Syria’s Media War

Jamie Dettmer on how the rebels are trying to spin the war.

Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty

From airstrikes and artillery bombardments to kidnappings and snipers, the hazards and hassles of covering the Syrian civil war are many.

Now the Free Syrian Army—or at least the rebel brigades that control the main border crossing between Syria and Turkey—are adding to the challenges by demanding that foreign journalists going into Syria use translators and drivers provided by the rebels.

The insurgents say they want to protect the journalists as well as weed out “war tourists”—which they claim are becoming a problem. (In recent weeks, there have been reports that the conflict is attracting foreign adventurers and oddball curiosity seekers.)

“Three weeks ago somebody came to Syria and said, ‘You can consider me a tourist.’ He wanted to go to Aleppo, but we prevented him, and maybe we saved him from being kidnapped or shot by a sniper,” says Mahmoud Mahmoud, who oversees the rebels’ media center at the border.

The rebels also say that, by providing translators and drivers to the foreign reporters, they can better protect journalists venturing into the war-torn country while at the same time preventing inexperienced freelancers from entering.

Some war correspondents, however, are suspicious of the rebels’ stated motives and suggest that this is instead an attempt to make money from the journalists and/or control how the international press covers the war.

An American journalist who has crossed the border several times was recently allowed to cross on the condition that he use a particular translator to cover the story. His Syrian driver later told him that the translator had been ordered to keep the journalist under watch. “Apparently I asked the wrong questions, and they didn’t like me asking about foreign jihadists.”

In recent months, civilians living in rebel-held areas in northern Syria have become increasingly critical of the Free Syrian Army, a loose confederation of autonomous rebel brigades. And reporters covering the two-year civil war say that they’ve noticed more attempts by the rebels to curb unflattering reporting as well as rebel leaders taking exception to stories already written.

The correspondents fear that the FSA-appointed translators will, in effect, become minders, controlling access and spinning stories. Even if they don’t directly censor, journalists fear that civilians in rebel-held territories are likely to be more restrained in what they say to reporters about the FSA in the presence of FSA-appointed drivers and translators.

“Journalist safety is a highly questionable motive for them to implement these new measures,” says a European news photographer who declined to be named for this article, fearing that the rebels might not allow him to travel back into rebel-held areas. “In my opinion this is about business first, then control of information.”

Journalists, who often develop strong ties of trust with those they work with in war zones, are also concerned about dealing with people they haven’t worked with before. “It forces me to work with people I don’t know and I don’t trust,” says Greek journalist A. Dimitriou.

No one disputes that covering the Syrian civil war is dangerous and becoming more so with the emergence of jihadist militias such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the appearance of abduction-minded criminal gangs. The rebel-controlled areas lack clarity, and there are rapidly shifting battle lines. Fierce fighting between Syrian government forces and rebel groups of various loyalties and ideological shades means there are no real safe zones for journalists.

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At present, about a dozen reporters are missing, including Austin Tice, a freelancer who wrote for The Washington Post and is believed to be held by the regime, and James Foley of GlobalPost, who was abducted in November in northern Syria.

On February 25, award-winning French freelance photographer Olivier Voisin died in a Turkish hospital from shrapnel wounds he sustained while reporting in Syria three days earlier.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 32 journalists—six of whom were foreign—have been killed in Syria since the start of the revolution in 2011, making the country the most dangerous place in the world for journalists currently.

Journalist safety was further jeopardized when a pro-Assad Syrian businessman based in Kuwait this week announced on Kuwaiti television that he would pay $140,000 to anyone who seized foreign reporters and handed them over to government security forces, the Spanish newspaper El País reported.

The risks have made editors more cautious about sending in journalists to cover the war. Some media companies also decline to accept dispatches and photographs from freelancers, arguing that they don’t want to encourage risk taking by unproven journalists or reporters they don’t know well. Earlier this year Britain’s top-selling Sunday newspaper, The Sunday Times, opted to forgo using freelancers.

“One of the reasons we have taken the position we have is because of Austin Tice and Jim Foley,” Sean Ryan, the newspaper’s foreign editor, tells The Daily Beast. “With two journalists missing and some other kidnappings, we really have to think hard about commissioning people who we really don’t know how experienced they are.”

Ryan says the paper isn’t adopting a total ban, but there are only one or two freelancers he will use.

El Mundo correspondent Javier Espinosa calculates that 80 percent of the journalists covering Syria are freelancers. Among the reporters covering the war, there is mounting concern over the high number of young freelancers entering the war-torn country.

The new FSA media requirements, however, will be onerous for freelancers if they are maintained. Using the media centers’ drivers and translators will increase costs at least fourfold—a significant jump for tight budgets. Already finding major media outlets closed to them, fewer freelancers are likely to go into Syria, reducing the independent reporting coming out.