Analysis

Thursday 21 August 2014

Truth is the biggest casualty in untold story of Syria's civil war

Jihadists are encouraging followers to kidnap western journalists who they suspect are spies, writes Barry Andrews

Barry Andrews

Published 23/02/2014 | 02:30

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FILE - This undated file image made available Feb. 22, 2012 by the Sunday Times in London, shows journalist Marie Colvin. Funeral services for war correspondent Colvin will be held Monday, March 12, 2012, at St. Dominic Roman Catholic Church in Oyster Bay on New York's Long Island.  (AP Photo/Sunday Times, File)
Marie Colvin, who killed near Homs in 2012

What happens to the character of a humanitarian catastrophe when there are no journalists to bear witness? Although Goal has significant programmes in Syria, none of our international staff have been able to visit there for some months. As a result we have not been able to bring any journalists over either. It has been reported that there are almost no western journalists in rebel-held parts of Syria at the moment.

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The reason is fairly understandable.

The other morning I was listening to Sam Dagher, the Wall Street Journal correspondent in Homs. He is staying in the UN hotel and went across the front lines into rebel-held areas with the UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent to cover the delivery of food aid to the besieged parts of the city. The dangers of venturing into the rebel-held areas were clearly demonstrated by the attack on the aid convoy.

This is where Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times reporter, was killed in 2012. Recently I had been speaking to former Sky news correspondent Ross Appleyard, who had been on shift in 2004 when a tape arrived of the beheading of Ken Bigley in Iraq. It was his duty to view the footage and it is something he says he will never forget. This was soon followed by the death of aid worker Margaret Hassan, while Ross's close family friend Terry Lloyd, of ITN, was killed in a firefight on his way to Basra when the media truck he was travelling in was hit by US Marines.

Journalists I have spoken to do not fear the bombs and the bullets but abduction is their worst nightmare.

Unfortunately, it has become a regular occurrence and has effectively cut rebel-held parts of Syria off from western journalism.

One jihadist website has encouraged the abduction of journalists who along with aid workers are suspected of espionage. Since the civil war began in Syria, 20 journalists have been killed and 30 more remain missing presumed abducted. The common complaint that important news items fall off the agenda too easily is particularly true of Syria. Despite the historic significance of the crisis, the result is that the coverage of the Syrian Civil War has been patchy, sporadic and sometimes ill-informed.

For now, such coverage as there is relies on videos posted online and the many citizen journalists whose authenticity is difficult to verify. It might have seemed a stretch to rely on these user-posted videos a few years back but the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence posted 13 such harrowing videos on its website in August 2013 in order to justify a military response to the chemical weapons attack of that month.

The US attack never happened but it is remarkable to think that the US administration was considering a military deployment based on something on YouTube. Now verification of user-posted material has become an industry in itself – Storyful being an example. So what are the consequences of the absence of conventional journalists from what has been described by the UN as the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the century? It means that public opinion here in the West is not moved by the humanitarian suffering.

The general public in Ireland and elsewhere has concluded that the Syrian crisis is a political one rather than a humanitarian one and has failed to separate one from the other. Many commentators and opinion formers have settled on the dismissive formula that Syria is a land of evil beyond redemption and that the two sides "are as bad as each other".

The absence of reliable contemporaneous media coverage is felt by international NGOs, like Goal, which struggle to raise much-needed funding to implement relief programmes and so rely on governments and institutional funding.

Secondly, the lack of public interest carries through to government level. If a trusted and recognised voice, say like Ross Appleyard, had been on the ground reporting from the chemical attacks, the vote against military action in the House of Commons last September might arguably have been closer. What is frustrating about the Syrian crisis is that the atrocities committed on both sides are no less appalling than what we have seen before. However, there is no one to testify for what is happening.

Since the chemical attacks in August, there have been numerous official reports of atrocities. The most significant of these was the report last month completed by a team chaired by the UK lawyer Sir Desmond De Silva QC, which documented 11,000 executions. In December 2013 the Independent International Inquiry on Syria (established by the UN) reported on such an extent of "enforced disappearances" as to amount to a crime against humanity.

But none of this has the contemporaneous impact of news reporting.

A way must be found to testify to the atrocities being committed and to preserve evidence for justice to be done in international law.

So long as the conflict remains out of sight, it will remain out of mind and continue indefinitely.

Barry Andrews is CEO of GOAL, who have been responding to the crisis in Syria since November, 2012.

Sunday Independent

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