Given the complex interests of those involved in the Syrian conflict, and given the pervasive dangers there, can Syrian and international journalists report fairly?
Houssam Aldeen has been given political asylum in Germany. He’s a political scientist who was based in Damascus and had secretly provided information to the Western media. At the "Medien International’s" panel discussion held in August in Berlin, he expressed his concerns. "It’s extremely dangerous for Syrian journalists there. Cell phones, laptops – everything’s monitored when you’re on the move." The power holders, he says, want to prevent reports on combats and atrocities from reaching the public and others abroad. Aldeen himself was arrested five times before deciding to leave his home country for fear of losing his life.
Just how dangerous it can be for journalists travelling in Syria was something Jörg Armbruster experienced this past spring. A journalist with Germany’s public broadcaster ARD he also took part in the discussion organized by DW Akademie and ARD’s Berlin studio. "Travelling in the liberated areas is incredibly dangerous," he says, adding that it’s even more dangerous now than in the spring when he was seriously injured in northern Syria.
Journalist Kristin Helberg agrees. She lived in Syria for several years, is married to a Syrian and is currently based in Berlin, observing the conflict primarily via the Internet. This, she says, "is one of the most well-documented conflict in recent years." However, she laments that many German journalists lack the necessary language skills and expertise to professionally analyze available sources. This could, she says, unintentionally intensify the conflict.
"The Middle East is full of ambiguities," she says, "but there are ample opportunities to learn more about what is really happening there." She points to impressive underground activities in northern Syria. "There are about 12 newspapers which are put together in northern Syria, printed in Turkey and then smuggled back into the liberated areas."
Jörg Armbruster agrees with all but one point. “The media reports are definitely not intensifying the conflict. But it is true that we as journalists have to report more on the people in the smaller towns not so heavily controlled by jihadist groups, to travel there and to speak with people who are trying to organize themselves. The Internet does not provide us with all the information," he says. Armbruster will not be travelling to northern Syria in the near future, and the country’s Ministry of Information has denied him entry into Damascus.
"The Syrian regime deems all foreign journalists to be spies," confirms Houssam Aldeem and nods in agreement when Armbruster adds, "…and all Syrian journalists who are in contact with foreign journalists to be traitors." Given this, all panelists agree, it is unrealistic to expect neutral, objective reporting.
"You can’t be neutral in Syria right now," says DW Akademie trainer, Nasir Al-Jezairi. Journalists who attempt to be unbiased risk their lives, he says, and that’s why journalists in this riven country only report for their own side.