Zaina Erhaim works to ensure solid reporting on Syrian war
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.