SYRIA | Syria’s War Through a Syrian Lens

Reported by Laurent Y. Peter, Hira Nafees Shah, Sana Beg, Anastassia Smorodinskaya and Sonia Paul

By Sonia Paul

The Syrian regime has blocked nearly all foreign correspondents from legally entering Syria to cover its two-year-old civil war. Foreign correspondents have had to sneak into the country, and dozens of freelancers have taken extreme and deadly risks to get otherwise impossible stories.

But day in and day out, the main source of video from the war is Syrian citizens — many of them young university students, others former technologists who know how to circumvent government censors. They’ve used cellphones and cameras to turn an activist eye on the conflict. These activists — most would not call themselves journalists — have uploaded hours and hours of raw, graphic video from the frontlines onto YouTube, so much so that “the war on YouTube” has become the catchphrase for Syria.

Some say video offers a veracity that words alone cannot. “If you write about it, they can imagine a little. But if you film about it, they can imagine the right picture,” said Muhammad Al Hamwi, a Syrian computer repairman-turned-activist. Al Hamwi doesn’t consider himself a journalist although he’s documented the revolution since it began in March 2011.

Al Hamwi is open about his work, but much of the video coming out of Syria comes on the Internet anonymously, with little explanation or context. Foreign news organizations and individual viewers have difficulty determining what’s happening — or even whether the video is truthful. With pro-regime supporters uploading one kind of video narrative, and Syrian rebel groups uploading another, YouTube has become a propaganda machine for everyone involved in the conflict. Fake videos have made the rounds on the Internet, amplified by social media.

“There’s been a lot of video use from other conflicts, from years ago, from other regions, other continents, that people have tried to pass off as videos from Syria,” said Tracey Shelton, senior correspondent for GlobalPost who reports regularly from inside rebel-held areas of Syria. She previously dissected fake videos passed around by both sides in the conflict.

In wrestling with questions of context and veracity, the New York Times launched a new feature, Watching Syria’s War, in which the Times curates some of the thousands of hours of war footage from Syrians, providing context for specific videos and acknowledging when it cannot verify certain aspects of them.

It’s new territory for the Times, said Ian Fisher, a former foreign correspondent who oversees the project. “We admit frankly to the point that its imperfect, because we genuinely don’t know what’s inside these videos,” said Fisher. “But it does document, it does show the progression of the war.”

Liam Stack, the editor of the project who is fluent in Arabic, says this kind of journalism — cataloging, archiving and recording primary sources — exists in the “grey areas” of reporting.

“There’s shades of what a historian does. There’s also shades of a prosecutor would do,” Stack said.

“It’s certainly not traditional journalism where you put someone on the ground,” Fisher said. “It’s kind of a journalism because we have no other option,” Fisher added.

As the Times grapples with how to cover the complicated story for a general audience, the pop-up news site Syria Deeply targets a smaller, niche audience — policy makers and others invested in Syria for political or emotional reasons.

The single-topic site features op-eds written by its online community. It curates other articles and social media on the crisis, and hosts Google+ Hangouts as sort of mini talk shows.
Syria has become an issue-driven story for both the ordinary citizen and the journalist. It’s undoubtedly complicated reporting for traditional media. But it’s opened up a world of non-traditional sources.

“Before we were so limited in the information we could get, because they were only coming from one source,” said Shelton. “I think what we’re seeing now is a much better overall coverage of these conflicts.”