Syria and the quest for objectivity

When it comes to press coverage, analysis, commentary, and blogging on the Arab Spring, objectivity has been a rare commodity — no more so than in the case of reporting the unrest/revolution/rebellion/civil war in Syria.

The difficulty in getting a clear picture of what’s happening inside a country now wracked by violence — a country in which so many outside powers have strong interests in the outcome — has been greatly compounded by the barriers to reporting imposed on journalists.

One journalist who has been able to conduct a more extensive investigation than any other is now being forced to defend the integrity of his work because he is being accused of spying for the Assad regime. The journalist in question is Nir Rosen and anyone who has followed his career over the last decade would know that it is absurd to imagine that he would compromise his work (and life) in this way.

Unfortunately, there are those with an endless appetite for conspiracy theories who are convinced that truth must always be a guarded secret demanding to be exposed rather than something much more complex that no one can fully discern. For those with such a mindset, there is probably little Rosen can say which will allay their suspicions, yet since his work is now being challenged he has been compelled to speak out.

Nir Rosen writes: In my nine years as a journalist I was accused of being an agent for the Americans, Iranians, Israelis, Qataris, the Afghan government and others. We journalists are used to these silly and ignorant slurs. The Taliban sentenced me to execution once because they thought I was a spy. But they are less sophisticated than others, I thought. So while I feel it is beneath me to respond to the contemptible people who now accuse of being an agent for the Syrian regime, I must do so anyway.

I have been accused of having “contact” with the Syrian regime. Of course this is true. I am not ashamed of it. I am a journalist. It is my job. We struggle to obtain contacts and access. This is the currency of our profession. I spent four months in Syria during the uprising writing and filming for al Jazeera. Though my last article was published by Foreign Policy.

I requested and received two visas which allowed me to enter Syria. No conditions or limitations were placed on me. I tried to help other journalists enter Syria one way or another as well. In January I was in touch with my friend, the late Anthony Shadid, who was frustrated that he was being denied a visa and was asking me for advice on whether he could get a visa or from where he should try to enter.

In the past I have requested and received access from American military Public Affairs Officers to embed in Iraq or Afghanistan, from Mahdi Army leaders in Sadr City, al Shabab commanders in Somalia, Mexican drug cartel leaders, Mujahedin leaders in Falluja, former Taliban Minister of Defense Mullah Baradar, and worst of all even from the Israeli Government Press Office so that I could operate in Occupied Palestine.

Some journalists compromise their work to obtain access and the privileges that come with it. I never have. As my work shows. And which is why I lose access as much as I gain it. Doing your job right often means burning those bridges and later losing access, but that’s part of the process of finding out truths people dont want to be revealed. The goal of my work has always been to challenge and subvert those in power. Any power. My own views on journalism can be found here.

I believe the trove of leaked emails from the Syrian government are indeed all real. The emails which contain my name are certainly real, I don’t mind saying. They are from people who were introduced to me and other western journalists as media and public relations advisers to the Syrian government or the president himself. They are the same people who arranged for the ABC News interview with Barbara Walters, for the Sunday Times interview with Bashar al Assad, for Agence France Presse, and for others to enter Syria. This is normal. How else does a journalist enter a country such as Syria?

In November 2011 after al Jazeera conducted a live interview with Iran’s president Ahmedinajad, I tried to persuade media advisers to the Syrian president that they should grant a similar one to al Jazeera’s English network. I sent them several emails trying to persuade them it was a good idea, including an email with my CV and biography. I also met with these media officials to try to persuade them.

And as this November email also shows, I forwarded them a link to a BBC program on Syria done by the heroic Paul Wood in order to try to persuade them that journalists are coming in anyway and they might as well let al Jazeera in formally.

Importantly, the fact that I had to send my resume and biography to establish my credentials for an interview bid with Assad and the very need for sending these things shows I was not an agent for them. And I never communicated any information to the authorities that was not already in the public domain by that point. It was normal for journalists to receive visas by communicating with the Syrian government back in November and I was not the only one. Now it is assumed that journalists have to sneak into Syria.

They did not want to let media they perceived as “hostile” to enter Syria so I sent links or told them about the many excellent (in my view) news programs that had already been aired by journalists from BBC, Sky News and other European agencies who had sneaked into Homs, meaning it was pointless to deny al Jazeera access when everybody can get in.

I did not inform on journalists who were already in Syria. In fact in my four months in Syria I never crossed paths with a journalist who had sneaked into the country and like the rest of us, I only found out that they had been in Syria once they left and published their stories or aired their news programs. These journalists, like Paul Wood, Ghaith Abdul Ahad, or my late friends Anthony Shadid and Marie Colvin, did amazing and important work. But because they were “embedded” with the opposition in one location their view was limited. My visa allowed me to travel throughout the country and obtain a more holistic picture of the situation. There is nothing else in English, Arabic or any other language as extensive as the coverage of Syria I was able to provide based on a visa that allowed me entry and my own resourcefulness which made it possible for me to travel from Daraa to Idlib unhindered. [Continue reading…]

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