September 26, 2020

For News From Syrian Battleground, a Reliance on Social Media

Western journalists are struggling to cover what the world has so far seen largely through YouTube. But while some television news crews have been filing reports from Damascus, the dangers of reporters being killed or kidnapped there — as well as visa problems — have kept most journalists outside the country’s borders and heightened the need for third-party images.

“The difficulty of getting into Syria, the shrunken foreign correspondent corps, and the audience gains for social media make it likely this story will be consumed differently by the American public than tensions or conflicts in past years,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, the curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

The Committee to Protect Journalists calls Syria the deadliest country in the world for reporters. Last year, 28 journalists working there were killed, and 18 have died so far this year, according to the group, a nonprofit based in New York.

Among the few television outlets broadcasting from Damascus are CBS News, the BBC and ITN, a British news provider. A CNN correspondent, Fred Pleitgen, had been reporting from Damascus, but his visa expired this week and he was relocated to Beirut, Lebanon, a spokeswoman for the network said.

The Wall Street Journal has a reporter in Damascus, and Reuters and The Associated Press both said that they had journalists inside Syria.

For many news organizations, though, Beirut or Syria’s borders are the closest they can safely get. Richard Engel, an NBC News correspondent who was held hostage for five days last year in Syria, traveled inside the country earlier this week, but most recently reported from the Turkish-Syrian border.

Reporters from The Washington Post and The New York Times are in Beirut, and this week ABC News reopened its bureau there after two decades.

“It’s risky being in Damascus in the best of times, and when you’ve got U.S. missiles raining down on the city, it adds to the sense of risk,” said Jon Williams, ABC News’s managing editor for international news.

For networks without a Syrian correspondent, partnerships with other organizations supply some video. ABC works with the BBC, for example, and NBC with ITN. But the networks also rely on YouTube and other third-party sources, which have yielded some of the most vivid and disturbing video of the conflict, but has also brought a host of verification problems.

This week, CNN broadcast a film showing what purported to be evidence of mass graves, and said that it came from “an independent filmer who is absolutely trustworthy.” CBS News uses a team of Arabic-speaking employees in London to review third-party videos, according to Christopher Isham, its Washington bureau chief.

ABC News, Reuters and other outlets use Storyful, a company that scours social sites and verifies videos through tests like comparing street scenes to maps and checking an uploader’s affiliated accounts. The New York Times has also worked with Storyful in the past. David Clinch, Storyful’s executive editor, said it first learned of a possible chemical attack last week from videos, and alerted its clients within an hour of the incident.

“This content is often the only content available,” Mr. Clinch wrote in an e-mail, “because news organizations either can’t get to the scene of suspected chemical attacks, don’t have anyone in Syria (some do but most don’t) or their staff cannot go out from Damascus.”

For those still within Syria, the challenge has simply been to stay safe. Mr. Isham said that CBS went to “extreme lengths” to protect its staff there, although he did not elaborate.

“Anytime you go into a combat zone, your folks are at risk,” he said. “You want to reduce that risk as much as possible.”

Article source:

Iranian Journalists Arrested, Accused of Ties to Foreign Media

The official accounts did not make clear how many journalists had been arrested, the precise nature of the accusations against them or when they might be formally charged. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a media advocacy group based in New York, said at least 11 journalists had been seized, calling it the largest crackdown on Iranian media since the unrest that swept the country four years ago.

Accounts by the Mehr news agency and other official news outlets said many of the journalists had been taken into custody on Sunday after the raids on the outlets, all of which are regarded as reform-minded. One of the newspapers, Etemad, is close to a former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and had been raided the previous day as well.

None of the arrests were reported by the raided organizations themselves. Some Iranian journalists said the omissions appeared to reflect fears of further antagonizing the Revolutionary Guards and affiliated security forces whose loyalties lie with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The Mehr news agency said the arrested journalists had been accused of “collaborating with some of the Persian-language foreign media” — apparently an allusion to the Persian services of both the BBC and the Voice of America. The Fars news agency, without citing any sources, said the suspects had tried to contact the foreign media and had sought training on photography and filming with cellphone cameras. “Moreover, they wanted to learn how to assemble the pieces and send them to the BBC,” Fars said.

The Iranian Students’ News Agency quoted the culture minister, Mohammad Hosseini, as saying none of the accusations were media-related.

“We are investigating this issue and once we have more information, we will inform the media,” he was quoted as saying. “It seems that these individuals have been arrested for security reasons.”

But Sherif Mansour, the program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa for the Committee to Protect Journalists, assailed the raids, saying, “With this wave of arrests, the authorities appear to be attempting to pre-emptively silence independent news coverage ahead of the presidential elections in June.”

Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, an advocacy group based in New York, said the arrests came against the backdrop of increased political tensions in Iran over the upcoming presidential elections and Ayatollah Khamenei’s wish to avoid a repeat of the mayhem that followed the disputed 2009 campaign, which reformist candidates said was rigged in favor of the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Although the next vote is five months away, Ayatollah Khamenei and his subordinates have been warning that Iran’s domestic and foreign enemies will use the campaign to foment discord in attempts to subvert the Islamist government that has been in power since the 1979 revolution.

“There is a lot of nervousness in the regime, including a lot of infighting,” Mr. Ghaemi said. “This is the beginning of an attempt to have a very controlled and quiet election coming up, and not result in any popular outbursts.”

News organizations in Iran that are regarded as reformist, he said, “were the easiest to quiet down.”

Some political infighting in Iran broke into the open last week with the disputed dismissal of the central bank governor, a move that appeared to precipitate a roughly 10 percent drop in the value of the rial, the national currency, already weakened from what government critics call economic mismanagement and the effects of Western sanctions on Iran.

Cliff Kupchan, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm in Washington, said it appeared that Iran’s acute economic problems have increasingly unsettled Ayatollah Khamenei by raising the possibility of instability. Mr. Kupchan said the ayatollah’s worries may have been reflected in a Jan. 15 statement by the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Brig. Gen. Nasser Shabani, that economic troubles could cause regional unrest.

“Currently, the state of the economy is a national security issue, and it is very likely that Khamenei and his apparatus, the office of the leader, have become directly involved in major economic decisions,” Mr. Kupchan wrote Monday in an advisory to clients. He wrote that Mr. Khamenei’s goals are likely twofold: “broker elite compromise and unity, and protect the poor who have been hit hard by inflation and a possible source of unrest.”

In another area of concern to Iran rights activists — religious freedom — the Iranian Students’ News Agency reported on Sunday that Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor imprisoned in Iran since September, had been sentenced by a revolutionary court to an eight-year prison term on charges of disturbing national security by creating a network of Christian churches in private homes. The agency quoted a lawyer for the pastor, Nasser Sarbazi, as saying the verdict and punishment were not final, raising the possibility that his client, a naturalized American citizen, could be released on bail.

The conviction and sentence were denounced by the State Department and by the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal organization that represents Mr. Abedini’s immediate family, who live in Boise, Idaho. The group said Mr. Abedini’s trial was a farce and that previous indications that Iranian judicial officials would show leniency and release him had been proved false.

“We should not trust the empty words or promises put out by the Iranian government,” Mr. Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, said in a statement on the group’s Web site.

Ramtin Rastin contributed reporting from Tehran, and Thomas Erdbrink from Amsterdam.

Article source: