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Keeping a healthy distance – journalism and humanitarianism in Syria

22-10-2012 Feature

Journalism and humanitarianism have long had a symbiotic relationship, trading knowledge and publicity to mutual benefit. But do some situations demand the professions distance themselves from each other? In Syria, the stereotyped relationship of aid organizations offering access, transport and insight to journalists in exchange for emotive coverage of a crisis has broken down. Staying at arm's length could be safer and more practical for both in Syria according to panellists who debated the issue of humanitarian communication at the Frontline Club in London.

Humanitarian organizations can offer little practical help to international journalists in Syria, the audience heard, since assistance activity is so constrained by security concerns, bureaucratic obstacles and State suspicion. And where NGOs are operating more freely, but more surreptitiously, in areas controlled by the armed opposition, journalistic caution is imperative lest locations of underground field hospitals be revealed and become subject to attack, or smuggling routes for medicines get interrupted.

"In my career I have never spoken less to journalists," said Ben Parker, head of the office in Damascus that coordinates the UN's relief operations in Syria. Parker, a former journalist and veteran of relief operations in Sudan and East Africa, noted that humanitarians normally need the media to help raise money, to raise awareness of a crisis and to advocate for a course of action to ease a critical situation. In Syria, Parker said, those three arguments do not apply. Nobody knows what course of action to plead for, the crisis is already on the front pages, and the political concerns of major donors are not put aside by the normal emotional leverage.

Equally, the instinct of UN agencies to speak up on behalf of those needing help, via the media, hardly applies in Syria, where activists, citizens and local media are speaking up loudly for themselves, Parker argued. And where international agencies eager for press coverage of disaster relief or conflict response would normally encourage journalists to accompany convoys and aid distributions, such tactics won't work in Syria, a State deeply ambivalent about international assistance and ridden with internal surveillance, he noted. "The UN can't help journalists there. You would be contaminated by us."

Lindsey Hilsum, Channel 4 News' International Editor and a former aid worker, suggested that her normal aversion to viewing a crisis through a humanitarian lens had been stood on its head in the Syria conflict. An aid response was vital, given the thousands dead and injured, and the 1.2 million Syrians who have fled to elsewhere in the country. "Aid is desperately needed," said Hilsum. "And I find myself uncharacteristically concerned about giving away information that could be detrimental to people and organizations that are trying to help."

Hicham Hassan, whose job has been to coordinate public information about the ICRC's work in Syria since the crisis begin in March 2011, noted that the organization had communicated intensively, in recognition of its central role on the ground. The ICRC has been one of very few organizations able to send international teams across Syria to offer assistance to victims of the conflict. Hassan noted the ICRC had helped more than a million people in the first nine months of this year, but that was a drop in the ocean compared to the growing needs. And communicating about the humanitarian response should not suggest food parcels and war surgery packs can end the conflict. In the meantime "people need everything," Hassan stated. The foremost requirement is for proper medical care, "and that's what we would like to concentrate on, if we can."

Melissa Fleming, the chief spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, suggested the traditional role of journalists in raising awareness still applied to the plight of those who have fled Syria. By the end of the year an expected 700,000 will be enduring tough winter conditions in camps and overcrowded buildings in neighbouring Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. "At least they are safe, but all are traumatized," she said. "We are very grateful that journalists are there to tell their story."

What still unifies the media and the aid movement in the Syria conflict is the fate of the population, Fleming suggested. That convergence was echoed by Lyse Doucet, BBC World's Chief International Correspondent, who has reported extensively from Syria. "In war we must take the side of the people," said Doucet. That's the challenge facing observers trying to stay impartial, but not indifferent, amid Syria's violent fracturing.


Photos

London, UK. Ben Parker (UN), Hicham Hassan (ICRC), Lindsey Hilsum (Channel Four) and Lyse Doucet (BBC) on the Frontline Club panel. 

London, UK. Ben Parker (UN), Hicham Hassan (ICRC), Lindsey Hilsum (Channel Four) and Lyse Doucet (BBC) on the Frontline Club panel.
© ICRC / L. Sturdy

London, UK. Ben Parker (UN) and Hicham Hassan (ICRC) speak at the Frontline Club. 

London, UK. Ben Parker (UN) and Hicham Hassan (ICRC) speak at the Frontline Club.
© ICRC / L. Sturdy

London, UK. The ICRC's Hicham Hassan speaks at the Frontline Club. 

London, UK. The ICRC's Hicham Hassan speaks at the Frontline Club.
© ICRC / L. Sturdy