Published on October 23, 2012
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The dwindling Western media presence in Syria would lead audiences and readers to believe that it is very difficult for reporters to get into Syria.
Steffen Schwarzkopf is a reporter for the German TV station N24. In July he spent seven days reporting from the ground in Syria. Mr. Schwarzkopf spoke to Stephan Mueller and EJC about his experiences in Syria and his surprise at how easy it was to get into the country.
Today, the first half of our conversation.
EJC: Steffen, how did you and your crew get into Syria?
Schwarzkopf: While on an earlier reporting trip from the Turkish-Syrian border in mid-May we heard that the Syrian government announced it would issue 70 visas for foreign reporters. We applied at the Syrian embassy in Berlin and received our visas after just seven days. All we had to submit was passports, photos, CVs and a letter of intent for each crew member.
To be honest, I did not really expect that the Syrians would issue visas to us. But they called just two weeks after we submitted our documents, informed us that Damascus gave the green light and that the visas were ready for pick up. The process was surprisingly simple. However, the Syrians had three conditions: the visas had to be used within three months of date of issue, our stay was limited to seven days and we had to check in with the ministry of information once we enter the country so the ministry could monitor our activities.
EJC: What happened once you arrived in Syria?
Schwarzkopf: I did not have a local stringer but worked with a colleague who is based in Cairo and Berlin. We had worked together in Libya the year prior. He was absolutely essential since you need someone who speaks Arabic. And you need someone who you fully trust. It would have been difficult to work with a local person who you don’t know: How openly could you talk to him? Can you trust him? Does he only show you the people and locations you are “supposed to see”, the government wants you to see? With my trusted colleague from Cairo I did not have to worry about such issues.
Before we left Germany we did not inform the Syrians again. Once we landed in Damascus they did let us into the country but held back our equipment. We were told it would be the released the next day. In order to get the equipment back we would have to first check in with the ministry of information.
Then we were introduced to someone called an “information director” who accompanies foreign press. She is the one who has to approve all the locations where we had expressed interest in filming. Once she gave her approval, we got our equipment back.
Then we presented to her our location “wish list”. One of those locations was the city of Daraa, the southwestern Syrian city where the revolution supposedly had started. There we wanted to meet representatives of the opposition. We were told this would be difficult and dangerous. We were told that since the Syrian government is responsible for our well being, we should not get our hopes up that we would be allowed to go there.
Instead our information officer suggested we visit a military hospital, a visit to be monitored by an official of the ministry of information. It became quite clear that the ministry offered a government point of view here: we should see government soldiers wounded and killed in the heroic struggle to defend their country against insurgents. During our seven days it was a constant back and forth about what we are allowed to see and what we are not allowed to see.
For example: Two days after we had requested to go to Daraa, we were told we could not go. Very late the night before, around midnight, the trip was cancelled for “security reasons”. It was obvious that the cancellation intentionally came very late, so we would not be able to put together an alternative shooting schedule for the following day. It was a cat-and-mouse game.
However, we also had requested to visit Homs and that was finally approved.
EJC: Can you describe level of government supervision while you were actually reporting?
Schwarzkopf: In order to understand how tight the supervision was, it is important to note that every time we just stepped out into the streets with the camera, even without turning on the camera, officials - or people we thought were officials - showed up asked if we had a shooting permit.
Interestingly, the shooting permit we did have was never really handed over to us. It was held by the government official who accompanied us throughout our stay. This made extremely to venture out on our own.
It is also worth mentioning that the officials from the ministry of information often also worked for the Syrian secret police. However, my Egyptian colleague managed to get in touch with the Free Syrian Army, and they gave us permission to film them. We also filmed a so-called “Friday protest” against the Assad regime. This was not without risk but the footage we managed to capture was certainly worth the risk.
It is also quite interesting how we ended up in Homs after all. After the ministry of information had turned down our request, they offered to get us in touch with a person that would bring us there: a Russian-Palestinian woman who worked in Syria as a tourist guide … Officially, anyway.
She, plus two other government officials whose function was never made clear eventually brought us to Homs. The woman must have had some kind of elevated government status since every checkpoint we came to we were waived through after the guards peeked into the car and saw our “tourist guide”.
We were also surprised that they allowed us to see to the fought-over and destroyed neighborhoods of Homs. We were also lead to torture chambers, which the government officials claimed were used by the rebels and that the rebels tortured and killed civilians. This surprised me in so far that the Syrian government cannot really expect us to take their word for it and believe their explanations to be objective. Also, they had no control over how I would use the pictures of the torture facilities. It is inexplicable to me that they did not realize this, let’s say, “potential for ambiguity”. The trip to Homs was also a success since we were allowed to talk to civilians on the street without being monitored by our government “tourist guide”.
To my surprise no official stepped in when these civilians also showed us underground tunnels the rebels used.
EJC: We spoke about the “potential for ambiguity”. How did you eventually treat and use the images of the torture chambers?
Schwarzkopf: I used subjunctive tense a lot and words and phrases like “allegedly”, “according to government sources”, “in the government’s account”, “officials claim”, “according to the ministry of information” and so forth. And I regularly made it clear to the audience that it is virtually impossible for us in our situation to verify the information the government or the rebels for that matter give us.
Even after a week on the ground I did not really have the feeling that I know the “truth” of what is going on, neither when it comes to the government nor when it comes to what the opposition forces say. It is difficult to say what exactly is going on in Syria.
I also think that the reporting that has been done so far even by the relatively few journalists who have managed to get into the country has contributed in large parts to truly understanding the kind of horrors that go on in Syria.
The second half of this Q&A has been published here.
Tags: broadcast journalism, cairo, damascus, daraa, free syrian army, germany, homs, information director, information officer, libya, n24, rebels, reporter, steffen schwarzkopf, syria, syrian government,
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