positive turning points in the coverage conducted by western journalism. Only the new platforms created for Syrians speaking in the West, and often to the West. A positive aspect might be identified in the larger role played by locals and their inner perspectives. In international journalism, I clearly see an ideological polarisation in the Russian way of reporting and that of the western countries. And, in this regard, the Syrian conflict further fed this opposing binary. Thereby, old ideological polarisations came back to the fore.
E.d.A. Beforehand it was difficult to have access to Syria for international journalists with sources and people accessible to quite a small extent. I believe that international journalism saw its evolution peak in the role of new technologies and citizen journalism. Information was created in new ways, as a consequence of the fact that journalists had no direct access on the ground, increasingly relying on citizen journalism. And, of course, user-generated journalism has its pros and cons. On the one hand, it is gaining greater visibility than before; on the other, the problem of reconstructing events faithfully, and contextualising them through social networks still remains. In other words, major visibility is not a problem per se, but rather the easy manipulation of information is the present issue we should primarily deal with.
A certain development of international journalism can therefore be identified in its partial access to Syrian events. The regime can still hold up information, but surely much less than before. The signs of this development, thus, are embedded in the context the journalist deals with (depending on having the regime or the opposition as informants).
In this sense, the Syrian uprisings and the subsequent conflict have been a space of new experiments for international journalism. Quantity trumps quality now, and most people inside the country who report events are not proper journalists. This is a new information environment, and a new way of doing information itself, which can be defined as “user-generated”, something different from traditional journalism. In this new laboratory of information and informing, the development at stake is the successful construction of trust networks and safe modalities of moving on the ground. Innovative journalist projects are proliferating, like “Syria Untold” or “Syria Deeply”. And this is something precious.