For foreign journalists, the Arab Spring uprisings and their aftermaths have ranged from exhilaratingly accessible (Egypt), to mortally dangerous (Libya), to frustratingly off-limits (Syria).
Since Syria’s violent uprising began 11 months ago, the government has strictly limited journalist visas. The relatively few foreign journalists who have managed to enter Syria on a formal visa are required to report at all times in the presence of a government minder. Those denied access have had two choices. The first is to sneak across the border from Turkey, either on their own or with the help of the Free Syrian Army. That choice has proven fatal to two great foreign correspondents, Anthony Shadid of The New York Times, and Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times. Shadid died after an apparent asthma attack, possibly triggered by an allergy to the horses he was riding; Colvin, with the French photographer Remi Ochlik, died under shellfire in Homs on February 22.
The other choice for covering Syria is to report it from a distance, which is not easy. “It’s the hardest story I have ever covered,” says Deborah Amos, an NPR Middle East correspondent. She covered the first months of the uprising from Beirut using Skype, Twitter, and cell phone to reach contacts in Syria—an unsatisfactory substitute, she notes, for reporting on the ground. “You can’t feel it, you can’t smell it and you can’t see it,” she says.
But the problem is not what you might think, a lack of information. The problem is the volume of it, and the difficulty of sorting out what is true.
Much of the information comes in the form of a deluge of citizen journalism from Syria, which “oversaturates, with so many perspectives, anecdotes, and stories,” says Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, who until mid-February was co-host of “The Stream” on Al Jazeera English, a daily program that focuses on social media as a platform for news dissemination. Though it may seem strange for a journalist to suggest there might be too much information, the flood from Syria is so huge that it “complicates the reporting,” said Shihab-Eldin.
Indeed, all kinds of media organizations say they are overwhelmed by the amount of material and the job of monitoring it. Syrian activists post dozens of new stories and videos each day via Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and dozens of websites set up by revolutionary groups. State-run media also pour out their own narratives and video footage. And foreign news organizations resort to Skype or telephone interviews for direct conversations with activists and ordinary residents in Syria.
Djilali Belaid, head of the Middle East and North American television department at Agence France-Presse, says he watches 60 to 100 YouTube videos from Syria each day, “and maybe only one or two get out,” he says. Before approving any video for distribution by AFP, Belaid tries to reach the author, looks for landmarks or familiar venues in the images, and verifies dates. Then he e-mails the video to AFP’s director of information, explaining what information he obtained on the video. The final decision on whether to distribute is made by the director in Paris.
NBC takes similar steps, using social media to try to directly contact the person who posted a video, according to Marian Porges, a senior producer at the network’s news standards and practices unit. “We ask them if they filmed it, and if they did, then they are usually a good primary source,” said Porges. But if the source took the video from another website, Porges said it becomes harder to verify. In such cases, “we also try and detect landmarks and recognizable places on the video. We ask people in our news division to identify them, or we even ask officials and other sources that we have,” she said.
If the authenticity of a video can’t be verified, NBC decides whether to publish on a case-by-case basis. “If it is crucial to further the story, we go ahead, and we use a disclaimer,” said Porges. Videos that have been posted without independent verification usually show general scenes of fighting and protests in Syria, she said.
News organizations may feel their credibility is adequately protected when they post videos with disclaimers such as “The location, timing, and provenance could not be independently verified,” (from The New York Times) or “This and other videos could not be independently verified” (GlobalPost.com).
But adding a disclaimer does not protect against error.
Last May 8, for example, Reuters distributed a video that was posted by activists on YouTube with a label stating that it showed Syrian security officers beating detained protesters. Reuters sent it with the following message:
Video uploaded to a social media website purports to show Syrian security beating detained protesters and holding guns to their heads.” REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE CONTENT OF THIS VIDEO.
Hours later, though, Reuters withdrew the video and advised its clients:
EDITORS PLEASE NOTE: REUTERS IS WITHDRAWING THIS VIDEO AS WE HAVE NOW ESTABLISHED THAT IT IS FILE FOOTAGE FROM LEBANON IN 2008, NOT SYRIA AS ORIGINALLY THOUGHT. PLEASE ACCEPT OUR APOLOGIES.
Reuters declined a request to talk about the video and its withdrawal.
Al Jazeera was apparently fooled when it ran video this month of five men, identified as members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard forces. According to the video, the men were kidnapped by Syrian revolutionaries. That story line seemed to reinforce constant rumors that Iran has supported President Bashar Assad’s troops in their violent crackdown on the Syrian revolutionaries.
But Al Jazeera later reported that the men apparently were not elite troops, but rather members of a group of Iranian engineers working at a Syrian power plant. In December, Syrian state media had reported the engineers were captured by “terrorists” as they traveled to their jobs.
Misrepresentations and exaggerations definitely are out there among the hours and hours of citizen journalist videos coming from Syria, said Ayman Mhanna, executive director of SK Eyes, a press freedom group named after Samir Kassir, a Lebanese journalist assassinated in a 2005 car bombing. Some activists feel there is nothing wrong with mislabeling a video, said Mhanna, because they “feel that exaggeration is nothing compared to the bloodiness of the regime. They say it gets them an attention that they desperately need. ”
Some news organizations have turned to rights monitors, like Human Rights Watch, for help with verification, says Nadim Houry, head of the rights group’s Beirut office. “Media outlets have also contacted us with footage they got, asking whether we can vouch for it,” he said. “They want to be able to attribute the footage to someone that can be tracked.”
Houry said Human Rights Watch is cautious, relying only on videos brought directly to the organization by Syrian activists and verifying them with eyewitness accounts and other interviews.
But even the most seemingly reliable of eyewitnesses can be wrong, as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International learned late last year, when both publicized the case of Zaynab el Hossni, an 18-year-old Syrian woman. When a revolutionary group uploaded a video to YouTube in September, showing the burned and beheaded body of a woman allegedly killed by the Syrian government, the two rights groups got confirmations from Hossni’s family— including her mother—that she was the victim. CNN, The Associated Press, France24, and others then posted the video. Hossni became a symbol of the revolution. Her photo was carried by Syrian protestors.
But Zaynab el Hossni was not dead. Weeks later, she appeared on state television showing her identification card. She said she fled her home because her brothers had been abusing her. The family confirmed that they believed the woman on TV was Hossni. And Houry, who called the mother’s identification “an honest mistake,” said that the woman had “seemed genuinely distraught at the loss of her daughter.”
Such reporting errors underscore the difficulty of getting an accurate picture of what’s happening in Syria, at a particularly fluid moment when journalism can shape events. But each conflict has its particular challenges. Mark Jurkowitz, Associate Director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, notes that in less restricted conflict zones, “There was also a lot of parachute reporting in which correspondents would fly into a trouble zone and begin reporting without a lot of context or contacts.”