Syria Direct graduates its 9th class of journalists

Syria Direct graduated its ninth class of aspiring Syrian journalists Sunday after they completed a three-month course on the basics of journalism at our office in Amman, Jordan.

The latest class of 12 trainees—six men and six women—took several weeks of classes on producing ethical, transparent reporting before putting what they had learned into practice by working alongside Syria Direct’s American and Syrian staff.

The dozen journalists, now in Amman, are from across Syria, including Damascus, Daraa, Latakia and Homs. They come from different religious, cultural and economic backgrounds, which hopefully was reflected in Syria Direct’s coverage.

Our current training program is made possible by a grant from the US Department of State. Syria Direct has been training journalists since 2014. Most of our full-time staff were once trainees. In fact, nearly 60 percent of Syria Direct graduates now work in journalism and media.

Here’s a look inside the Syria Direct newsroom: a chance to meet some of the men and women who have contributed to our reportage over the past three months.


Trainees receive certificates at the end of their course with Syria Direct on Sunday. Photo by Aaron Weintraub/Syria Direct.

Maha Mohammad, 25

Maha is a first-time journalist from Latakia province along Syria’s northwestern coast. Maha studied international law and human rights at Damascus University before coming with her family to Jordan in 2013.

“Law isn’t directly related to journalism, but media is an essential part of [protecting] human rights,” Maha says. “I think that human rights and journalism are heavily intertwined in Syria right now, especially in a time of war.”

During her time with Syria Direct, Maha contributed to several major reports. In November, she covered the Syrian government’s demolition of dozens of homes in a former Palestinian refugee camp in Latakia province. Camp residents were subsequently left homeless, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Maha is one of few Syrians in Jordan belonging to the Alawite sect. Her background has meant advantages and disadvantages for Maha; she has unique access to sources in areas of Syria her peers cannot reach, but she has also been the victim of sectarianism.

Today, Maha works with humanitarian organizations supporting refugees in Amman, Jordan.

Q: What do you think the role of impartial journalism should be in Syria?

Journalism is crucial in Syria right now. The media in Syria should show the full picture of what is happening—the details, the numbers, the players involved and the places that we’ve never heard about before.

There are people who know very little about journalism or have never worked in media, but they were forced to become activists or citizen journalists [because of the war]. The current situation forces you to pick up a camera, to write articles or to at least talk about what’s happening.

Q: Do you consider yourself one of those people? That is, someone who became a journalist out of necessity?

Inside Syria, no. I was a student at the time. But outside Syria, yes. When I left Syria and started working with refugees in Jordan, I wanted to show the world what was happening with them. While working with Syria Direct, I started to feel that I need to expand that to inside Syria, not just with refugees.

Q: You’re from a unique social and religious background. Can you talk about how that affects your work as a journalist?

Because I’m from a certain sect on the Syrian coast, I can reach sources in Latakia that my colleagues might not be able to speak with as easily.

But I have relatives and acquaintances in all areas of Syria, and I was able to get sources from all these different groups. I could elicit confidence from both sides. My mother is from Daraa and I lived there at one point, so my sources there can pass news on to me.

Since my name is ‘so and so’ and I’m from Latakia, it was easy for me to report on things there.

Q: Have you faced any issues because of your background?

When I speak to some people in Latakia, I’ve had some issues—especially when asking delicate questions and especially after they know I’m in Jordan.

My mother is from Daraa, and we lived there for a while. When some [people in Latakia] learn this, they think that I live in an enemy province. I don’t get this with people close to me, however—there’s still trust there.

In Jordan, I’ve had some major problems with some of the people around me. Some have tried to distance themselves from me, saying I have only regime sources. It made me distrustful, at first. With time, though, their views have changed.

Q: Do you intend to keep working as a journalist?

Despite all the challenges, yes. Maybe this one training isn’t enough for me to call myself a professional journalist, but it taught me how to get started in this field.

**

Omar al-Balkhi, 32

When conflict erupted in Omar’s native Daraa province seven years ago, his only resource was his cell phone.

“I was an activist—I didn’t have any background in journalism,” said Omar. “We wanted to broadcast what was happening through our cell phones.”

Omar worked as a photographer in Daraa until 2013, when he was struck by a tank shell while reporting on a government offensive near the Jordanian border. Omar lost both of his legs and was moved to Jordan for treatment.

Today, Omar works as a freelance journalist in Jordan. During his time at Syria Direct, Omar kept a close eye on developments in Syria’s south and was an active part of our newsroom.

Q: Why did you start working as a journalist? How does working in Syria differ from reporting in Jordan?

In Syria, I was an activist, and I did not have any background in journalism. I didn’t know how to do accurate reporting. Our work was somewhat ad hoc, or it is at least started out that way.

I was just telling the story of the catastrophe that was happening, and it was all through a cell phone. We would do reporting, and then we’d be in contact with journalists who would use our pictures and videos.

I had no idea that I would continue working in this field, to be honest. No idea that I’d keep taking courses and actually become a journalist.

When I came here to Syria Direct, it was a huge difference mainly because it was organized rather than improvised. I didn’t have a journalistic style or sense. We used to send out a piece of news or a photograph as is. When I came to Syria Direct, I noticed a lot of the mistakes [we had made as activists] with photographs and publication rights.

Q: What do you mean issues with photographs?

When you publish something about a humanitarian situation—photos of people who’ve been tortured or being bombed, photos of death— you don’t own those photographs. We used to publish them without a second thought—whether what I was doing was right or wrong.

[Now,] I’ve started working with more precision. There are photos that should not be published to protect people’s privacy and rights, particularly photos of the injured or the deceased.

This also extends to written articles. [In Syria,] we were content with publishing a story based on just one source, even if they weren’t present when it happened. We would just speak with one source and use information we had previously gathered [to fill in the gaps].

Here at Syria Direct, it’s a different story. We get a number of sources, specifically people who were there for the event or who were affected by it, rather than people who heard about what happened. That is the difference.

Q: Do you see this as positive or negative?

This is certainly positive because we’ve began to publish news with more accuracy, richer news stories. These stories are precise and honest. That is to say, we are delving in the details of these stories.

Q: Do you feel like you’re doing a service by improving your journalism skills?

Of course. Journalism is extremely important in any country you’re in, especially in a country like Syria. For us, if journalism is improving, it benefits Syrians in general. If our media is in decline, it’s obviously going to affect all of us.

For that reason, the journalist must always be precise in his work and neutral to any group while also being creative, positive and credible.

**

Alaa Mekawe, 18

Alaa is one of Syria Direct’s youngest trainees. She left her native Homs province in 2012 and came with her family to Amman, Jordan, where she has lived since.

Alaa finished her secondary studies in Jordan, and then applied for the training at Syria Direct. She hopes that by working as a journalist she will be able to shed light on what’s happening in her country—both good and bad, she says.

Q: What were the interviews and reports that you enjoyed working on? Was there anything in particular that you were proud of working on?

There was an article on a shortage of medical supplies in East Ghouta; it was the first article I worked on.

I remember talking with a young woman, Rawan, who has cerebral palsy, for the report. It’s the personal stories that motivate me the most, and I’m very proud to write them.

Q: Why did the Rawan’s story affect you the way that it did?

I delved into the details of this girl’s life, and I felt like I was able to understand her situation. I learned that treatment [for cerebral palsy] is only available outside of East Ghouta, but her area is besieged. When I saw [pictures] of her house and how they’re living, I saw how difficult their situation really is.

Q: What kind of challenges do you see when it comes to covering the Syrian war?

I had difficulty establishing trust with contacts and finding credible sources. Of course, we also need to take statements from more than one side to confirm things.

Here’s where we face difficulties—some sources might not want to comment.

It’s difficult reporting from outside [Syria], and there’s the general issue of internet connection.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.