Where I’ve Never Set Foot

Barred from Syria, a journalist must make sense of what she’s told
By Alessandria Masi

The morning after the attack, my deputy editor and I lit cigarettes as we squatted on the green couch in our closet-size Beirut office, hanging out the window and talking about what we thought had really happened in Syria.

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Attacks on the Press book cover
Attacks on the Press book cover

Here were the facts: On September 17, 2016, the U.S. and several coalition partners had launched several air strikes on a Syrian military base in the province of Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, killing 62 soldiers. Syria, at that point, had been on the sixth day of a ceasefire, brokered the week before by U.S. and Russian officials, but the situation was bad. The following days in Syria were some of the bloodiest since the start of the conflict in 2011.

Our news site, Syria Deeply, had already published a report on the attack–mostly bare-bone facts and whatever official statements had been issued by all concerned. We included the official U.S. statement confirming the strike, saying it was an accident. We reported that the United Nations immediately convened an emergency session in an attempt to salvage the already shaky truce. We even reported that Moscow, enraged, said the attack was proof that the U.S. was coordinating with the so-called Islamic State group (IS, or ISIS; the group’s militants were apparently able to advance in the area just minutes after the air strike). These were statements released to the press, to be used by the press to transmit information to the public. But you would be hard-pressed to find anyone, including the two of us, who believed that all three statements were true.

To me, it seemed an insult to the public’s intelligence for us to report that the U.S. was not able to recognize a military base. I am wary of believing anything President Bashar al-Assad says, but had to concede that he wasn’t completely wrong in pointing out that “you don’t commit a mistake for more than one hour.” Yet I’ve also been privy to U.S. strategy long enough to know that direct coordination between Washington and ISIS would be an unnecessary risk when there were plenty of willing middlemen at both parties’ disposal, and it seemed unlikely that the U.S. would willingly obliterate its own ceasefire deal.

Syrian children react after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad near the Syrian Arab Red Crescent center in Damascus on May 6, 2015. (Reuters/Bassam Khabieh)
Syrian children react after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad near the Syrian Arab Red Crescent center in Damascus on May 6, 2015. (Reuters/Bassam Khabieh)

A few days later, over wine and Armenian food on my balcony in Beirut, another journalist shared that a prominent NGO spokesperson blamed the attack on Russia, saying Moscow had cleared the target with the Americans before the strike.

None of these possibilities made it into the news brief. It’s not because we too were lazy to confirm our theories, nor because we didn’t have the sources or lacked understanding of Syria. Six years into the conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, flooded other countries with nearly 4.8 million refugees and drawn in foreign powers from all corners of the world, journalists reporting on Syria must censor themselves through omission. This isn’t new — covering Syria has always involved a certain amount of self-censorship, either for security reasons (names are always changed) or for ethical reasons (we omit pictures of the dead). But now, ironically, we do it to try to remain unbiased. We walk on eggshells for the sake of balance and because the majority of us cannot go to Syria to see things for ourselves, which means we are forced to report only what we are told.

As a journalist and managing editor of Syria Deeply, I realized that omitting our theories and reporting only those questionable statements accomplished two things: Readers were informed that the strike happened, and as a publication, we left very little room for accusations of bias. We reported all sides’ statements.

I have a recurring nightmare about Syria. I wake up one day, when the war is over, to find that all the information we reported as fact–everything we thought was true –was not. It’s an irrational thought. As I write this, the conflict has claimed the lives of some 400,000 people, families have been torn apart, cities have been destroyed, multitudes have fled (and often perished), overwhelming other countries, and millions of Syrians don’t know where they will get their next meal. Those are undeniable facts. The war is taking a huge toll. But I haven’t seen it myself, and there are few people I trust to be my eyes on the ground, because after six years of fighting, the agenda-less are a miniscule percentage of the Syrian population. Government statements are often blatantly misleading, and fear of retribution from government or non-state actors leads civilians and activists to bend or sometimes obliterate the truth. For those of us covering the conflict from the outside, it is hard to know what’s really happening, so we either self-censor or grudgingly provide a platform for people whose accounts may be wildly divergent or entirely untrue.

When Russia first began its air campaign in Syria in October 2015, I was in Beirut. As the first reports of the strike came out, I called a Syrian source in the town that was hit, who provided me with recordings of intercepted radio communications in Russian coming from the warplanes. Moscow had already put out their statement claiming to have joined the war in Syria under the pretense of fighting ISIS. But looking at my map of Syria, I found the first town that had been hit circled in red–it had been under siege for more than a year and was under the control of a Syrian rebel group, not ISIS.

My editors in New York were skeptical. “Why would Russia bomb the rebels when they have explicitly said they are bombing ISIS?” they asked. “It doesn’t make sense.” The majority of news outlets had already published the Russian government statement about their fight against ISIS, and I was contradicting this. My sources were part of the opposition and because of their affiliation I had to be cautious; they had every reason to lie.

In the days that followed, it became common knowledge that regardless of Moscow’s official statement, Russia was in Syria to defend Assad and this meant targeting any group that opposed him, including the rebels. Yet we continued to include the official Moscow statement in our reporting.

Politicians have always lied, and it has always been the responsibility of journalists to filter these statements or juxtapose them with evidence proving them false. But in Syria even evidence is presented subjectively, and obtaining your own eyewitness account can mean jail or a death sentence.

So we choose to err on the safe side, which often sounds like this:

Russian air strikes hit a hospital in Aleppo, though Moscow claims it is fighting ISIS in Syria.

Air strikes hit a school in Syria. It is unclear who carried out the attack — Syria, Russia and the U.S.-led coalition (the only players with air power in the country) all denied involvement.

Patrick Cockburn wrote in his book The Age of Jihad, “Media reporting has been full of certainties that melt away in the face of reality. In Syria, more than most places, only eyewitness information is worth much.” It is this that worries me the most. I have seen thousands of photos, videos and reports. I have spoken to dozens of people inside. I have Skyped with activists, detainees and victims. I have gone to conferences. I have met with advocacy groups and tracked the work of humanitarian aid organizations. I have been a second-hand witness to the war and reported closely on it, yet I have never set foot in Syria. Admitting this has given me much anxiety over being labeled a fraud, but it’s the truth, as it is for many international journalists covering the war.

In the early years of the war, when foreign journalists were going into Syria frequently, some with government visas and others crossing the border illegally, I was still in university. When it was finally my turn to cover the war in 2014 journalists were being targeted. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that more than 100 journalists have been killed since the start of the conflict. As a direct consequence, coverage has become constricted, most often limited to second-hand accounts.

Today, there are dozens of Syrian journalists still inside the country risking their lives to report the news. (CPJ investigated the deaths of at least 90 in 2015, but was only able to confirm that 14 were killed that year because of their work.) However, most are confined to either opposition-held or government-held areas and cannot cross frontlines for their work. Some are able to publish their own work on local and international media outlets, but the majority transmit information through their social media accounts, which foreign journalists pick up.

Most foreign journalists reporting on Syria today are doing so from outside the country’s borders. Entering the country illegally is far too dangerous and even those who take the risk run into difficulties finding news outlets to publish their work; many news outlets prohibit accepting freelancers’ reports due to the personal risk. Visas to report in government-controlled areas are not impossible to obtain, but after being hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army for my reporting and writing extensively on ISIS, my chances of getting one are slim.

Some foreign journalists still go into Syria, and despite the risks, I tried to go myself at the end of 2015 when Syrian activists started a media campaign to draw attention to the thousands of people living under siege in Madaya, outside Damascus. Civilians have been trapped and starving in Madaya since July 2015, but as a result of the media campaign, by year’s end the city was being covered in the media with unprecedented intensity. Pictures and reports from Syrian journalists and activists of emaciated, undernourished and starved children flooded Twitter and Facebook pages.

The people in Madaya are apparently surrounded and being besieged by Hezbollah, the armed Lebanese group fighting alongside the Syrian regime. Yet when I began trying to get into the city, Hezbollah was telling an entirely different story than was elsewhere reported: There was no siege; people weren’t starving; there was food. So unwavering was Hezbollah about this that some of its fighters offered to take me to the outskirts of the town so I could see for myself the available cornucopia of supplies.

I can’t go into all the details of why that trip never happened (ironically, I must self-censor), but after several calls and one home visit in Beirut from the FBI, I decided the risk would be too high. Months later, Hezbollah and Syrian regime supporters in Beirut continue to echo their claims, while pictures of emaciated civilians continue to circulate and at least 86 people are known to have died of starvation.

Madaya is a microcosm of the Syrian conflict, and raises questions I have pondered since I began covering the war: How could two groups so firmly expound drastically different truths about the situation? And who is right?

A cornerstone of the Syrian regime’s PR campaign since the beginning of the conflict has been to dismiss photographs of violence or the brutal effects of war as opposition or “terrorist” propaganda. Even as I write this, Assad has just told the Associated Press that “if there’s really a siege around the city of Aleppo, people would have been dead by now.” But the humanitarian workers and activists on the ground send evidence of the siege nearly every day. Assad has an answer for that, too: “If you want to talk about some who allegedly are claiming this, we tell them how could you still be alive? … The reality is telling.”

Yet the portrayal of reality in Syria is almost always biased. At the start of the war, the majority of people inside Syria were forced to choose a side. Soon after, foreign governments followed suit, voicing support for one cause or another. For the most part, foreign media is still trying to resist this demand to declare allegiance in Syria. But with every story we tell, we risk being labeled either pro-opposition or pro-government: If we publish that Assad is starving his people, we are pro-opposition; if we include that Assad denies these claims, we are enabling a criminal regime. It is meanwhile extremely difficult for us to report undeniable truths from the field.

In response, we have begun to adapt to being sequestered, finding ways to more accurately report on Syria even if we aren’t there. During the siege of Aleppo (still ongoing at the time of writing) dozens of Syrian journalists and activists communicated real-time updates through a massive WhatsApp group, answering foreign journalists’ questions and sharing photos and videos. For the most part, though, our coverage is necessarily watered down. It is carefully couched and neutralized just in case it isn’t true. It is difficult to call a spade a spade when you haven’t seen it yourself.

There are days when we throw up our hands in frustration and feign surrender, lamenting that, “Everyone is lying to me about Syria!” Still, we can’t give up. Everyone may be lying, but the war is real. We may not get visas, and even if we do, our risk assessments for trips to Syria may not be approved. Our attempts to uncover the truth may continue to be met with threats and accusations of bias. As long as there are people in Syria who want to tell their stories, we will try to find a way to make them heard. But for the majority of us, being denied the ability to observe circumstances firsthand means that our necessary circumspection and caution, and our desire to remain unbiased, become a form of censorship, too.

Alessandria Masi is managing editor of Syria Deeply and Beirut bureau chief of News Deeply.