Published on October 29, 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 second half of our conversation. The first is online here.
EJC: How difficult is it to verify information?
Schwarzkopf: Well, some of it is a matter of common sense. Let’s take what is called the “Friday protests” for example. Everybody who participates risks his or her life. So I do not assume that people I interviewed there were not part of the opposition or were even some kind of government agent. While I think it is likely that the government has agents amongst the protestors who look very closely at who is participating, I do not think they would bother to feed us with false information.
We also have to consider that our coverage of the protest was “unofficial”. We did not let the government know that we would film there. The government puts up checkpoints on Friday to prevent people from getting to the protest rallies. Protestors avoid the checkpoints by getting up very early, going to Friday prayer and afterward streaming out of the mosques to start their protest marches.
EJC: What kind of arrangements did it take to conduct interviews?
Schwarzkopf: When we met with the Free Syrian army, the arrangements were very elaborate. The rebels implemented lots safety precautions to make sure government agents did not follow us. We had to switch cars several times. We were ordered to look down at the floor and not out the window during the ride. We eventually ended up in some small backyard to meet a handful of opposition fighters. I do not think that in this case we fell victim to any kind of manipulation.
On the other hand, when you interview people on the street, it is obvious that you are a Western news team with a government official in tow. This is a different the situation and subsequently we could not find a single individual who was critical of Assad.
Sometimes you have to be able to read between the lines. We talked to a person who sold goods at a market and asked him how business was lately. We received the expected answer - “increasingly bad and getting worse for the last year or so because tourists no longer come to Syria”.
After I asked whether he thinks that Assad’s war against his own people might be the reason, the market trader turned from somebody who so far spoke English very fluently to somebody who did not understand my question but simply responded with “I don’t understand” and a very telling smile on his face.
EJC: How did the Syria you saw compare with the Syria you saw and read about prior to your visit?
Schwarzkopf: Like many of my colleagues in Europe and Germany, I have received a lot of information on Syria form the Internet and Internet video. I had the impression that the city of Homs is completely leveled. Yes, many neighborhoods look like the scenery of a Hollywood war movie.
Then again, two blocks down the road there was a sense of normalcy. Calm traffic, people going shopping, sitting in coffee shops.
Yes, we had some insight into reality and the day-to-day in Syria but it is pretty obvious that our insight was by no means complete. It is clear that I know more about what is going on in Syria then I knew before I went on this reporting trip. I know we have transmitted back pictures to Germany that clearly give our audience a sense of the magnitude of this war. I am convinced the trip has brought what I would call “added value” not only to me as a reporter but more importantly to my audience.
By the way - we have applied for new visas. They were approved 2 weeks ago and it looks like we will go there in December. My goal is to get into the city Aleppo this time, where many say the decisive battles of the civil war in Syria will be fought.
EJC: You mentioned earlier in our conversation that in May the Syrian government issued a total of 70 visas. Does that mean Syria was swarming with foreign media?
Schwarzkopf: We met colleagues from other countries. We stayed in the same hotel in which the United Nations observers were housed, the “Dama Rose” hotel in Damascus.
This was not only a safe hotel but the direct contact with UN officials made it easier to follow official UN observers around with our camera. According to the rules for UN observers, they must not be monitored or supervised by any government official. That again opened up an opportunity for us to get into places that we would not get to travel on our own.
Explicitly, travelling with UN delegation enabled us to get into the city of Duma, a city to which the Syrian ministry of information had denied us access to. With UN protection so to speak we were able to film in Duma and were able to interview civilians. In the UN hotel was also meet a French team from TF1 and a Dutch TV team. My impression was that at least two or so foreign teams were present at all times.
However, that does not mean that there were not more journalists in the country.
Many cross what is known “the green border” between Turkey and Syria for example. They do that to avoid government monitoring of any kind. I also have to say that I know that not every news organisation that applies for a Syrian visa will get one. The German news magazine “Der Spiegel” - as far as I know - has made several attempts to obtain a visa in the last 18 month but had no success.
Sadly enough, in general the coverage of the events in Syria has died down in recent month. I am currently in Washington D.C. and it seems to me that on the large U.S. networks the coverage also has been cut back. The Syrian situation is also in stark contrast to the coverage of the conflict in Libya. There journalists were coming and going as they pleased. There was something going on what I would call “front tourism”. So many journalists went to the war zones got their coverage and pictures that they almost fell over each other. Syria is the opposite since Damascus strictly controls what news organisation can come into the country.
EJC: Any idea why Syria allowed you, N24, to go to but denied visas to Der Spiegel?
Schwarzkopf: As far as I can tell it has to do with the fact that Syrian embassy in Berlin looks very closely how the different outlets cover the Syrian civil war.
Der Speigel reporters travelled to Syria very early on in conflict, entered the country illegally and now have as a news organisation become a “persona-non-grata”.
Maybe there was an expectation that we would report less critically. I don’t know. Since my visa was granted I have not thought about the why and obviously have never asked about the reasons. Which does not mean I was not surprised to have received a visa in the first place. I also have to say it raised the profile of my station and it raises the profile of a news program if it can succeed in getting a reporter – in my case even legally - into a war zone to which access so far was restricted, if at times thought to be impossible.
From my point of view the trip was a success.
EJC: How dangerous was it to be a reporter in Syria?
Schwarzkopf: For me it was not dangerous at all. I never worried that I would end up with a bullet in my head.
This is in contrast to Libya, where we travelled with the rebels and went right in the thick of gunfire and mortar exchanges. Syria was not like that. The first time I thought about potential dangers was when we entered Duma with the UN delegation avoiding main roads and eventually had to hurry to get out of there since it was rumored that snipers were hiding in the area.
To make it clear, we did not see any combat. In Homs we heard gunfire and mortars but it must have been 2 or 3 kilometers away from our location. We were not in real danger. Our struggles were the tedious negotiations with the ministry of information for access: Which locations are we allowed to visit? Why is a location we liked to visit off limits? It needs to be said, however, that there is real danger for journalists in places like Aleppo. There the likelihood is highly increased that you become the victim of an attack by government helicopters and it is also a fact that several journalists have died in Syria.
EJC: How difficult was it to transmit back you reports to Germany?
Schwarzkopf: We transmitted from the hotel via uploads to our ftp. The uploads were particularly difficult on Fridays. I assume the reason is that the anti-government protests happen on Fridays and many opposition members use the Internet to upload their material. It is also possible that the government therefore interferes with the technical capacities.
We transmitted five news stories; we did three or four live reports and a 45-minute documentary.
EJC: What about censorship?
Schwarzkopf: I obviously do not know if anybody has monitored our broadcast in Germany. What I can say is that nobody looked over my shoulder during my editing or monitored my voice-over. We had relative privacy in the hotel during the video editing and we did not have to present our raw or edited material to a government official. Let me put it this way: I think I could have put together an anti-government story, would have gotten away with it and the story would have made it to Germany. As far as I can see there was no censorship of any kind regarding the content we broadcast.
EJC: The international organisation Save the Children has recently issued a report called “Untold Atrocities” in which Syrian children share stories of experiencing and witnessing cruelties. Have you seen any violence against children?
Schwarzkopf: No, I have not seen anything specific regarding injured and tortured children.
However, when you see the horrible destruction in Homs it is clear that civilians are gravely affected. We spoke to members of the opposition who told us that children are being targeted and taken away from their parents as a form of extortion or psychological torture of parents. But that is second-hand information that you can believe or disregard. I have not seen affected children firsthand. It becomes pretty clear that civilians are suffering a great deal.
We know from the UN that 1.5 million Syrians were displaced or fled within Syria and in Turkey alone. We have 100,000 refugees and amongst them many, many children. But, again, I have not witnessed or spoke to children that have been mistreated, kidnapped or tortured and can neither confirm nor deny the Save the Children reports.
EJC: Do you have a prognosis for the future of Syria?
Schwarzkopf: Hard to predict. What I know for sure is that it will not be a matter of days or weeks until this conflict is resolved. I am convinced that sooner or later Assad and his inner circle will fall.
What I am very worried about is the hate. The hate I have seen in the country between the different factions. So many crimes have been committed. Sunnis against Shiites, Shiites against Sunnis. Also, Christians have been pulled into the violence. Revenge plays an important role in the thinking in Syria – as hard as this might sound – and therefore I am convinced that even after Assad has fallen the bloodshed will continue when the Sunnis will take revenge on the Shiites or on the Alawites.
Thank you for taking time to talk to the EJC and please be careful on your next trip to Syria.
Tags: aleppo, assad, damascus, europe, foreign media, free syrian army, german tv station, germany, homs, internet video, libya, media presence, n24, news magazine, reporter, reporting, save the children, spiegel, steffen schwarzkopf, stephan mueller, syria, syrian government, united nations, war reporting,
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