“We Can’t Take It Anymore”: Syrian Journalists Visit J School

“Right now, the most dangerous profession in Syria is to be a journalist on the frontline,” a Syrian print and radio journalist told a packed room of students, faculty and observers at the Columbia Journalism School Friday.

Arranged in collaboration with  the United States Department of State International Visitor Leadership Program, four Syrian journalists working in print, radio, television, and digital media spoke to members of the Columbia journalism community in a conversation hosted by the Dart Center. As nations around the world debated whether to attack Syria after allegations that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against its citizens, the four journalists arrived at what one called “a decisive moment.” Two were men, two women. With the exception of one, they spoke through interpreters traveling with them. For their protection, they asked that their names not be publicized. 

One of the journalists, wearing a traditional hijab and black clothing, had been covering Syria’s revolt against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime-turned-civil war from Aleppo, where some of the fiercest fighting between the Syrian army and rebel forces has taken place since the onset of the conflict two-and-half years ago. Last year, while covering a protest, she was shot. The government, she said, targets not only snipers but also journalists, or anyone with a camera. “We have a new phenomenon called citizen journalism,” she said. 

Click below to listen to the entire conversation.

With fewer and fewer international news agencies willing to send reporters to Syria, much less have them based there, much of the reporting coming out of Syria has been footage captured on cell phones. International networks have come to rely heavily on Syrian journalists for first-hand coverage of unfolding events. Pictures and videos taken by citizens and distributed online have provided much of the evidence for a case against the Syrian government for human rights abuses. In the two and a half years since the revolution began, more than 100,000 people are believed to have been killed, while approximately 300,000 have been maimed. Millions have been displaced. 

“We’ve reached a point where we can’t take it anymore,” said the other female journalist present, a Syrian reporter for a Paris-based Internet radio station, who wore a pink blouse with sunglasses perched on her head.  

Inspired by the initial anti-Assad protests and the revolutionary fervor in the region, the four journalists shared similar stories of becoming involved in journalism to make a difference in the struggle. As was the case in neighboring Arab countries that undertook revolutions, the Syrians admitted that the dividing line between journalism and activism remains unclear. 

Syria’s tight control over the media posed challenged for all of the journalists. One, a doctor who started a radio station in Damascus, talked about a divide-and-broadcast strategy to avoid detection by the Syrian army. With the city separated into 15 sectors, each one with a transmitter, they never broadcast from an area longer than 20 minutes. 

The journalists seemed to share a sense that their perspective was not understood by the Western  world. “We were part of the Arab Spring that began two and a half years ago,” said one, a documentary film and television producer who was imprisoned last year and is not working as a journalist right now. “We were part of that wave.” He went on to describe the war as “a war with four or five countries” and interests, including Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, who are sending advisors and support. 

The conversation was casual but at times tense. “Why now are you just paying attention?” asked the female radio journalist, speaking to the lingering question in the minds of many of a US initiated military intervention. Only one member of the group expressed explicit support of a military attack, saying it would have to target specific sites with assets and weapons of the regime.  

The female radio journalists simply said: “Whatever intervention the US makes, it has to be to support the Syrian people, not for whatever interests they might have.”