Published on 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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12 reader comments

  1. Hus says:

    Love the occasional comparisons with the British army and secret services. Quite amusing. Both are “government” after all aren’t they?

    “Clearly the sensible thing would be to try and give the international media free rein and let everyone who wants to, come.”

    Clearly not the sensible thing to the Syrian regime. Wonder why.

    Clearly you will get as many visas as you want from the “government.” Not to worry. We love your reporting. Sincerely, SANA.

  2. Damascian says:

    Alex, you are objective by far. I do respect your neutrality and professionalization. I live in Damascus and I know that what you mentioned is almost right. Yet, your article dealt with the regions controlled by the state (like Damascus). So I would like to read a article written by you about what’s going on in Eastern Aleppo, for instance.

  3. Dam says:

    How about the security concerns? not even bothering to consider the fact that the “usually cool” mukhabarat recording serial numbers of equipments are capable of tracking phone calls and movements putting activists at risk!

    To be honest, coming from Damascus myself, we used to avoid any journalists coming with working visa’s, especially who use these kind of ignorant terms to speak about what’s happening:

    “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.”

    Do your homework then go report from Syria.

    1. Damascian says:

      No activists nowadays, just terrorists.

      1. Dam says:

        Yes! true! all the people living now in Syria are terrorists. All the 70,000 that Assad killed with air-raids, ballistic missiles, shelling and torture are terrorists. Get your facts straight dude!

  4. JFearing says:

    I really appreciate getting some reporting that is not completely biased. The western media often just reprints whatever they get from the sham “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights”. A classic line came from a CNN reporter sharing an SOHR press release like it was written on tablets of stone and then exclaiming with such admiration, “how do they get those numbers!” He (the one guy who is the SOHR who lives in Coventry) makes them up! CNN and the rest of the US media outlets, BBC, Reuters, etc rarely seem to get around to quoting government sources and instead spend their time with anti-government activists. No one seems to spend any energy on what Syria was truly like before the war. Energetic, hopeful, excited for the future. Many solid reforms, political, economic, cultural, educational had happened in spite of: a 30 year long blood jihad against the Assads’ secular Syria by the Muslim Brotherhood; old die hard cold war corrupt officials; the Israeli/Arab conflict on one border; the US/Iraq war on another; Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s efforts to gain hegemony over the entire region and put all under submission to Wahhabi Islam; Erdogan coming into office in Turkey with his own caliphate goals; and an ultraconservative nation running headlong into the new millenium. Gosh, you mean Syria wasn’t perfect? What a slug! You mean he squelched some free speech and jailed or exiled troublemakers? What a tyrant. Look at what the NATO allies have done to forestall another 9/11 – two 10 year long wars and a hundred thousand dead. These are brutal people bent on a brutal objective and they will not be stopped by nice words. Look at a map of Sunni dominated Islamic nations and you will see the empire building going on. The problem is not Iran or Syria but the Gulf states leaders using the trillions of $$$ they get for their oil and gas to spread fundamentalist Islam as far as they can get.

  5. Damascian says:

    They are not all “activists” as well. The ballistic missiles go usually to where there is no one but the armed groups (for instance Daraya). The 70,000 where killed due to the synthesized conflict made by the media and weapons, largely by the terrorist hands.

  6. Saner says:

    Quite interesting! You have to remember that this is a regime losing control by the day. And the work of the mukhabarat is to prioritize. Their least concern would be a “tamed” journalist showing his papers like an obedient student and reporting what they want you to see. They do not have the interest in harassing foreign journalists at all at this moment in time. However, if the balance of power shifts then you have to expect Everything from such a brutal regime. God bless you and thank you for your great work in Syria. It is one of the most insightful and informative.

    1. Damascian says:

      Or gaining control by the day..

    2. JFearing says:

      So Assad’s government is a “brutal regime”? It’s the rebels kidnapping reporters, kidnapping UN peacekeepers, setting up sharia law in “liberated” areas. The rebels under al Nusra and al Qaeda are now working together – ain’t that sweet! The opposition with the help of the US, UK and France has made the democratic elections planned for 2014 all but impossible. It’s the Muslim Brotherhood leaders of the SNC, Hitto and Khatib who lie about all of this. And gosh, it’s Qatar and Saudi Arabia who are leading the charge and sending the valiant, peace loving, human rights freedom fighters weapons and supplies. Those champions of freedom for all people but their own. Qatar is fighting for the freedom from competition for the pipelines coming from the South Pars gas fields and others. Saudi Arabia is fighting for the right of all Syrians to be under submission to Wahhabi Islam. Those two nations combined wouldn’t risk breaking a finger nail for democracy or human rights.

      1. Damascian says:
  7. Adam says:

    You are doing excellent stuff in Syria and I salute the bravery of you and your people. I liked the stuff you did about Rangers, but this really puts that into perspective! Keep up the good work…

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