Syria, The Struggle to Verify on the Ground Information

(di Stephen Dockery, The Daily Star). One of the most cited sources of information from cities under siege in Syria says he is starting a news agency in Lebanon to sift through the barrage of unverified reports coming out of the country.

Conflicting and clearly exaggerated information has increasingly come out of Syria from opposition activist-journalists, many of whom want to attract international attention as much as to report facts. Recent investigations from Syria showed some sources in the country staging videos and reports.

Journalists have struggled to determine what information to trust among a deluge of YouTube videos and reports.

“It’s disgusting,” said Omar Shakir, who became a go-to source of information during the siege of Baba Amr in Homs, about the quality of reporting coming out of the country from local sources. “They send me a daily report, but I throw it all away.”

Shakir wants to create a 20 person news agency based in Lebanon to remedy the problem.

He will have to walk a fine line between activism and reporting.

Shakir makes no qualms about standing with the opposition, but he also stresses the need for journalistic integrity in order to be taken seriously, an unusual position in a politicized environment. If he’s successful it could lead to the maturing of the Syrian opposition, showing it values truth as well as political ends.

“We will focus just on the media and we will never be with a political party,” Shakir said. “The point is to find someone who saw it with his own eyes, who saw what happened.”

Shakir, who has assembled one of the largest networks of sources across Syria over the last year, said he is in the process of hiring a staff of 20 reporters, 10 in Syria and 10 in Lebanon. Shakir envisions his upstart publishing a daily digest from the three biggest news areas in Syria and being a hub where other news organizations can get in touch with sources in the field.

He said he wants to bring news principles to the local reporters who have the best access to information. Commitment to critically analyzing sources of information and accepting other viewpoints will be required to be part of his news staff, he said.

Undoubtedly, Shakir will face challenges in establishing a structured news organization in the middle of a bloody conflict. The organization is unlikely to receive a license in Lebanon and its reporters could be targeted in the field. Maintaining impartiality in a fiercely politicized environment will also be difficult.

The organization, which will start out with several Syria reporters in the next few months, will likely be based out of the north Lebanon coastal city of Tripoli. The group considered Beirut, but found the influence of pro-regime groups in the city would pose too great a risk to their safety.

Nadim Houry, the head of Human Rights Watch in Beirut, welcomed the establishment of an organization with a commitment to truth.

“I think it’s definitely very important and very needed,” Houry said.

“There’s such a dearth of on-the-ground reporting, particularly investigative reporting,” he said.

Houry, who often sifts through reports to find first-hand sources to verify information, said the organization would face considerable challenges to be successful. They would need to ensure their reporters could safely and independently file stories from the field, he said.

If the quest for truth isn’t lost during a movement for revolution, Houry said Shakir’s news agency could also be a positive move for the future of the country’s media, which currently is dominated by second hand sources.

“I think it’s very important to report on the crisis in Syria, but also to set the stage for fact-based reporting not only for today but in the future,” he said. (The Daily Star, 29 maggio 2012)