Zaina Erhaim works to ensure solid reporting on Syrian war

Friday 18/09/2015
Zaina Erhaim

Northern Syria - In a country where tight re­strictions on journalists were the norm in peacetime, cover­ing a brutal war with blurred front lines and multiple armed groups is all the more dangerous.
However, the risks do not in­timidate Syrian journalist Zaina Er­haim, 30, who travels the war-torn country to train citizen reporters on how to transmit facts and devel­opments to the outside world.
Moving from Aleppo to Raqqa, Latakia, Deir ez-Zor and Idlib, Er­haim has trained about 100 people, one-third of them women, in print and TV journalism and has helped establish many of Syria’s emerg­ing independent newspapers and magazines.
Her selection for the Peter Mack­ler Award for Courageous and Ethi­cal Journalism for 2015 was recog­nition of Erhaim’s dedication to free and professional reporting.
News of the war in Syria has fo­cused on violence and destruction that has led to the displacement of more than half of Syria’s popula­tion of 22.5 million. Erhaim, how­ever, has coached her trainees to cover the various aspects of the conflict.
“I wanted to see Syria’s name in the headlines without news about the tragedies and massacres only,” Erhaim said in an online interview with The Arab Weekly. “Unfortu­nately, the humanitarian side of the Syrian conflict has been absent from Western media coverage for a while. You could only read news about the Islamic State and the massacres they have been commit­ting.”
Erhaim organised training ses­sions in the most dangerous re­gions of Syria. The biggest threat came in 2013 with the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the fight­ing between ISIS and opposition forces.
“I did several trainings in Raqqa, Idlib and Aleppo without facing real problems from armed groups,” she said. “But with the arrival of ISIS in Aleppo towards the end of 2013, two journalists were kid­napped, prompting many media persons and activists to flee to Tur­key. So I ended up training the few who remained in the city.”
ISIS was later evicted from Alep­po but, until then, Erhaim recalled, she was extremely concerned for her life and the safety of her train­ees. “I had to take very strict secu­rity precautions,” she said. “I used to inform them personally about the place of the training only a few hours ahead and asked them to conceal their cameras and avoid moving around by themselves.”
Syria is now seen as the most dangerous country for journalists. According to Reporters without Borders, about 100 journalists have been killed in Syria since March 2011. They include 25 professional journalists, six of them foreigners, and about 70 Syrian citizen-jour­nalists.
“I lost many of my friends and media activists whom I have trained,” Erhaim said. “They were either kidnapped by ISIS or ar­rested by the authorities or killed by both sides.” But this has not stopped her from travelling to hot spots to train resident reporters, who have become some of the few first-hand sources of news on the Syrian conflict.
“As long as there are activists who need my help, I will surely continue,” she said.
The biggest joy she gets, she said, is when she sees reports prepared by her trainees and those trained by them as well. “I am extremely happy when I watch or read the re­ports done by the young men and women whom I have trained, espe­cially those who had no previous experience but started media work after the training and get published in major international news out­lets,” Erhaim said.
Hadiya Mansour, one of Erhaim’s early students, underscored the importance of the training she re­ceived.
“The knowledge we acquired from Zaina is the basis of free and professional journalism. She re­layed all [this] information in such a smooth way that we were able to learn the basics of preparing me­dia reports within a period of five days,” Mansour said.
Activist turned journalist Yasser Issa, from Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, is another success story of Erhaim’s efforts. He first started supporting anti-regime demon­strators in the early days of the up­rising.
“In the beginning, I used to film videos of the demonstrations and post them on YouTube. At a later stage, we were distributing video spots to media channels but when the protests expanded to cover the whole province, we shifted to live coverage,” he said.
After three months in detention in regime prisons, Issa resumed his work as a media activist until the fall of Deir ez-Zor to ISIS in April 2014.
“I have hosted Zaina in my house when she visited Deir ez-Zor to as­sist media activists. I have myself learned from her the basics of using social media platforms in dissemi­nating information,” Issa added.
Eraim is also the Syria project co­ordinator for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, an interna­tional organisation that supports journalists in countries undergoing conflict, crisis or transition.
The Peter Mackler Award is to be presented during October 22nd cer­emonies in Washington.
Erhaim sees the award as a “trib­ute to the courage of all those who fight for the freedom of informa­tion” in a country that has become the deadliest for journalists.