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Tuesday
Feb122013

Syria Video Feature: The Dangers of Reporting for State TV (Sturdee)


Nick Sturdee writes in The Guardian:

What's it like to represent one of the world's most reviled regimes? At the very heart of Damascus, opposite the army's chief of staff headquarters – crippled by car bombs in September – stands a building with a shiny blue facade, topped by towers of satellite dishes. In front a big screen proudly emits what the building produces – the world according to Syrian state TV.

It's the frontline in a "media war" that the Syrian government sees itself as waging against the outside world. And the newest and youngest weapon in this war is the Syrian News Channel, al Ikhbariya, --- a satellite channel combating such hostile voices as al Jazeera, al Arabia and...the BBC. This is where we spent three weeks making a documentary for BBC Arabic, which was broadcast on Saturday and Sunday.

The channel hasn't always been here. Its initial home, an all-mod-cons studio complex in Damascus's Drousha district, was raided last June by al Nusra, a jihadi wing of the Free Syrian Army. Three journalists and four technicians were killed, and the entire building gutted. Al Ikhbaria is an arm of a regime waging war against the Syrian people, said Al Nusra. Two months later, al Ikhbariya's new, secure premises were rocked by the next bomb – wrecking a studio. No one claimed responsibility this time, but the security forces clearly suspected an inside job. Who else has access to this high-security building? In recent months 12 staff members have been detained and questioned. One died in custody and another is missing.

Journalists here walk along a knife-edge. Two days before we arrived, a cameraman had been killed in the turbulent town of Deir Al-Zour – by the Free Syrian Army, we were told – bringing the total to five deaths in a year. Death threats by text or on Facebook, or by handwritten notes in their lockers at work, are common, as they are for other state media workers. Many journalists didn't want to be filmed, for security reasons. And we didn't expect anyone to voice criticisms of president Bashar Assad, whose portrait and photographs graced almost every room.

Under one of them, in jeans and t-shirt, sat Yara Saleh, a 27-year-old rising star of the station. She was more than happy to be filmed, and was just back from filming with the Syrian Army. It was an assignment that we had wanted to see for ourselves, but repeated requests and negotiations led to nothing. When we watched Yara edit her piece, its tone was very clear.

"In this mission we accompanied the brave Arabic Syrian Army, flushing out the remnants of the terrorists in Damascus Eastern Ghota," Yara opened her report. "We came back with video evidence proving Damascus Eastern Ghota has been emptied of terrorist armed groups. The brave men accompanied us in, and brought us out with them."

What the report didn't mention is that Eastern Ghota, like many of Damascus's suburbs, is regularly pounded by the Syrian airforce and artillery. Casualties are often civilians. What did Yara think of the damage to civilian homes?

"We say the destruction in Syria is because of the armed groups, but we don't say they are the only ones who do it," she explained. "But in the end responsibility for what's going on in Syria lies with the armed groups, because they are the ones that dragged the country into this cycle of war and weapons."

Four days later, 14 bodies were dug out of the rubble of an apartment block in the same area, as were another 13 nearby. Al Ikhbariya didn't report that.

Syria is a dangerous place for any journalist. On 10 August, Yara travelled to the Damascus suburb of Al Tell, the scene of heavy fighting. She and her three al Ikhbariya colleagues believed the area was back in the hands of the Syrian Army. They were wrong. What exactly happened in Al Tell is disputed. Both sides in Syria have manipulated events for propaganda purposes. It seems that Yara's vehicle was stopped by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). According to her, once they discovered which station the journalists were from, they started to beat them and apprehended the group.

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