Last year, I hosted a dinner at my house in New York to support the Institute for War & Peace Reporting – I am a member of the charity’s international advisory board. For the first hour, the evening proceeded in a typical manner, with IWPR officials describing their aim of supporting and training local journalists in conflict zones across the world.
But then something remarkable happened: as dessert was served, we connected my television to a computer and then linked it, via Skype, to a laptop owned by a Syrian IWPR worker called Hunadah al-Hariri, who was just a few miles from the Syrian border. For the next hour, she chatted to my dinner guests nearly 6,000 miles away about how her team was helping to train and support local Syrian reporters to deliver credible, on-the-ground stories in places such as Aleppo.
It was a deeply surreal experience. It was also a powerful testament to how technology has transformed war reporting. Twenty-five years ago, I worked as a journalist in war-torn areas in the former Soviet Union. Back then, it was fantastically difficult to get the story “out”; a large chunk of my time was spent trying to find a telephone exchange, where I had to buy access to a telephone line from a local operator (with dollar bills or cigarettes) so that I could dictate my stories to colleagues in Moscow or London.
Fortunately, these days nobody needs to bribe a telephone operator to dispatch a story; thanks to the internet, media workers such as al‑Hariri can sit near the front line while discussing the situation with their colleagues half a world away. They can also use their laptops to get information from across the war zone and – most importantly – they can post their stories online so that they can be instantly viewed around the world.
Of course, non-journalists can do this too. Take, for example, the case of Aleppo. In the months since I hosted the IWPR dinner, the once-peaceful Syrian city has turned into a conflict zone: the regime has ousted moderate rebel forces after a long assault that destroyed large parts of the urban area and forced a mass civilian exodus. The IWPR can no longer recruit new journalists there and there are few western journalists now based in the city to report on the carnage.
Aleppo’s citizens have posted eyewitness accounts themselves via social media, and some of the journalists trained by the IWPR have also posted dispatches. The consequence of this has been a flurry of news, much of which has appeared in real time, via the internet.
Tragically, this has not had the impact that many of the citizens of Aleppo had hoped it would. “When the war started, we thought that journalism, our reports, would make the west act to end the war – we thought the information would change things,” one Syrian journalist told me last week, during a visit to New York. “But now we have lost a lot of hope in that – the news is out there, but nothing changes.”
Indeed, one of the greatest ironies – and tragedies – of our time is that the sheer ease of disseminating news has created such a volume of material that the reports almost drown each other out. Worse still, in an era when “fake news” has proliferated, it is hard for ordinary viewers to work out what is really true. The same platforms that enable journalists to pass on news also enable extremists to spread poisonous hatred.
This is a painful indictment. Nevertheless, IWPR journalists have not given up. On the contrary, they keep assembling their stories, partly because they now hope to create a record of sorts for future generations. “We want people to know what happened,” Zaina Erhaim, a brave, award-winning Syrian journalist who has made films in Aleppo and other parts of the country, explained to me last week.
There is also the matter of ensuring that Syria’s story is not only told by outsiders. Some Syrian journalists are irritated that it is American and European journalists who get most of the credit – and prizes – for covering the war; they want local voices to be heard. There is also another, bigger goal: IWPR officials also believe that one way to counter extremism is to teach people journalistic norms and create neutral social-media platforms to host news. Is this idealistic? Perhaps. But whenever I look at the television screen in my living room now, I am reminded of the power of the internet to connect us; and of the bravery of people such as Erhaim and al-Hariri, who are fighting to uphold the ideals of credible journalism.
Illustration by Shonagh Rae