Podcast on Syrian citizen journalism with Sirwan Kajjo Script(en)

Intro music (00:01-00:12)


Jasper (00:13-01:37):
Welcome to a new podcast on the AREACORE eLearning Platform, where in this episode, we
will discuss the topic of citizen journalism in Syria. I’m your host Jasper Hendrickx, and today
we have the honor of being joined by Sirwan Kajjo, a prominent Kurdish Syrian journalist who
has been at the forefront of reporting on the conflict in Syria.
Sirwan’s work encompasses a wide range of topics, including human rights issues, political
developments, and the Kurdish region’s dynamics. With his extensive experience in on-the-
ground reporting, he has provided invaluable insights into the complexities of the Syrian
conflict for various international media outlets.
From his time at Voice of America’s Extremism Watch Desk, where he focused on Islamic
militancy and extremism, to his current role as a journalist for the United States Agency for
Global Media, Sirwan’s dedication to shedding light on critical issues has been unwavering.
In addition to his journalistic endeavors, Sirwan is also an accomplished author, having written
two book chapters on Syria and the Kurds, as well as the novel “Nothing But Soot,” which
offers a poignant portrayal of life in Syria.
Join us as we delve into the world of citizen journalism in Syria and gain insights from Sirwan’s
firsthand experiences and expertise.
First of all, I once again want to thank you for being here, I suggest we get right into it. The
first question that I had was: how would you describe the role of citizen journalism in Syria,
particularly in providing alternative perspectives on the conflict?


Sirwan (01:40-03:37):
Thank you so much for having me! I think in order to understand this complex situation on the
ground in Syria, and to answer your question, we have to go back to history and see how the
whole idea of citizen journalism came about.
So, before 2011, before the start of the conflict in Syria, there was no such thing called
‘journalism’ or ‘free press’. Journalism and the media were so centralized, and it was controlled
by the Syrian Ministry of Information.
Therefore, all the information that had to, you know, be disseminated was first filtered and
censored by the Syrian regime. When the revolution broke out, Syrians were not ready to cover
it in a proper way and they had to rely on other regional media outlets.
They had to develop their own tools to share what was happening with, not only with the rest
of the world but also with other parts of Syria because the regime was so successful at
controlling the narrative in the early days. So, the Syrian revolution was able to break certain
barriers in the sense that the few people who had experience in the press and in the journalism
world were able to convert that into a more handy tool to be able to tell the story of Syrians, to
be able to convey the messaging that the youth on the street wanted to deliver.
And that all happened in a very short period of time, which shows how ready the Syrian youth
were, because at the end of the day it was the Syrian youth that actually utilized social media
and invented this citizen journalism that was able to tell the story of the Syrian revolution and
convey what was happening on the ground to the rest of the world.


Jasper (03:38-03:49):
I think it’s very interesting that you point out that it put a lot, I wouldn’t say pressure, but maybe
possibilities in the hands of young people in Syria, and that it was mostly them that took matters
in their own hands and started reporting from their own perspective.


Sirwan (03:50-03:51):
That is correct, yeah.


Jasper (03:52-04:11):
As I said in the introduction, you yourself are from Kurdish Syrian descent, so I also wanted to
ask about your personal experiences, and to ask what challenges you have faced in reporting on
the conflict and how citizen journalism has helped you overcome some of these challenges?


Sirwan (04:12-…):
Sure! So, I left the country before the war, so for me to be able to cover it when the war broke
out; it was very difficult to make the connections needed to tell the actual story, you know,
because in Syria this is a very sensitive, very complex conflict and there were too many layers
to it to understand it. Only a few local journalists were able to report, or come up with nuanced
reporting and so, for me, coming from the Kurdish region it was difficult to make connections
and contacts in other non-Kurdish regions, for example in Damascus or in Homs.
Or in southern Syria, where you had to build the trust because like I said, something that came
up during the early days of the Syrian revolution, a concept that was, which is very similar to
citizen journalism, was media activism. So, to be able to report you had to be an activist, but
not any type of activist, you had to be a media activist which means you had to be well
connected to the armed groups that were in charge, and be able to make the connections needed
to report. So, you had to be a political activist, and a media activist. And as journalists, for us,
like, to cover the Syrian conflict from abroad you had to make the connections with those
people, who at some point became your colleagues because they did the same thing that you
did. Only some of them had political agencies, so we had to be careful, super careful with how
to approach our local sources.
And also for me, as a Kurd, an extra layer of complexity was my background. Because Syrians
did not trust each other before the Syrian revolution started, the people didn’t know each other,
so it was really hard for people to understand. Especially someone with a Kurdish name, with
a Kurdish first and last name. It was hard for people to trust you right away to give sources and
give information that you needed to tell the full picture of what was happening on the ground.
These were very similar situations, very similar experiences that journalists from different
backgrounds had to deal with when they covered areas that were not particularly their
hometowns or their home region, so that was I would say one of the challenges. But then of
course it takes a while, at the end of the day you understand the local dynamics, and you need
to build some trust and some friendships in order to tell the story and that’s what gave us and
edge as Syrian journalists covering the Syrian conflict from abroad.


Jasper (06:33-07:05):
That is actually very interesting. Because, as an outsider, just like me but I figure also a lot of
people listening to this, it’s not always so clear that the importance but also the difficulty of
making those kinds of networks is so huge. So that’s very interesting to me at least.
Just to, kind of, make it a bit more clear to the people listening, I wanted to ask you if you could
maybe share a specific example of a moment or a certain happening where citizen journalism
made a significant impact or provided crucial information during the Syrian conflict?


Sirwan (07:06-09:00):
Sure! I mean, citizen journalism was the backbone of international reporting at some point.
When the conflict got so complicated and when it was so hard for western journalists to travel
into Syria, it were citizen journalists that they had to rely on to convey what was happening on
the ground, and so, for example, there was a citizen journalism group in the city of Raqqah,
which at the time was the de facto capital of ISIS. The group was called “Raqqah Is Being
Slaughtered Silently”, and it was that very group that kept on reporting from the ground, which
was very risky by the way. Many western journalists were killed in gruesome ways by ISIS,
and in those early days when to group took over parts of Iraq and Syria, it were those local
journalists that had to make these sacrifices. Many of them were killed, many of them were
tortured or arrested by ISIS in different stages of the conflict, but they still continued to give
the news to people like myself and others who work with western media.
So, I think it was a group like this that helped, and especially in the early days of the war on
ISIS, that allowed an international audience to learn what was happening, give an opportunity
to international journalists to tell what was happening in a very closed society in places like
Raqqa and the areas in eastern Syria. Of course, again, the chemical attacks that were carried
out by the Assad regime in outside Damascus in the Ghouta region, it was citizen journalists
who actually first reported it. If it wasn’t for them, we would have probably not heard of the
atrocities that were committed by Assad, the forces and you know, other Syrian regime
affiliated militias. So yeah, they played a major role in reporting on atrocities, but specifically
chemical weapon attacks used by Assad against his own people.


Jasper (09:01-09:23):
So, you already mentioned the Syrian revolution which started coming up in 2011 but turned
into a full blown revolution more in 2012, and also the impact that ISIS had or the come up that
they have maybe a few years later down the line. But more recently, how do you see the
landscape of citizen journalism evolving in Syria, and what opportunities do you think it
presents for storytelling and advocacy?


Sirwan (09:24-11:47):
So, you know, the Syrian conflict quickly turned into a multi-dimensional one and multi-faceted
one in the sense that there were too many local and foreign actors involved. For example, there
were ISIS and other extremist groups like al-Nusra Front and others. Of course, other Islamic
factions that were anti-Assad regime. There were obviously the Assad regime, Hezbollah and
other Iranian backed militias that supported the Syrian government. And there were on the other
hand Kurdish forces and their local allies.
And each of these different factions had their own foreign backers. For example, the Kurds had
the backing of the United States, certain Islamic groups had the backing of Turkey, others had
the backing of Iran.
Obviously, Russia and Iran supported the Syrian side of the conflict, so the Syrian regime side.
So this in itself showed how journalism became fragmented in Syria. You know, so in each
region you had its own set of circumstances that whether prevented or allowed local journalism,
and citizen journalism to flourish into something bigger, something more permanent. And for
example, in the early days, the foreign funding helped a lot of grassroots movements to come
up with different ideas. A lot of citizen journalists that I personally know turned into actual
professional journalists who would, you know, get paid for what they were doing. Others were
hired by regional networks, especially pan-Arab networks.
So that short period allowed for journalism to thrive and the opposition held areas, areas that
were outside of the control of the Syrian government. Something similar happened in the
Kurdish region with even a bigger margin of freedom, you know, more and more. Like for
example, Kurdish language outlets came about for the first time in Syria, because Syria, before
2011 in Syria, the Kurdish language was banned. So this sort of citizen journalism allowed even
for minorities like Kurds and Christians to set up their own enterprise for journalism. And that
did not exist in the past. Some of them continued. Others, obviously, like with everything that
comes up with foreign funding, will either have to stop or continue into something different.
And so there are several examples in Syria right now where citizen journalists were able to
establish themselves into something more professional, something more permanent.


Jasper (11:48-12:09):
As I already also mentioned in the introduction, you’re not only a journalist, but you’re also an
author. One of your endeavors in this field was the novel that you wrote “Nothing but Soot”,
and I wanted to ask you if you could just briefly discuss it, say what it is about, and maybe also
make the link with your experiences as a journalist and how those experiences informed your
storytelling?


Sirwan (12:10-14:10):
Absolutely. So “Nothing but Soot” is said in Syria and Lebanon, and partly in the United States.
It tells the story of a young Kurdish man who continues to search for a permanent home,
especially after leaving Syria and then leaving Lebanon and permanently staying in the United
States. But that search continues nonetheless.
Kawa, my main character in this story, is a young man who turns by coincidence into a
journalist while in Lebanon. He does have some interests and background in writing, but it was
a pure coincidence that actually brought him to the world of journalism. Who keeps telling
stories from his background, from his hometown and going through different political
circumstances and Lebanon, Lebanon itself at some point wasn’t stable when Kawa lived there,
so. Which pretty much ties into what happened in Syria afterwards.
Of course, the story of the novel takes place before the war started, but it very much tells story
of a lot of young journalists who actually were either had no option but to become journalists,
which again shows the importance of citizen journalism in the context of the Syrian conflict.
How ordinary people or people with certain skills, certain linguistic or storytelling skills, had
to rely on their own sources and resources to tell the story of their communities. And so Kawa
is pretty much the story of many Syrians who had to make the flight outside of their country
but yet continue to remain connected with their home country. Which is exactly what’s
happened with many, many Syrian journalists who had to either flee to Turkey or other
neighboring countries or elsewhere in Western Europe, yet remain connected to their homeland.

Jasper (14:11-14:26):
Mm hmm, very interesting. Maybe this is a bit far-fetched and maybe if this is totally not the
case you can also say so. But is it maybe the case that the main character that you created has
some similarities to you as a person?


Sirwan (14:27-15:10):
Absolutely, yeah. Anybody who knows who I am or knows a little bit about me knows that this
is an autobiographical novel. Most of the stories that I actually tell in that story are my own
very exciting experiences, or the people that I knew up close. So. But obviously the reason I
made that decision was that, the decision to write a novel based on my own experiences was
that, I knew it would resonate with a lot of people. I knew it would tell the broader picture of
what was happening at that time in that particular historical stage in Syria and Lebanon and
especially the Kurdish region. And so definitely it’s a story that is personal, but it also paints a
broader picture of what happened in Syria in that period.

Jasper (15:11-15:41):
Mm hmm. All right. So we already discussed basically where citizen journalism comes from in
Syria, where it kind of started or maybe not started but got a lot bigger, which is the revolution.
In the beginning, we talked also a bit about recent developments, but I also wanted to ask you
for somewhat of a future perspective. So what do you think that the future holds for citizen
journalism in Syria? And what roles can individuals and organizations play in supporting
independent media initiatives, in your opinion?


Sirwan (15:42-19:01):
So, the conflict is still unfolding in Syria, unfortunately. And to this day, we rely on citizen
journalists and especially in many places where you wouldn’t normally have access to,
especially areas like in the northwest for example, where extremists are in charge or under
regime controlled areas where many media restrictions exist. So we do need citizen journalists
in the context of the Syrian situation because the situation has not settled to begin with.
But I would say that, you know, in the early days there were a lot of, like I said, there was a lot
of funding pouring into Syria to support these different new initiatives, media initiatives
obviously, and not all of them were successful. I think it took a while, which was very natural
by the way, you know, Syrians were not used to independent reporting. They were not used to
working for an independent news organization, so it took a while for media workers to get used
to the new environment. Now the landscape has completely changed over the past thirteen years
or so, since the beginning of the conflict, in the sense that the conflict itself has changed. The
power dynamics on the ground have changed, which shows how important it is for, you know,
international news organizations and those supporting NGO’s that support local initiatives in
Syria to understand the nuances in reporting.
For example, right now Syria effectively is divided into 3 zones, the regime controlled areas,
the Kurdish controlled areas in the northeast and the rebel controlled areas in the northwest.
Each of these three regions has its own set of circumstances that tell you whether or not
journalism has a future. In Assad’s Syria, nothing has changed by the way, although there have
been with the, you know, advent of many social media platforms, a lot of local journalists have
been able to come up with their own ways of storytelling but within the context of regime held
circumstances. But broadly, it is the, in my opinion and I might be biased, but the Kurdish
region is the most liberal region when it comes to media and other types of freedoms. It’s not
perfect.
I was just there a few weeks ago. There are many taboos. There are many stories that local
journalists cannot report on, there are just red lines. But if you compare it to other parts of Syria,
the region has a much more dynamic media landscape, that is changing with certain political
changes. And there are many initiatives and many international news organizations that work
there, many reporters who work for regional or international organizations.
So it is those individual and small efforts that make a difference in the next stage supporting
those local initiatives that would lead to something bigger once there is a political settlement in
Syria. Because right now even journalists don’t know, they’re not sure what’s next. And so the
story remains incomplete until there is a political settlement in Syria that will also contribute to
shaping the actual media landscape in Syria.


Jasper (19:02-19:18):
So would you say that if those local initiatives need to be supported that, I mean obviously they
can do certain things themselves, but if it’s coming from outside of Syria that that would mostly
be financial help?


Sirwan (19:19-20:32):
Yeah, in the form of money or training, any kind of support. So, like, look, there’s been 13 years
of fighting in Syria, and you would think by now local journalists know how to protect
themselves. You know, that’s not the case until this day. And the vast majority of media workers
and journalists who get killed in the conflict are local journals mostly, sadly, unfortunately it’s
the citizen journalists that we’ve been talking about in this podcast. That’s because they have
not received proper training and they don’t know any better when it comes to protection, when
it comes to certain safety measures, that they have to take when covering, especially when
covering, you know, violent clashes and on front lines.
I think if international NGO’s have an intent to help Syrian journalists. It would be in the form
of offering obviously financial support but also training and, you know, psychological support,
because let’s not forget that all of these people are also part of the story. All of these journalists
that have been reporting on the war for the past decade are part of the story. So they are
exhausted. They are emotionally exhausted and physically exhausted, so they do need support
to be able to continue to tell the story of their countrymen.


Jasper (20:33-21:11):
I think seeing the complexity of the Syrian situation, we could go on for much longer. But I
suggest that we end our conversation on that note, with an inspiring call to action to
organizations all around the world. I believe we managed to create a clear view of Syrian citizen
journalism today and the role it plays within Syria’s media landscape.
I especially want to thank you, Sirwan, for joining me today and sharing your expertise and
your personal experiences. I personally found it very interesting and I’m sure the listeners would
agree. So once again, I was your host, Jasper Hendrickx. Thank you for listening and take care.


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