The pictures were horrific: Rows of dozens of children lying side-by-side on floors with their eyes open, reportedly killed in a chemical weapons attack Wednesday the Syrian rebels say was launched by the Syrian regime.
In the two-years of the Syrian uprising, which has killed more than 100,000 people and forced two million more to flee the country, the videos and images shocked a world becoming inured to the violence the country has descended into.
But is that what really happened? Did the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad really unleash chemical weapons that supposed killed more than 1,300 people in the eastern suburbs of Damascus? Did the rebels? Or was it al Qaeda-affiliated groups?
The day after, no one outside of Syria is really sure.
Oh yes, news outlets are of course jumping on the story. How can they not? But every newspaper and TV station in the West is carefully using attribution – something that is sometimes forgotten – attribution which made its way into the headlines: “Syrian opposition says that hundreds killed in gas attack by regime” went the typical example Wednesday, not “Hundreds killed in a gas attack by regime.”
But behind the hedging in print and on TV, the real question lingers: Who did what? And how do journalists gather that information? If anything, Wednesday’s top news story was just another poignant illustration of how the fog of the Syrian civil war has left reporters in the dark, confronted with unprecedented challenges while trying to cover one of the bloodiest conflicts of the last half century.
The biggest problem for reporters has been access: There isn’t really any. Period.
The Syrian regime has largely forbidden foreign reporters from entering the country. When they do sneak in, they face extreme danger – 24 have been killed in the past two years, according to Reporters without Borders, while dozens of others have been wounded or kidnapped. As the war has dragged on, fewer reporters go in and those that do are finding it increasingly difficult to move around and to access reliable information.
“I used to just to go in and I had a place where I would stay in Aleppo,” said Tracey Shelton, the US-based GlobalPost’s correspondent in the region. “I used to wander the streets and talk to anyone I felt like. But you actually have to go in with protection now – it’s not really possible to operate that way anymore. It is getting more difficult to get a proper sense of what’s really going on there because you need to be with a rebel unit, you need guys with guns to protect you or other guys with guns are going to come and take you.”
For this reason, most reporting of the conflict is currently being done from a distance, from Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
“None of the big news agencies are allowing their reporters to go inside,” said Shelton. “Most won’t take freelance either because they don’t want the responsibility. Even for me, Global Post would not let me go inside at the moment because it’s too dangerous… I would definitely still be in there if I could.”
For those journalists who make it in with the opposition, the rebels have placed severe restrictions on reporters inside the territories they control, and many reporters find themselves unable to confirm any information beyond the limited area where they can travel.
“This war is so localized that you can interview someone in Aleppo and they have no idea what is happening outside their neighborhood,” said Kristen Gillespie, the editor of SyriaDirect.org, a non-profit journalism initiative that trains Syrian journalists in an attempt to counter the agenda-driven reporting coming out of the country. “Government supporters do not talk to government dissidents. Apply this on a large scale, factor in misinformation from unprofessional media on both sides, cuts in electricity and communications channels, and there really isn’t anyone who can credibly digest and analyze what is happening on a national level.”
This creates additional challenges such as verifying the reliability of sources and footage coming in from Syria, and leaves news outlets scrambling, and in the end running whatever they can get to cover the news of the day.
“It’s considered journalism to add boilerplate background from the wires cobbled with pundits in Europe or the United States,” said Gillespie. “There is a real failure to really look at this conflict and seek to understand it.”
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and a Syria expert, says a large part of the problem is that the increasingly radicalized narratives on both sides don’t fit the narrative most Western media outlets want to deliver.
“The entire West has a bias which is democracy – democracy is the religion of the West, in a sense,” said Landis. “And every time the West sees a struggle, it tries to fit it into this narrative of good versus evil, democrats versus tyrants, and unfortunately in Syria we have a narrative that doesn’t fit easily into that.”
“I have now been in Damascus for 10 days, and every day I am struck by the fact that the situation in areas of Syria I have visited is wholly different from the picture given to the world both by foreign leaders and by the foreign media…one of rebels closing in on the capital as the Assad government faces defeat in weeks…,” said reporter Patrick Cockburn, writing in the Independent.
“This misperception of the reality on the ground in Syria is fueled in part by propaganda but more especially by inaccurate and misleading reporting by the media where bias toward the rebels and against the government is unsurpassed since the height of the Cold War. In the event, a basically false and propagandistic account of events in Syria has been created by a foreign media credulous in using pro-opposition sources as if they were objective reporting.”
But even those questioning their opposition sources are faced with one big difficult task: simply sorting what is fact from fiction. Countless falsified or edited videos purporting to show massacres have popped up on the web, alongside many that testify to real atrocities worthy of attention.
Recent examples of forgeries include films claiming to show the murder of some 400 Kurds by extremists on the rebel side which later turned out to have been put together from videos of previous atrocities in Syria and other parts of the Middle East.
While most experts have stopped short of questioning the authenticity of footage from Wednesday’s alleged chemical weapons attack, there is a general agreement that a lot of unverifiable information is floating around.
“We are basing almost everything on the use of video and on opposition reports,” said Landis. “There have been tons of bad reports coming out of Syria. There’s a lot of exaggeration, lots of videos that have been falsified.”
In the time since the uprising began, the opposition has become very savvy in terms of its message delivery, appointing numerous spokespeople, bombarding journalists with press releases and quickly offering contact information to those on the ground – but only those Syrians they want reporters to speak to.
Many journalists report attempts at asking for contacts in a particular town in order to speak to locals there who are not part of a revolutionary committee or activist group – mostly unsuccessful. As a result, much of the reporting on developments in Syria is using the same sources in spite of the efforts to go beyond them. This makes the reporting seem even more un-credible, and the tragedy, say reporters, is how important it is to actually get these stories such as the one on Wednesday where more than a thousand might have died right.
But the question is, how.
“I am not really sure even how to go about (reporting on Syria) from Lebanon,” Shelton admitted. “It’s just so easy to get false information when you are not there.”
Read more at The Globe and Mail