Syria’s Open Championship for Field Reporting

I continue to roam around my wonderland, and take you with me to see its landmarks, people, events, and stories.  This time you are invited to a highly competitive game of Ping-Pong. 

The one and only question everyone asks when they meet an inhabitant of this wonderland is, “what is happening ‘there’?”

The neighboring city, the other town, the besieged village, places where life is somehow still ‘normal’; everyone wants to know what is happening all over that map called Syria, especially Syrians.

From the early days of the conflict, the hunger to know what is happening “there” grew more and more, especially about areas that have witnessed fierce fighting or repeated terrorist attacks. Syrian media was not prepared for this five and a half years ago; lack of experience, lack of equipment and professional knowledge to take up this kind of work and many other obstacles stood in the way. Adding to that, we must note the huge restrictions posed on journalist’s work in official Syrian media, unlike freelancers or journalists working with non-Syrian agencies or channels. This gave a chance to some freelancers who have changed the identity and formula of field reporting as people have known it in Syria for decades.

Many individuals took the initiative and started to document daily life in different Syrian cities, and in no time some of them became stars, both for their audience of the common public because those activist journalist ‘made people’s voice heard’, and for news agencies and services that also found in those journalists a treasure because no sane person would simply do what they did. “Field activists”, “field reporters”, “freelance journalists, or whatever you want to label them, became the main source of information on military, social, and economic issues in Syria.

The media arena currently is crowded with freelance journalists very few of whom are doing tremendous work, reporting objectively, and professionally. And with people’s growing hunger to know more, one tweet or Facebook status update from one of those reporters is enough to move the lake of feelings of happiness, anger, disappointment, or victory; the audience reacts as if they were right there in the battle field, on the frontline.  The problem is that not all of those reporters are aware of the sensitivity of what they are doing. The arena on Facebook and Twitter has turned into a Ping-Pong table where field reporters are the players and the audience is breathing with the rhythm of the ball as it moves between an endless number of players. The language being used is most of the time that of instigation of feelings of hatred and anger, not to mention promises of unconfirmed victory, and the irresponsible exchange of accusations and insults. The majority of “virtual reporters” talk as if they were battalion leaders, give directions and orders to move armies, to unauthorize an order and to accuse anyone they don’t like of treason. This mess has gone completely out of control, anyone can take a camera, and label themselves as a correspondent or reporter without least qualification to do so.

I spoke to Hameed Maarouf, a 26-year-old journalist who is now in Aleppo. Hameed started his activity independently on Facebook but his career later developed pretty well, he has worked at Al Mayadeen and currently works at AletejahTV. When asking him about the influence of the ongoing media game between journalists on social media, he saw that it drives people off the track they need to follow, which is the information itself, into following ‘who is right and who is wrong’ causing even more discrepancy and more misinforming. Hameed like many others risking their lives now in Aleppo and other Syrian areas, are driven by their passion and love for this kind of work and their will to help their country in this time of need. He realizes that when reporting one must be careful with what and how they report.

55b5da9d35d14-20150727-112206I cannot write about war reporting without mentioning Thaer Al Ajlani, one of the earliest people who completely devoted themselves to this kind of work. In addition to being the reporter for TV and radio stations and a column-writer in a Syrian newspaper (Al-Watan), he did his own series of documentary films and reports on different aspects of life all over Syria. His language, his speech, his thought, were those of a respectful journalist and human being. His narrative was clear, coherent, and consistent. His name “Thaer” means “Rebellious”, as you listen to him and read his writing you cannot but respect him no matter what your political loyalty is (His work is still there for those who would like to check on Facebook and YouTube) He never used a language that excludes the other, in his last recorded interview he said “history is being written now, and in the future I want my work to be a document for people to see what really happened“– his motto was “document your war”. He was fully aware of the huge responsibility he was carrying and dealt with it very carefully. On July 27, 2015 we lost Thaer while he was covering Syrian army operations in Jobar.

The reason I mentioned Thaer is to show the contrast between what he was devoted for and what is taking place over virtual battlefield now. War reporting is a very dangerous weapon, and that weapon in the hands of an unqualified lad who shoots randomly whenever he feels like it will cause damage, much than we can take by now.

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