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The perils of reporting in Syria

February 27, 2012 |  2:03 pm

Former Syrian flag

After two Western journalists were killed in the besieged city of Homs, the world was reminded of the risks faced by reporters covering Syria nearly a year into the uprising against President Bashar Assad.

The United Nations estimates that more than 6,000 people have died in the conflict. Opposition activists say 138 people were killed on Monday alone. The dead include eight journalists, including Syrian "citizen journalists," according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Times reporter Alexandra Zavis recently returned to Los Angeles from Syria, where she wrote about the fog of war faced by Arab League observers trying to tell what's happening, the growing polarization of Damascus, dueling protests and how the crisis is affecting the Syrian economy. She talked to us about the challenges of reporting in a country racked with conflict.

You knew a lot about Syria before you left. What surprised you once you were there?

One of the things we always wrestle with when covering Syria is trying to reconcile the often wildly divergent accounts we get from the government and opposition activists. So I was looking forward to getting a firsthand look. I quickly learned that even when the bullets are zinging past you, there are times when you still can’t be certain who is doing the shooting and what is the intended target. 

We often write that access is limited for media in Syria. Tell us about the barriers you encountered.

As a newspaper, we waited months to have one of our visa applications approved. We were only allowed in the country for 10 days. We were told not to bring in satellite equipment or laptops. We were assigned minders to accompany us on interviews. And we were asked not to leave the capital, Damascus, unless it was on a government-organized tour.

Syrian officials said this was for our safety. After a few days, the restrictions eased some. We were told, for example, that we could meet with officials on our own but would need to be accompanied for street interviews. We were also told that we could travel on our own, but must sign a letter absolving the government of responsibility for our security. Even if we provided such a letter, we would not be provided with media credentials to show if we were stopped at one of the many checkpoints.

How did those barriers change the way you did your reporting?

Many people were afraid to be seen talking to us in case they would be questioned later. Conversations in shops and restaurants were often short and furtive. Meetings with opposition activists turned into cloak-and-dagger affairs. We would start out in one taxi, switch to another. An intermediary would meet us at a busy traffic circle. No eye contact would be made. We would then follow the person down winding alleys, keeping several paces behind so that it would not look like we were together.

Did you dress differently to work in a conflict zone?

We brought bulletproof vests and helmets, which we used when we went into parts of the country where there was fighting. And I put on comfortable shoes if I thought I might have to make a run for it. But in Damascus, I dressed the way I would in any other big, cosmopolitan city.

How did people react to you as an American journalist? Were they happy to see you, suspicious, angry?

It varied. When we went into opposition strongholds in the suburbs of Damascus, we were mobbed by people desperate to tell us about their plight. Parents showed us pictures of children they said had been killed by government forces. Men showed us scars they said were from being tortured in prison. And they did this even though they feared they would be arrested as soon as we left.

In pro-government areas, people tended to be more suspicious of us, or afraid of who might be listening in. The Syrian government says it is the victim of a media conspiracy, and many of its supporters believe that. We heard from a lot of angry people at a pro-government rally in Damascus. But most of them made a distinction between the U.S. government, whose calls for President Bashar Assad to step down they passionately oppose, and ordinary visitors, who are sorely missed.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: A pre-Baath Syrian flag flutters during an anti-regime protest in the centre of Idlib in northwestern Syria last week. Credit: Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty Images