‘I wanted to show the truth’: Syria Direct trainees reflect as 10th cohort of journalists graduates

Syria Direct graduated its tenth class of aspiring Syrian journalists in Amman on Sunday, marking the end of a three-month course on the basics of news gathering and in-depth reporting.

For many of the 12 trainees, the intensive course at Syria Direct was their first exposure to the inner workings of a media organization. Others came with a range of previous experience—as citizen journalists, activists or students of the trade.

All of the graduates, who hail from different provinces and backgrounds, emerged with a shared understanding of the skills needed to produce professional, accurate and balanced reporting on events taking place in Syria.

Sunday’s graduates are among more than 150 other Syrians who have participated in journalism trainings that Syria Direct has conducted in-person in Amman and remotely for those inside Syria since 2014. Our current training program is made possible by a grant from the United States Department of State.

As they completed the program, three trainees reflected on the course, what inspires them about journalism and how they plan to use their new skills in the future.

Trainee Alaa Safwan receives a certificate on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Mohammed Al-Haj Ali/Syria Direct.

Leila al-Ahmad, 23

Leila, a Damascus native with an undergraduate degree in journalism and media studies who came to Jordan in late 2012, says there are two wars in her country.

The first is a war of bombs and gunfire, siege and displacement. The second, she says, is a “media war of contradictory news, fabrication and lies.”

To cut through competing, biased narratives in the media, “there needs to be someone with accountability and neutrality,” says Leila, “someone speaking the truth of what is happening on the ground.”

During her time with Syria Direct, Leila tackled stories about medical issues in East Ghouta, drug addiction in Homs and rebel shelling of Damascus. In an interview conducted last month, she spoke to a Deir e-Zor teacher working to eliminate “dark thoughts” from children who lived for years under the Islamic State.

For her, journalism is a tool not only to report the events of the war, but also to “help Syria rise up again.”

“As much as the media is important in times of war,” she says, “it is even more important in times of peace.”

Q: Is there anything in particular that motivated you to work in journalism, especially covering Syria?

I started following the news when I was young, around 14 or 15 years old. I felt I wanted to be a journalist, to relay what’s happening to the world, to convey people’s problems and elevate their voices. That’s what I wanted to do.

But what has motivated me the most to pursue journalism is what has happened in our country. There is a war in Syria, not just the military war that we can see, but also a media war of contradictory news, fabrication and lies. There needs to be someone with accountability and neutrality in the media, someone speaking the truth of what is happening on the ground.

Many people have been hurt in the war, and there are many human stories that must be told. Someone needs to relay people’s voices and tragedies to the world. Ordinary, everyday people are the ones most affected by the war.

Q: Was there any particular article you worked on at Syria Direct that you feel you learned a lot from?

There is one article [in the works] about painkiller addiction, which is a really important and difficult issue. Nobody is looking out for these people, so I wanted to talk about them.

I also interviewed a teacher at a school in Deir e-Zor, where schools had reopened after four years [of Islamic State control]. This piece spoke about the suffering of these people and children, and it reached the western media. A Swedish radio station even interviewed me about the piece. I was thrilled that I was able to do something that could help people.

Q: Did this course at Syria Direct change the way you think about journalism and objectivity, especially with regard to Syria?

Before the war, I was like anyone else. We weren’t aware how much the media can have an impact. But wars break out and people die over one word spoken or one news item published.

Once the war began, we saw how much fabrication and false news there was. I grew to understand the meaning of a media war, and I felt how necessary and important it is for there to be a neutral, credible media that conveys facts. I understood how much the media can build civilizations or end wars, change opinions and change people. One word we say may destroy and another may build.

So we’re in dire need of independent, neutral and credible media. I saw neutrality at Syria Direct. I saw independent media. I worked on it, and I lived it myself.

Of course, it is challenging that we are far from the events taking place, and sometimes it’s very difficult to reach sources. There are topics I couldn’t work on because I couldn’t find sources.

Q: What comes next for you?

I certainly want to continue working in journalism and on the Syrian issue. As much as the media is important in times of war, it is even more important in times of peace. Journalists need to have a role in reconstructing the country, in educating and raising awareness.

Our country is in a dire state right now. We all need to work to help Syria rise up again, and, God willing, to make it better than it was. Journalism has a huge role because it can be a link between all of the other fields.

**

Alaa Safwan, 29

Keeping track of the events taking place in her home country has never been an easy task, says Alaa, who left Homs city for Amman in late 2011. With news coming from every direction, “the events become muddled.”

But covering those events on a daily basis at Syria Direct has helped Alaa make sense of it all, even from afar.

“I learned how to differentiate between the news,” she says, and “how to know if something is true or false.”

As part of her reporting over the past three months, Alaa shed light on civilian protests in opposition-held north Homs, where residents were calling for the departure of hardline rebel faction Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham.

“I began to see what’s really happening,” she says.

Q: What brought you to journalism, and to Syria Direct?

I couldn’t work in the field that I studied in university [chemistry] because here [in Jordan] it’s forbidden for Syrians to work in certain fields without a work permit. And work permits aren’t just given out to anyone.

So I started looking for other work. In journalism, you’re free to work or learn.

I’m interested in the Syrian cause, like anyone else. I lived in Syria during the war for a year and then left. When you’re far from the situation, so much happens. The events become muddled when you’re living outside the country, so you turn to the news. It helps you. The training was particularly beneficial in this sense: I began to see what’s really happening in Syria.

When I came to Syria Direct, I learned how to differentiate between the news, how to know if something is true or false. This was really beneficial for me.

Q: Did your experience at Syria Direct change how you view the war?

At first, I was very partial to one side: the opposition. The regime is bad and should not exist, but I realized that there are many mistakes on the other side. I realized the opposition also did things wrong. Infighting [for example], has had a really negative impact, just like the regime.

My thinking changed significantly. Now, when I hear about the revolution, I have a better understanding of what’s going on, and can more fully participate in the discussion.

Q: And how about your view of journalism in Syria?

In Syria, we had many problems [with journalism]. [When the war began,] there was a media blackout by the regime, and there were no reporters from other countries. You got most news from everyday people, maybe somebody walking around who takes a picture or relays the news to you.

Television channels distort the situation. For example, a small explosion is conveyed as having left dozens injured and killed. Or one or two people die, and they call it a huge massacre.

Journalism has a huge role to play. Either it conveys reality as it’s really happening, or it exaggerates [the situation] and problems result. So journalism needs to be neutral, as much as any person—any journalist—can be, because each word can impact millions of people who hear it.

**

Ismail al-Jamous, 31

When protests erupted in 2011 in Ismail’s hometown of Dael, in the Daraa countryside, he started filming.

“I wanted to show the truth,” he says, to convey images from the ground that were suppressed under a Syrian government media blackout.

After filming demonstrations with his cell phone, Ismail would make a difficult journey to the Jordanian border to pick up an internet signal, upload his footage online and watch it spread across social media.

Although Ismail left his home in Syria in 2013, he is still driven by a desire to report on what is happening in his country.

Ismail published several reports and interviews with Syria Direct in recent months, including a story about the arrest of opposition leaders from his hometown by local rebel factions in retaliation for attending the Sochi peace talks earlier this year. Despite his personal ties to the story, Ismail says he felt able, from Jordan, to fairly report the events.

“I committed to objectivity and professionalism on this report,” he says. “I didn’t side with anyone.”

Syria Direct trainee Ismail al-Jamous in February. Photo courtesy of Aaron Weintraub/Syria Direct.

Q: Could you speak about your experience in the media before Syria Direct?

I was in my third year studying English literature in university when the events started [in 2011] and it became too dangerous to travel because of the checkpoints.

[In Daraa,] I worked as a media activist, using a basic camera with the goal of relaying people’s voices and suffering. I remember at the start, I had my phone and there was a big demonstration in Dael. I filmed it and thought: ‘How can I upload this to social media, to get people’s voices out there?’

Bit by bit, I developed my skills as necessary. We would film events and upload them to Gmail, since the internet didn’t allow us to upload to YouTube. We would reduce the quality of the clips, then send them to international media for publication. That’s how I got started in media, and I’ve stuck with it.

Q: What motivated you to stay in journalism?

I liked getting the truth out there. The regime tried to distort images of demonstrators and accuse them of certain things, but I was on the ground, and I saw the truth—that these people are Syrians. They’re not from outside the country, they have real demands and suffering, and they have a right to make their demands.

I wanted to show the truth. I didn’t exaggerate the images. I sent the images as they were, so that people would not only hear the voice of one side—the regime—but also the voice of the people who were in the streets.

Q: Did that goal change at all when you left Syria for Jordan?

I kept working in Jordan, but it was safer. In Syria, we constantly faced gunfire, bombing or even arrest. The regime was really focused on media activists and tried to catch them. In Jordan, I was more comfortable.

Inside Syria, you’re present at the event itself, seeing with your own eyes what’s happening, but in a lot of danger.

For example, in Syria I would film didn’t have internet, so I had to travel to another region near the Jordanian border in order to connect to Jordanian network and upload the clips. Moving around was difficult. In Jordan, there’s internet and you can easily communicate with media [organizations].

However, in Jordan, I find it difficult to get all of the details and confirm the validity of information, making sure that that it is 100 percent true. Many activists have tried to [further] incorrect goals or opinions through the news.

Q: How did this training affect your view of impartial journalism, especially with regards to covering Syria?

We used to write or deliver news without confirming [the information]. But here, we always need to confirm even the most basic details. We learned to relay the events in Syria with credibility.

Q: Was there any article that you found particularly rewarding to work on?

There’s one report I worked on about [the arrest of two individuals] who attended the Sochi talks [by rebel factions after they returned to Syria]. This was a local issue for me, because those detained were from the same city.

I committed to objectivity and professionalism on this report. I didn’t side with anyone.

To be honest, at the beginning, when I first came to Syria Direct, they asked if I could be independent. I paused for a second and told them that maybe if I were inside [Syria] I couldn’t be independent because the situation imposes biases for a certain faction or political opinion because you’re on the ground.

But when I worked on this article, I felt that I could truly be independent, and not be biased to one side. It was a very important step for me, and it motivated me to continue.

That piece resonated in Dael. I shared the report, and people’s opinions were positive. [We reported] details that were different from those on any other news site.