Before a room of fresh-faced Columbia Journalism School students on Friday, four Syrian journalists asked the budding professionals, and indeed the Western World itself: “Why now? Why are you just now paying attention?”

The Syrian delegation, online and radio reporters who asked to remain anonymous in print, has been touring the US with the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. In New York, the journalists’ last stop, they addressed about 200 Columbia j-school students at an event hosted by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. The students and professors alike, toting brown bags and munching on prepackaged sandwiches, were all drinking in the seriousness, and the extraordinary timeliness, of the visitors’ presence.

One firm message emerged from the discussion: A professional and powerful press is the easiest way to change public opinion. Journalism matters, and these Syrians have risked their lives proving it. “We face a major challenge,” one journalist said boldly, “of changing the definition of media fundamentally in Syria.” Western involvement and media coverage, they explained, would drastically improve the state of Syrian journalism. In turn, improvement in Syrian media will allow Syrians to better convey information to both international media outlets and to Western policymakers who would potentially send aid.

Effective journalism in Syria hinges upon the safety, access, and the skill of those in the field. And the difficulties of fostering effective journalism, the speakers said, is why two-and-a-half years of violence has not resulted in more international news coverage or military support. Millions of Syrian voices have been muted, the speakers said—voices that convey the stories and information the world needs to fully comprehend the Syrian conflict. Who has held a microphone to a civilian incapacitated by “alleged” chemical weapons? Can UN inspections say more than locked-away native journalists? How much would a more complete knowledge of on-the-ground activity affect Western policy toward Syria?

The delegation insisted that press freedom and Western involvement are inextricably entwined. Before the revolution, the media landscape in Syria was wholly dominated by the oppressive government regime. With minimal capacity to broadcast widespread acts of injustice, Syrian journalists have felt generally impotent to call on other countries for the freedom and safety so desired by the citizen body, they said. Freedom House gave Syria a 7/7 on the not-free scale in terms of its press (but an 83/100 on internet freedom restriction). One journalist, an independent FM radio broadcaster from Damascus, stated, “It’s not just people being killed. It’s the killing of the idea of freedom itself.” Without press freedom, Syrians are “brainwashed” by the government’s highly controlled use of information. One of the key goals of journalism is to facilitate empowerment by proliferating intelligence.

Freer media emerged less as a possibility and more as an absolute necessity as the revolution heated up, panelists said. Citizen journalists have increasingly taken it upon themselves to point their collective camera at the government’s atrocities against civilians. “The regime quickly identified that the camera is the most lethal weapon,” one journalist said. “It shows the world what they’re doing. ” Another commented that “the citizens can make all the difference … they can hear what’s happening in their own neighborhoods.”

With citizen journalism, however, inevitably comes factual dubiousness. USA Today published an informative article last week on the verification of citizen journalists’ accounts in Syria, which is necessary for determining both Syrian quality-of-life and US military policy. Storyful has provided 360-degree forensic verifications of video and reached out to Syrian journalists writing on social media to confirm their credibility.

Unfortunately, the speakers noted to the Columbia crowd, being a journalist of any capacity in conflict is the most dangerous profession in Syria right now: One journalist of the four was shot at, and one imprisoned. Such violence frustrates the journalists’ ability channel information to freer media outlets such as Al Jazeera as a call for help.

Aside from meeting with the j-school students, the Syrian journalists attended a Harley Davidson rally in Madison, WI (one commented there that now he knew he was in America), and they saw Mamma Mia after their stop in Morningside Heights. They also stopped in Washington DC, San Diego, and Milwaukee. While their days have been full of meetings on First Amendment freedoms and media transparency, the journalists have often found warm respite in Americans’ homes as dinner guests.

 

Cecilia D'Anastasio is a CJR intern