She has been traveling to Damascus for years, including two government-sanctioned visits last year, at the height of the conflict. Here, she discusses how reporting in the city has changed from prewar times, and the lifting of the Syrian people’s veil of self-censorship.
I used to go to Damascus as a place to unwind when I was living in Iraq. So I’d go to enjoy the city and it was a wonderful place to explore. But when you reported there it was very challenging. It was completely safe, there was almost no street crime. But there was an intense self-imposed self-censorship that people abided by. Once you had your journalism visa, you didn’t have to be followed around all the time by a government minder. If you worked with a local interpreter, they would have to be someone who had decent enough relations with the government that they wouldn’t get in trouble for working with you, but it wasn’t as tight as today in terms of how they monitored you.
The bigger difference was that the people monitored themselves a lot, what they would say. If you asked questions, if you tried to interview people in the souk, they would give you very obvious party line answers. There wasn’t a lot of variety to what you would get in a man-on-the-street interview. It was quite easy to move around once you were in the country, and in private, social conversation, people you knew through friends would be open, but it wasn’t easy to get below the surface, to find people who would trust you and talk to you.
Now, there seems to be a more active effort from the government to monitor journalists and control their movements. But the kinds of thoughts and opinions expressed by ordinary people are – perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not – more varied than what you’d get before the conflict. We’ve quoted people with a wide range of political views in government-held areas of Damascus. I think that’s partly because people feel more emboldened to express dissent, and partly because they assume the government has bigger things to worry about than monitoring every word they say.
These days, the minding of journalists has become more formalized, like in Iran. You still can choose your own interpreter as long as they’re approved – if you don’t, they’ll choose one for you – and that person typically keeps your written permission from the Ministry of Information. That would make it difficult to venture far on your own – across many checkpoints, say, or to a different city – in case you were asked for the document.
People ask, is there a minder with you all the time, and no. In the evening we’d go to dinner or a coffee shop alone and we were fine, but we wouldn’t try to go to interview someone across town, because we didn’t have our papers to say we’re here as journalists.
People say when you’re going there, aren’t you just a tool for the government’s propaganda? But you have to look at the same way you’d look at, say, embedding with one fighting force or another in a war. Embedding is a tool. You don’t just use one tool in reporting a story, and in going to Damascus you’ll be critical of what you’re seeing, same as in any situation. We have had teams going to the rebel-held north until recently, when the kidnap threat became too strong. We have a wide network inside Syria that we contact remotely, and we know whose information is reliable and whose isn’t. And then we have trips to Damascus, which is a big piece of the picture.
If the government were to shut out journalists completely, very little of their narrative would make its way in. They want to show that life is relatively normal in some areas, they want to show that it’s still a normal functioning state. Some of what we observe – people’s fear of jihadists, for instance – supports the story the government wants to tell, and some doesn’t.
The two trips were in spring and fall of last year. I found that not that much had changed in between. There was still a strategic stalemate with rebels in many suburbs. Both times you’d hear a lot of shelling during the day. What had mainly changed was that in the spring there was a question if the rebels were going to invade Damascus. Both supporters and opponents of the government were afraid of what that might bring. By September, no one seemed to think that would happen. But they were afraid that was their new normal, frozen in this way, living in relatively normal circumstances in Damascus with a war going on around them and no end in sight. They felt the life was being drained out of the city.
You also saw all these government checkpoints that have become fixtures. Once they had been new, and now the sandbags were getting old, the flags getting dirty. There are traffic jams, and some are caused by checkpoints, but there are also a decent number of people still going to work, or selling vegetables on the street, or going to cafes, like normal. That’s what’s so strange about it.