Reporting Syria and future emergencies

Jess Hill has an interesting post over at The Global Mail, discussing how opposition activists in Syria are distorting the information fed to journalists…

But it’s not the information — it’s someinformation. Syrian activists are not journalists — they’re activists. They’re risking their lives to get their story out, and many pursue a specific agenda: to convince the international community to intervene and arm the opposition.

Of course, it will come as little shock to most journalists that activists are prepared to twist the truth to serve their agenda. That’s the deal. I interview you and get a story, while you get a chance to promote your message. That’s why most journalists are professional cynics. Why is this person telling me this? What do they gain? What are other people saying? Whose side are they on?

This much is obvious and is no great surprise.

But the real issue of course is that it is so difficult for journalists to get in and close up to the truth. Those that have done – again as Hill points out with the help and guidance of opposition activists – will still be bombarded with propaganda, but at least there is a chance of seeing, smelling and tasting things first hand. Most have to make do with reporting from outside and that’s what makes it so hard to judge…

In the short term at least, journalists have little choice but to continue to rely on activists for much of their information. The challenge for the media, however, is to go beyond the heroes versus villains narrative that’s developed over the past year, and to interrogate some harder truths.

Why, after a year of horrific violence, do significant number of Syrians still support the regime, or at least the status quo? Why, after so long, have there still been no major defections from the government? And who are the armed opposition groups known as the Free Syrian Army?

Regular readers of this blog will know where I’m about to go…

Now does this sound familiar? It sounds to me much like coverage of the Darfur conflict as it unfolded. Journalists prevented from entry relying on a small collection of opposition voices, rebel commanders who know what they want and articulate it via satphones. In the case of Sudan, the cause was taken up by a lobby with a very definite interventionist agenda, fuelled by dissidents outside the country.

So the point I want to make is that ultimately this is the way coverage of humanitarian crises is going. Famine and conflict do not occur in liberal democracies. They occur in oppressive regimes that want to keep journalists out. Next year it could be North Korea.

Journalists will increasingly be reporting by remote control. That should not be an excuse for failing to question the source of information. That’s the job. And just because our sources are battling an undeniably BAD MAN, we shouldn’t assume they are telling the truth or take anything for granted. And that goes for Oxfam, Human Rights Watch and George Clooney too.

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