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The obstacles and dangers of reporting on Syria

October 23, 2014 at 6:15 PM EDT
Telling the stories of conflict in Syria and Iraq has become prohibitively dangerous for many news organizations; more than 70 journalists have been killed while covering the Syrian war. While a few international reporters remain in the country, much of the reporting is now done from the outside. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Deborah Amos of NPR and John Daniszewski of the Associated Press.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to covering a horrific conflict in the world’s most dangerous country for journalists and the limitations that’s placing on what the world finds out about.

Hari Sreenivasan reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Joining me now to discuss the dangers of covering Syria and how it impacts our understanding of the conflict is veteran international correspondent Deborah Amos. She has been reporting on the Syrian civil war since its beginning in 2001 for NPR. And John Daniszewski, the senior managing editor for international news at the Associated Press.

The PBS NewsHour is a subscriber to the AP.

Deborah, I want to start with you. You have covered this conflict and you have covered the region for quite some time. How difficult is it to cover Syria vs. anywhere else in the region?

DEBORAH AMOS, NPR: Oh, it’s very, very tough. And it has gotten tougher over time.

You are up against two problems. One is the so-called Islamic State. They will kill you if you cross the border and they catch you. And then you have the Assad government that restricts visas. Right now, there are no visas for U.S.-based correspondents, people who hold U.S. passports.

And they have an army that makes sure that you cannot come into the country. So the problem is, you have two main groups who do not want you to be there and have it in their power to keep you out. It is dangerous not only inside Syria now, but also on the border.

My last reporting trip, for the first time ever in my career, I wasn’t allowed to say where I was, because I was there for three-and-a-half weeks, and it was considered by my company that it was dangerous to say. And that has now become a policy. It is very unusual to do that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: John, you are in the position of deciding when to send reporters and when not to. But what is so specifically challenging, besides was Deborah just said, about covering this conflict, given that the AP covers conflicts all over the globe?

JOHN DANISZEWSKI, Associated Press: Yes.

Well, I think every conflict involves making difficult choices. We try to very carefully weigh the risks against the advantages of going to any certain place. And right now, we consider Syria to be at the top of the most extremely dangerous places in the world to report from. And that has been a problem.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Deborah, I want to ask, what stories are we missing from there when we have such limited access for Western reporters or any reporters to get in and find the stories?

DEBORAH AMOS: I think we’re actually missing a lot.

It’s obvious that we aren’t — we aren’t being able to report the bad news. But we also can’t report developments there. I will give you an example. In my hotel, the last time I was in Southern Turkey, there was a contingent of police officers from Aleppo, a town that has been under siege for more than a year, split between the regime and the rebels.

These police officers came from the rebel side of the city. And their programs are being funded by the United States, by Norway, by the Dutch government. There were three dozen Aleppo police, including women, in my hotel for the training programs.

Now, I would love to be able to go to Aleppo and follow them on the beat for a day. I can’t do that. So I really can’t report on if this U.S.-funded program is going well or not inside Aleppo. I think that we are missing nuance that is always important and that we have always been able to report on any conflict zone.

And it’s just not getting reported inside Syria.

HARI SREENIVASAN: John Daniszewski, are you hearing similar from your reporters, hearing stories that you can’t report on?

JOHN DANISZEWSKI: Yes.

We get reports from things that are going on inside Syria, and they are very difficult to verify. We’re relying in this conflict, I think to a greater extent than ever, on user-generated content, social media, the photos that people there send out. But we have very high standards which of those we will use and how we verify them.

So, you know, even in the middle of the night last night, we were chasing one particular report in the city of Kobani. And we were never able to satisfy it, to satisfy ourselves that it was verified that we could report it.

But we do have means. We do have contacts inside we can reach out to. We do have very experienced journalists in the area who are picking up reports and sifting through them. It is a sort of pillar of conflict coverage to talk about what is happening to those caught in the middle. And that is a really a bit of what we are missing right now.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Deb Amos, with all that said, how do you do it? Your assignment is still to get stories from Syria. Who do you talk to? What videos are you watching to be able to corroborate these facts on the ground?

DEBORAH AMOS: You know, I often think we are like foreign correspondents of a hundred years ago, where people would stand at the docks and they would interview people as they got off big ships.

So what we do is, we’re at the borders of Turkey, where we can talk to people when they come across. You can go to hospitals on the border. You can interview people who have been wounded in some of the fights inside. And you can piece together, if you do enough of this, what it is like in a particular battlefield.

You can interview people who are coming out of Raqqa, where the so-called Islamic State is ruling. And you can ask them details about, what is life like? And you can eventually build a picture. But that is really what we have to do. You have to go down, and it’s piece by piece by piece to build a picture of what is going on inside Syria.

It’s not impossible. And you can see from both the AP point of view and mine that that is what we are doing. It is painstaking work. We are watching the videos. You have to verify all those videos. It is doable. But I just wonder what we are missing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, John Daniszewski, so what about the market incentives or disincentives when it comes to freelancers? A lot of time, they will end up risking their lives and going places because they might be more nimble than a large institution.

Well, what does the Associated Press do to try and keep people out of harm’s away by trying to go in and get that one shot?

JOHN DANISZEWSKI: Well, first of all, we won’t send a freelancer to cover something that we wouldn’t ourselves go to do.

And we have rules about not taking material from people whom we don’t know, who are not insured, who do not have proper protection. And so we have sent reporters into Syria in the past. We’re not doing it right now because of the dangers discussed earlier. And we’re not sending freelancers in right now either.

And we — and I think across all news organizations in the industry, there is a very robust discussion going on right now. what can we do, both in the mainline — or the established news organizations and how can the freelancers organize themselves to better protect themselves and be better prepared to face a hostile environment?

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, John Daniszewski from the Associated Press and Deborah Amos from NPR, thanks so much for your time.

DEBORAH AMOS: Thank you.

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