How the Syrian conflict has redifined war reporting
Is it the lives of those who capture the truth in war time or the truth itself that matters most?
Cameras were first used in wartime in 1916, when they were so new that the soldiers in the trenches looked into the lens and said, “Hello Mum”. No one could have predicted then that cameras would one day become part of the very fabric that makes up a war zone or that there will come a time when journalists become as much a target as enemy combatants.
The death of renowned American journalist Marie Colvin saw a return to the headlines this month when her family filed a lawsuit against the Syrian regime for “deliberately targeting and killing her” on 22 February 2012 in besieged city of Homs, Syria.
At the time Marie’s death reminded other journalists of the dangers lying in store for them if they attempted to break the regime’s siege and enter rebel-held areas.
Marie knew the dangers of filming in a war zone but perhaps did not foresee that she herself would become a target.
Colvin was reporting for the Sunday Times from inside the besieged city when she lost her life alongside french photographer Remi Ochlik in a rocket attack that according to the law suite filed by her family was directed at her by the regime.
The regime’s response to the law suite was somewhat expected and lacked any remorse or responsbility. Al Assad, shamelessly responded to an NBC reporter in Damascus, “It’s a war and she came illegally to Syria, she worked with the terrorists, and because she came illegally, she’s been responsible of everything that befall on her.”
Regime Controlled Image:
One of the major court documents revealed in the Colvin law suite is a fax that Syria’s military intelligence forces sent in August 2011 describing “those who tarnish the image of Syria in foreign media and international organizations” as a threat that needs to be dealt with harshly.
Reporters Sans Frontiers states that, “Syria never had a free press.” However, the outset of the march 2011 revolution against the government sparked a war on journalists in the country. The regime continues to arrest, kidnap, kill and torture any journalists that dare to reveal a glimpse of the reality on the ground.
Indeed, Syria poses a new dilemma for war reporting, exposing journalists to unprecedented levels of dangers and violence. The Committee to Protect Journalists has declared Syria “the most dangerous place on earth for journalists.”
Damascus is the syrian regimes stronghold and is tightly controlled. As part of its media tactics, the regime allows journalists into Damascus, where they stay at the lavish Four Seasons Hotel under the watchful eye of chaperones from the regime’s mokhabarat (secret service). Only a few journalists have accepted the regime’s conditions, and the story they tell is half-told at best as the reporters are always embedded with the regime’s officials. In a state where political prisoners are tortured to death for criticising the government, it is impossible to imagine that anyone living in Damascus would reveal their true feelings to a foreign journalist with a camera accompanied by a member of the feared mokhabarat. The reports that come out of Damascus are atypical of the regime’s own propaganda and do not reflect the reality on the ground.
It is in those regions of Syria that have freed themselves from the regime’s control that desperately need journalists to capture the Syrian and Russian bombs that rain on them day and night from the Syrian Sky. And it is precisely these areas that are a no go zone for any foreign journalist.
Aleppo: The most dangerous place on Earth
Aleppo has seen the most vicious example of this joint Russian and Syrian regime aerial bombardment. A daily dose of barrel bombs targets civilian neighbourhoods, hospitals, markets and schools. It is little wonder that the number of foreign journalists entering such areas gradually reduced over a period of 5 years.
Today there is only one International journalist in all the rebel held areas of Syria, Bilal Abdul Kareem, an independent filmmaker whose presence is so rare he has been given the nickname “the American journalist in Aleppo”.
However, even though foreign journalists are absent inside these areas, the world is still receiving shocking images of barrel bombs falling on hospitals, markets and buildings every day.
Harrowing images of children under rubble and people fleeing for their lives are ubiquitous.
Images that take us up close to the death and destruction make us forget the most important person in all of the chaos we are seeing – the one who made it possible for this image to reach us and millions of others, the one who put his camera first and his life second and went towards not away from the bomb.
We forget that behind each horrific image reaching us from the most dangerous place on earth there is a lens that is being held onto for dear life by someone who has decided that it is more important this image reach the world than whether he lives or dies.
Almost all the media footage reaching the world from Aleppo and other rebel-held areas are shot by Syrian journalists.
There are a dozen journalists in Aleppo, and a dozen in Idlib and Hama and many others scattered across the rebel held areas, most of which are under daily bombardment. We do not hear much of these journalists or their bravery or even their untimely death because they are Syrian and not foreign journalists.
It has been more than four years since Marie’s untimely death in Homs. We mourned her death and celebrated her life, and rightly so.
Marie embodied the qualities of what it is to be a journalist but more so what it is to be a human being in a time of war and injustice.
But what if the same amazing woman had been a Syrian journalist? Would we have even heard of her life or death?
Khaled Al Issa: Syria’s Unsung Hero
This week the world lost a Syrian journalist who lived for his country, a man who gave his life in order to show the world what was happening inside besieged and bombarded areas. a budding 24-year old photojournalist, Khaled al Issa believed what Marie said before her death, “this story is worth my life”.
Yet unlike Marie his life was not worth a story.
Khaled Al-Issa, was assassinated in his home in Aleppo on June 17. No one knows for sure who was responsible but several sources say that it is the work of the regime or the Al-Nusrah Front.
Not only do journalists in Syria face the daily threat of regime barrel bombs and Russian aerial bombardment, they continue to be a target of such assassination attempts from the regime as well as several terrorist groups including Al Nusra, as well as ISIS and PKK.
On social media, Syrians posted thousands of photographs and tributes to Khaled.
He was not simply a photojournalist, he was a petal in syria’s beautiful revolutionary flower.
He did not take photographs in order to sell them to the highest bidder, nor did he shoot endless footage of massacre after massacre committed by russia and the regime in order to make a name for himself.
Khaled used his lens as an extension of his humanity and altruism. All his footage was available online for free. It was used by numerous networks including the BBC, Channel 4, Reuters and other prominent news broadcasters around the world, often with no credits mentioned.
His aim was to let the whole world see what was happening in Syria, so that they would stop the atrocities he was filming. But the massacres continue every day and Khaled can no longer capture the atrocities, but the sad question is, does it really matter?
Khaled’s friend and colleague syrian journalist Mohamad khair hak who himself has been injured 8 times while filming, said they have become used to losing journalsits and friends during the last five years, but Khaled’s death hit them all the hardest. “ Khaled’s death had a dramatic affect on all of us, because he was such a good person who never harmed anyone and always had a smile on his face. He made you feel happy just to be in his presense. When you lose such a person it is truly sad.”
“Syria lost a journalist who spent his life giving voice to those who needed it most. He focused on humanitarian subjects such as children orphaned by the regime’s bombardment, to those under the rubble.”
“We live under a regime that targets journalists. Since the begining it has tried to bury the voice of our people, the voice of freedom.”
Indeed the regime’s plan has alwasy been to rid Syria of all journalists, both Syrian and foreign. In many ways it has succeeded.
The tragedy is if there are no camera’s when the bombs fall, the screams of the injured from the barrel bombs, the screams from the children buried under the rubble cannot be heard leaving Assad and Russia to continue as they desire with no international pressure or outrage.
When Syria loses a selfless journalist like Khaled, it also loses a witness to both the war crimes and the resilience of the syrian people, which is what both Assad and Isis want.
Is revealing the reality on the groung worth the lives of so many young men?
“Is it worth our lives? When we started this revolution our slogan was “Death over humiliation” and that has not changed. We continue and we persist in shwoing the world the war crimes of Assad and his allies. Khaled gave his life as a flame to Syria and her future generations. If we do not get to see our freedom and justice our children will. History will write that hundreds of journalists gave their lives instead of remaining silent about the thousands of people a dictatorial regime has killed in view of the world’s eyes.”
At first I was hopeful that the international community will see assad’s crimes and will not allow him to massacre people and that they would not leave us. But as time went by and I filmed more and more massacres, I lost the hope that anyone was coming for us and soon realised that we, Syrians are nothing to the world. But when we document what is happening we are saying to the people, we can still see you. You matter. Your death matters.”
Killing the Truth: The war on reporters
The london based Syrian Network For Human Rights, SNHR’s recent report on media personnel violations stated that Assad regime’s war on journalists has “deprived Syrian society of those who transported to the world their sufferings in addition to the absence of their indescribable epics.”
The documented violations indicate that Syrian government forces were the cause of 90% of violations against Journalists. Yet the international media has not reflected this reality and one would be right to assume that ISIS were the greatest threat to reporters.
This is in due part to the way in which ISIS enjoy displaying their barbarity and making a spectacle of the reporters they kidnap, parading them in front of cameras to terrify others. Assad, on the other hand is much more shrewd and does most of his killing and torture of journalists off camera.
Although various respectable sources including the committee to protect journalists state that 101 journalists have died in Syria since 1992, a closer look reveals that the true number is as high as 500 since the uprising alone, which started in March 2011 without factoring in any pre-revolt deaths.
SNHR documented the killing of 481 media activists, 34 of whom were victims of ISIS and 8, including Marie were foreign reporters.
One of the reasons that the statistics of journalists deaths in Syria are significantly lower than the reality is due to the difficulties in obtaining names and records from inside Syria, but also, due to the lack of interest in collecting such names in the first place. Syrian citizen journalists are often not even included in the statistics of those killed or abducted, even though they make up the largest number of victims.
This is a further insult to Syrian citizen journalists who give up their lives to bring the truth to the world without even being recorded as a statistic.
Khair Hak, said, “The reporters on the ground feel betrayed by international community and specifically organisations that exist to proct the rights of journalsits in war zones.
“If Syrian life has become so cheap, why would the lives of Syrian journalists be more valuable?”
“As journalists we have seen thousands of people massacred before our eyes and no international action or condemnation. In 5 years there has been no attempt to stop the massacres of syrians.”
As a syrian journalist living in syria, I feel a constant pain for the countless journalsits who lost thier lives with no internatinal protection and with no interest from any world journalist organisation. I have been injured several times, no one has ever questioned who or why I was attacked doing my job.
Yet at the same time, when a foreign journalsit is injured or killed all media networks in the world pay attention. And we have had hundreds of syrian journalsits injured and killed and no one has even printed their names.“
Burying our heads in the sand
Are we missing brave foreign journalists like Marie in the world’s worst conflict since World War 2 or are we simply dismissing the fact that there are hundreds of journalists inside Syria whose bravery and blood splattered lens scream to the world, “this story is more important than my life”?
Khaled Al Issa’s mother, Syrian activist Ghalia Rahil reveals that the last conversation she had with her son was about the horrors taking place “The last thing he told me was that it would take thousands of journalists and photographers to cover all the crimes that he was witnessing in Aleppo.”
Syria does not have thousands of journalists, it has a handful and what reaches the internationl news networks is merely a glimpse of the ongoing atrocities its people are forced to face.
Still, had it not been for those hero’s who ran towards the bombing and captured the affect of the bombardment on the civilians we would never have known or seen what truly happens inside Syria.
Many, like Marie and Khaled died in order so the truth could live. They believed that telling the story was worth their lives.
What of the rest of us who watch this holocaust and do nothing?
Humanity does not die with those who died capturing atrocities on film but with those who saw the images and did nothing.
If journalism in times of war is the only way to deliver truth, and the risk is life itself, what use is the truth if it does not touch our hearts?
As Stephen Hawking put it recently, ” The war in Syria may not represent the end of humanity, but every injustice committed is a chip in the facade of what holds us together “
It is the bravery of Syrian journalist that has made it possible for the many atrocities to be recorded and archived in Syria’s tragic history, and also the world’s terrible inaction.
We celebrate the life of foreign journalists who died in Syria, dismissing entirely the journalists who died but who were not foreign. Instead, they were Syrians, nameless and faceless. Yet it is fair to say that it is they who have been the biggest exporter of reality on the ground and while foreign reporters go in and out in the blink of an eye, they not only report the atrocities they live them. It is we who must learn from them and honour their work.
So the question remains, what matters most – the truth or the life of those delivering it?
For the world that sits back and watches image after image of massacre after massacre for 5 years in a row without blinking an eye, neither human life nor truth truly matter.
For Syrians, however, they still run towards the bombs, capturing the truth in images that no one cares enough to print, yet to them, capturing and being witness to the atrocities is worth more than life itself, because even if the world looks away, they can still use their lens to say to their fellow citizens, “I see you.”
Khaled died in the greatness of humanity. We are right not to mourn him, for our conscience is more dead than he is.