The United Nations recently warned that “the most horrific battle of the seven-year Syria war” could soon unfold in country’s northernmost governorate of Idlib, home to 2.5 million Syrians, half of whom are displaced. On Tuesday, September 4, Russian and Syrian aircraft bombed the town of Jisr al-Shoghur, killing 10 civilians, according to the Syrian Civil Defense. As the people of Syria look toward an uncertain future, there has never been a more crucial time for nuanced analysis about the changing nature of the Syrian conflict. Online magazine Syria Direct aims to provide its readers just that. Started in 2013 by a team of journalists in Amman, Jordan, the magazine pairs international journalists with Syrian journalists. The magazine provides the kind of in-depth daily coverage of Syria that is necessary to understanding the country’s changing conflict. Journalist Justin Schuster serves as the publication’s Managing Director, and recently spoke with Muftah about its inner-workings, as well as the future of journalism in Syria. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Muftah: How did Syria Direct start, and what is your overarching mission?
Syria Direct was started in 2013, with the goal of bringing together two communities: the international war reporter community, including individuals with an extensive track record of covering conflict zones around the globe; and Syria’s more nascent citizen journalism community, including individuals who possess a really deep understanding both of the nature of the conflict, as well as of the country as a whole. Our goal is to give the Syrian journalists on our team the necessary training, as well as the platform, to tell the story of the conflict unfolding in their country.
Today, we have two main missions. The first is the news that we produce five days a week. This is done by our team of Syrian journalists, international journalists, and our support staff of editors, translators, managers, etc. Syria Direct is also a training organization. Since our founding in 2013, we have trained 176 Syrian journalists, mostly through our flagship program in our Amman office. We have also remotely trained a few dozen inside Syria as well.
How do you think Syria Direct differs from other news organizations in this space?
What I think makes Syria Direct unique is that it really is a hybrid form of journalism. I understand “hybrid” in two different ways. We are doing war reporting, but we are also doing it from abroad. That is the beauty of 21st century technology and social media — we have the capacity to report from behind the front lines of a conflict zone, as well as from the safety of a neighboring country. That is something that even ten years ago was inconceivable.
Syria Direct has a very unique model. For each story, there is both a Syrian reporter and an international reporter. This is the crux of what defines Syria Direct’s identity. We are not an international media outlet that relies solely on Syrian stringers to set up interviews for international journalists. From the very beginning of the journalistic process, it is the Syrian journalists who are pitching 80 to 90 percent of our stories. From day one of a story, they are the ones who are guiding the direction of our coverage. This is what makes our organization so valuable – it provides Syrian journalists with the training, tools, and platform to tell the story of the conflict unfolding in their country. This helps ensure that Syrians are not passive victims, but rather are actively conveying to their communities, as well as the world as a whole, what is happening on the ground inside Syria.
Despite these security risks, a surprising amount of people are willing to be quoted in Syria Direct. How has this sourcing changed, if at all, recently?
In East Ghouta, for example, we have certainly noticed a change in access, since reconciliation. If you look at our reporting on East Ghouta earlier this year, we were reporting once a day or many times a week. Today, we are not publishing stories with the same frequency because of challenges related to sources.
While the nature of stories that we can report on from government controlled territories is changing, it does not mean that reporting or access to these sources will disappear all together. That being said, if we were to have spoken with a civilian in East Ghouta a year ago, they would have been much more open with their feelings about the Assad government. It is clear the language they would use today would not be the same. I would refer you to a story that we published a few weeks ago looking at changes to language, focusing on the vocabulary of the revolution and how it has changed in East Ghouta. There are certainly still less politically charged stories that people are willing to speak freely about, like stories related to education, service provision, cultural dynamics, and the cultural fabric of Syrian society today.
It is important to recognize limitations as well as opportunities moving forward. There is no point trying to get someone to say something hyper critical about Assad or the armed opposition – it is unrealistic and dangerous to do so. We want to publish good stories, but not in any way that imperils our reporters or their sources.
In places like East Ghouta or East Aleppo, where we have seen forced displacement and massive population shifts, how have you maintained reporting after the government has taken control?
This is the most important question to be asking right now — it is the fundamental existential question at the heart of not only Syria Direct’s reporting but all international media coverage. Syria as a country is at a crossroads today. It is at a point of transition, where the Assad government is retaking territory across every corner of the country. The government has already retaken almost every power center previously under the control of the opposition, aside from Idlib and the surrounding territory.
Another way to ask your question is, “what does the future of reporting on Syria look like?” The conflict is beginning to transition from a more kinetic phase, defined by near daily bombs, battles, and displacement, to a new phase, one largely defined by the challenges of reconciliation, reconstruction, future security, etc. How does the international media, Syria Direct included, continue to provide credible investigative coverage, so as to ensure that armed actors, whether the Assad government, Russia, or allied militias, are unable to act with complete impunity going forward?
What I worry about is that the international media is going to cover Syria less. This is already happening. If it bleeds, it reads, as they say. If there are no daily bombs in Syria, the situation inside the country isn’t covered by CNN. Other challenges have to do with new barriers to reporting. How does an international media outlet report on an area after reconciliation when a vast number of sources have either been forcibly displaced, detained, or are uncomfortable speaking on the record given the current media climate?
Given these challenges, what gives you hope for the future of journalism in Syria?
What are my reasons for optimism? In short, Syria Direct. I have every bit of confidence that this team is prepared and equipped to navigate this transitional period. This goes to our mandate as a news organization. We are not tasked with covering the globe or the region as a whole. Regardless of whether CNN, BBC, etc., are focused on Syria a year from today, Syria Direct is going to be there. We are going to continue our work.
Some of our best coverage is not about the battles, bombs, and displacement. Rather, it is about providing nuanced, textured, ground level reporting. We are looking at everyday socio-cultural dynamics and how they have fundamentally changed over the course of the war. Some of our reporting from the past six months has looked at East Ghouta after reconciliation, as well as challenges related to the provision of services, education, social dynamics, all of which have been fundamentally altered over the past seven years of siege, starvation, and displacement. Syria Direct certainly faces challenges moving forward, but it will continue to play an important and necessary role in covering the situation inside Syria.
Objective reporting is incredibly important. However, information has been used as a weapon of war in Syria, particularly by Russia. How has that impacted your reporting and how it is received?
Russia has become devastatingly effective at media obfuscation over the course of the conflict. Their tactic is to throw out a number of totally contradictory ideas, theories, and news stories, whenever a major incident breaks in Syria. For instance, during the chemical weapons attack that most recently happened this year in East Ghouta, news stories broke right away, saying that a horrible chemical weapons attack had happened with scores of casualties reported. The Russian media machine went to work quickly. They manufactured one story, claiming the incident was a false flag attack, and that it was the Syrian rebels who were responsible. Then there was another story saying it was an airstrike that hit a rebel cache of chemical weapons stockpiles, and another one saying the attack never happened and that the bodies shown on television were fake.
To get a sense of the Russian disinformation machine, just look at how they’ve depicted the White Helmets, also known as the Syrian Civil Defense. These volunteers are willing to risk their lives to run into a burning building to save trapped women, children, and civilians. There is little that you could conceivably do to criminalize or demonize that. However, over the course of several years, the Russian media machine has painted members of the Syrian Civil Defense as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, attempting to discredit them by consistently publishing conflicting stories.
At Syria Direct, we do not roll around in the mud with Russia or anyone else. Instead, through years of credible reporting, we have established ourselves as a beacon of independence, credibility, and unbiased reporting. I think that we do as good of a job as possible, but, ultimately, that is for our readers to decide.
Displacement is an enormously significant issue in Syria. How are you shifting your reporting to reflect internal displacement, and what seems to be inevitable violence in Idlib?
This week, we launched a six week training and reporting partnership with the Konrad Adenauer foundation, a fantastic partner of ours. Through this particular project, we are training six displaced journalists on the ground inside Syria, on different forms of advanced journalism, to conduct targeted reporting projects on issues related to displacement and displaced people.
When we look at displacement over the course of the war, half of Syria’s pre-war population has been displaced. Half have been internationally displaced as refugees, and half have been displaced within Syria. Moving into this new phase of the conflict, what comes next? How do we begin to put Syria back together in 2018? It is important to look at the issues of safety, security, and reconciliation for the millions displaced from their homes. It is just as important to ask those questions of Syria’s internally displaced population as its externally displaced population.
A significant portion of those who fled their homes did so not just because of the bombs that were chasing them, but also for more politically charged reasons. Either they were army defectors, media activists, fighters, or affiliated with one of these groups. The Syrian government has demonstrated that they will not welcome these individuals back with open arms. Even though the fighting seems to be reaching its end stages, the government’s systematic use of violence as a political tool is not going to end. It is important to look at how the Syrian government attempts to bring these displaced communities back into the fold – not just for the future demographic makeup of Syria, but in the most immediate way, for the safety and wellbeing of people who are on the government’s wanted list.
When looking at the future of Syria, what are your reasons for optimism?
My reasons for optimism come when I walk into the Syria Direct office every morning. We are a diverse team of Syrian and international journalists, and it really is quite a warm and vibrant place. Our Syrian colleagues have all gone through traumatic circumstances over the past couple of years. Outsiders may shake their heads and ask: how are these people showing up to work, day in and day out, with a smile on their faces? How are they able to joke, laugh, share stories, and have a good time together? It speaks volumes to the character of the Syrian people that they are able to do this.
I have seen this play out not just in our office, but also with sources living in the most terrible environments. There is so much character, culture, and vibrancy within Syrian society. I know Syria’s cultural fabric has been horrendously damaged and torn apart, but I also have confidence in the Syrian people.