Citizen Journalists in Syria ‘Risking Their Lives’ For News

Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim has trained more than 100 citizen journalists in Syria and helped establish a number of independent newspapers and magazines. REUTERS/Thomson Reuters Foundation/Tristan Martin

LONDON, April 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A series of short films, “Syria‘s Rebellious Women,” by Zaina Erhaim tells the stories of women who stepped into positions of leadership and responsibility usually reserved for men.

If such remarkable women went undocumented, the Syrian filmmaker says, “the male winners will be writing the history, and the heroines will be forgotten.”

Erhaim, being honored with a 2016 Freedom of Expression award from Index on Censorship, has trained more than 100 citizen journalists in Syria and helped establish a number of independent newspapers and magazines.

In an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, she discussed their challenges and how Syrians carry on despite the war and chaos around them.

THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION: At the beginning of the Syrian conflict, there were many foreign journalists reporting from the country. As they began to leave, what kind of space did this open up for Syrian journalists?

ERHAIM: It created the need for Syrians to do the journalism work themselves and to be citizen journalists. But sadly, this didn’t make the citizen journalists credible enough for the international media to take them seriously and deal with them as actual journalists.

It’s very sad to see that an agency is dealing with the same citizen journalist for four years, taking all their credible news from him, but when it comes to payment or to health insurance, or to considering him as a correspondent, they don’t.

TRF: What were your aims with the training courses you ran in Syria?

ERHAIM: When the revolution started, many of my friends who had no experience in journalism at all, they started looking for a journalist that they can trust. I decided that I’m going to do my best to give them those skills that I gained so they could be taken seriously.

They’re risking their lives so that this news can go out.

So what I have been trying to do, mainly, is just to help them be more professional and be taken seriously.

TRF: What challenges do female citizen journalists in particular face in Syria?

ERHAIM: I think movement is a big thing. You always need a male guardian to be able to move. At checkpoints you’re going to be asked, ‘Where is your guardian?’ If you’re seen alone on the street, they would look like, ‘Why is she moving on her own?’

For me as a trainer, I had to do lots of efforts to be taken seriously by the male trainees, like ‘How could a woman know better than a man?’

And everything that the woman is doing is much more in the spotlight, compared to the man. The smallest mistake she makes would have a huge impact, while a man could kill someone on the street by mistake and no one would question him.

TRF: What do you think will happen to the status of women when the war is over?

ERHAIM: I believe when a woman goes to the street and starts working, and being financially independent, it’s impossible to get her back to be a housewife waiting for her husband to give her cash. Many of them have become opinion leaders.

But I think for regular women, especially in the last two years where the society has become very militarized, they had this kind of ‘We need to stay at home, we’re too afraid, our children are not secure.’ So it became more and more closed.

Those few activists who are still active, they are trying to break these barriers, they are trying to get these women out and to tell them that like us, you are also capable of doing things.

TRF: One of the striking things about your series of short documentary films is the humor. How do Syrians carry on under such difficult conditions?

ERHAIM: Humor is a huge part in our daily lives. We even make jokes of death, of anything you wouldn’t imagine, like torture. We mock ourselves, we mock our fears. I think this is one of our ways of resisting and going on. Otherwise, we would really become much more insane than we are already.

We live, we go for trips, we go for picnics, although on the last picnic I went to, we had three snipers who were on the Aleppo castle. We were exposed to a machine gun – an M16 – but we just had a picnic. We hid among the grass. We had lots of food and drinks, and we enjoyed the picnic.

TRF: There is a whole generation in Syria now that has never known peace. What future do you see for these children?

ERHAIM: The most frightening scene for me is when you see how comfortable they are dealing with death, with graves. Like a kid was playing on his father’s grave in one of the parks in Aleppo city, and then he found some grasses on it, and he cut some of them and said, “Mama, could we put that on the salad?”

The whole idea that you are so at ease with your father’s tomb, and you could just eat something that’s been planted on it. I really fear what these kids are going to be doing in the future. (Reporting by Tristan Martin, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst

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