2 Apr 2013

Q&A: How foreign journalists operate in Syria

Judging by my twitter feed and inbox, an awful lot of people out there have some very wrong ideas about how ‘official’ reporting of the Syrian war happens with the government’s permission, what controls are put on us and the key difference between reporting the government and supporting the government.

I want to make it absolutely clear that the latter is extremely important in a war when journalists are being killed by both sides just for doing their job.

So let’s answer some of those questions and perhaps clear up some wild ideas out there.

(Alex Thomson, left, in Syria with other members of the press. Picture: Getty)

1. How do you get into Syria as a journalist?

You apply for a visa and in our case it comes through to the Syrian Embassy in Beirut. They have given Channel 4 News four visas for a week each time over the past year or so. Some news organisations do not get visas at all whilst others from countries considered friendly (China, Russia and Iran) seem to get endless access for as long as they want.

Deciding who they let in, how often and for how long is the biggest form of control the Syrian government have.  Clearly the sensible thing would be to try and give the international media free rein and let everyone who wants to, come. But the mind-set doesn’t work like that. There is mistrust of the foreign media verging on paranoia.

2. Do you have a minder?

No. Though only a fool would believe that people working with foreign journalists are not known in various ways to the authorities.

3. Do they decide who you work with?

No. We find our own people to work with in terms of local producer and driver. The drivers I have worked with have taken me into rebel-held areas on several occasions. The government knows reporters may go to these areas with a government visa and although I have done this on a number of occasions it has not made any difference to getting my visa both extended and renewed again upon re-application. I sense the government understands there are two basic sides to the war and journalists have the right to report from both.

4. If you report from the government side, are you not supporting the government side?

Reporting from Damascus on a government-approved visa is only supporting the government if the journalism is bad and lacks criticism. The same applies to reporting from the rebel side. There are two sides to this war and both have a right to have their story told.

The rebels believe they are fighting to overthrow a brutal dictatorship. The government believes it is fighting a war against a jihadist threat. Since there’s evidence both are true to an extent, it is the business of journalism to report both sides.

5. Are you restricted about where you can go?

Yes, very much so. This is the most intrusive aspect of it all and direct censorship. (Though the British Army, for instance, in Afghanistan also decides where you can and cannot go which is also a form of censorship of course).

You will get a piece of paper permitting you to film only in Damascus City. This effectively precludes most of the fighting areas which are often classed as Damascus Countryside or anywhere outside town for that matter. You will be asked for this paper and your passport many times at military checkpoints every day. They are courteous and professional but if your paper says you cannot go down the road they will not let you through and that is that.

You can apply for permission to visit other areas and it may or may not be forthcoming. Even in the city you need further permission to enter anything like a shelter for displaced people or interview government officials etc.

However, once on the streets in a crisis situation it is surprising what can happen and how many stories simply come to you. There are various ways of course in sidestepping all this to a lesser or greater extent and I sense the authorities are not that concerned about you doing so. If you get permission to accompany the army to fighting areas then all the permission bit goes by the board whilst you are with them.

6. Are your broadcasts interfered with in any way?

We are restricted on certain broadcast equipment which cannot be brought into the country and they do go through absolutely everything on the way in case by case, serial number by serial number and it all has to match your importation documentation.

But nobody directly or indirectly watches what we edit prior to broadcast, much less try to interfere or stop it in any way. Though clearly they do watch online and will complain if there is something they don’t like, though in my experience they genuinely accept criticism as being what we are there, in part, to do.

7. What about the secret police, the Mukhabarat?

What about them? Get out of your car with camera and tripod and within minutes, seconds, someone in a cheap leather jacket, possibly with radio or Kalashnikov, will come up and ask what you are doing. Mostly they’re cool and just want to see your filming permit.

It’s worth remembering that this would happen if you filmed, say, in a Royal Park in London – except possibly the AK47 bit. Since the secret police are, er, relatively secret, I have no idea and I am not in a position to influence it very much.

I take the view that you may as well just tell the authorities what you want to do and complain like hell if you can’t do it. They know very well by now the kinds of things journos want to do.

8. Can you film anything you like in permitted areas?

No. Any checkpoint, soldier, policeman, security building, TV station – there’s a long, long list and they are all a complete no no. Since Damascus is stuffed with them and not all are obvious at all – especially the really sensitive buildings – you really need your local producer to point them out and tell you to stop filming. If you get caught it won’t be that heavy but will take a long time and time is the one thing you do not have a lot of on a short-stay visa.

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