Syria Project: Day 1

Originally published by Bill Fortier on CTV News Edmonton.

As we end our first half day in Istanbul, I suppose it’s time to open this blog.

First, a quick explanation of what the heck I am doing in Turkey.

For a few years now, CTV News has been working in partnership with Toronto-based NGO, Journalists for Human Rights. The group works to improve human rights situations in countries around the world, through the development of free, open journalism.  It’s no coincidence that the countries with the most pressing human rights concerns are the same countries where freedom of the press is severely limited.

This graphic by “Reporters without Borders” sums it up pretty well. In the detailed ranking, Canada comes in twenty-second out of 189 countries.

Syria comes in fourth last on the same list. Wait, Syria? You thought we were in Turkey. Right, sorry. Let me explain.
Remember the “Arab Spring” uprising that started in 2010? In some countries (Egypt and Libya, for example) it led to sweeping changes. Governments were toppled by civilians armed with information.

In Syria, it led to full-blown civil war.

A conflict that began in 2011, between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and armed opposition forces, now involves more groups, militias, and unorganized organizations than just about anyone (maybe nobody) even knows. The group known as ISIS has taken advantage of the confusion, claiming significant amounts of territory (though much of that has been reclaimed by government forces). The fighting continues today.

This blog is not about the complexity of the conflict in Syria, so forgive me for this over-simplification: everyone with the most guns and bullets is fighting everyone else with the most guns and bullets, and civilians are dying.

This blog is about journalism. Even before the conflict began, Syria did not have a free press. It had only government-controlled media.

In the midst of one of the most terrible ongoing crises on earth, a positive thing happened. Some Syrians found a voice, through journalism.

At first, it wasn’t typical “journalism.” Most of them started as activists opposed to Syria’s Assad regime. It was explained to me today by someone who runs a major Syrian newspaper out of Istanbul, that many of these journalists lack formal education. But don’t think that means they’re not good. I’m learning that some of them are damn good. And they’re getting better.

Back to this partnership now, between CTV and JHR, because this is where we come in. We are lucky to live in a place where we have access to excellent journalism, and journalists have access to excellent schools, training and mentoring. Now, we have the honour of passing some of that along. I will spend the next two weeks here in Turkey, doing workshops, seminars and one-on-one training with Syrian broadcast journalists.

Day one in Turkey (after two days of training, discussion and lesson-planning in Toronto) was spent entirely in Istanbul.

As we left the airport of the sprawling metropolis, Zein Almoghraby, a senior programs manager for JHR, and a partner on this trip, explained to me that the aroma that hit us was “the smell of middle east chaos.” It’s not an unpleasant smell, but it’s a busy one; a combination of hot, humid weather, vegetation ranging from pine trees to palm trees, traffic, and a sort of sweet-smelling smoke I can’t quite put my finger (or nostril) on.

By the way, Zein is from Damascus, the Syrian capital, where he was when the conflict broke out. His native tongue is Arabic, but you wouldn’t know upon meeting him that he hasn’t been speaking English his entire life. His background is in law, but his passion is clearly the fight for human rights. He knows the smell of middle east chaos as well as anyone could.

After spending the weekend in Istanbul, we are heading to Gaziantep. It’s the closest major Turkish city to the Syrian border, with a metro population somewhere between Edmonton and Vancouver. In recent years, it has become a hub for Syrian journalists. It’s especially popular with radio and TV stations, because of their ability to broadcast across the border, into Syria.

These journalists have taken great risks, under threats of imprisonment or worse, simply for being journalists. I met one today who spent a year in prison. Many of them, including him, go by fake names. They are an inspiration to journalists everywhere.

But that’s for another blog post, on another day, very soon. I have gone on too long already.

I’m off to smell some Middle East chaos, and find inspiration from these remarkable people.

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