Syria Project: Gaziantep – Day 5

Originally published by Bill Fortier on CTV News Edmonton.

“OK, There has been an incident.”

Those were the words out of Zein Almoghraby’s mouth after “good morning” and a brief and somewhat tense conversation in Arabic, with Tammam Hazem, as we sat down for breakfast Friday.  Zein is a senior programs manager for Journalists for Human Rights, the group CTV has partnered with on this project. Tammam is the organization’s representative in Turkey.

Thursday night, a young female Syrian journalist and her mother were killed in Istanbul. A Turkish newspaper reports the two women were strangled, then stabbed.

22-year-old Halla Barakat worked as a reporter for several different agencies in her short career. Her social media accounts suggest she was a passionate opponent of Syria’s Assad regime. Her mother, 60-year-old Orouba Barakat was also a journalist, documentary-maker and well-known anti-Assad activist.

In multiple facebook posts and media reports, friends suggest the pair had recently been threatened by the Assad regime. Turkish police have not said in any media reports that I have found, whether their investigation is moving in any particular direction.

The crimes certainly bear the mark of a targeted attack. This is the danger Syrian journalists face.

I had to wonder, as we made our way to our second day of workshops for the staff at Liwan TV and Radio in Gaziantep, whether the incident would have an impact on the number of journalists who showed up. It did not. All nine of them were there, ready and eager to learn.

Despite the rather somber start to the day, we had what I felt was one of our most productive and rewarding days of training yet. The journalists were asked to take a print story that had some glaring journalistic errors, improve it and turn it into a broadcast news script. It was amazing to see that they remembered the things I taught them the day before, and put it to use immediately. The scripts were good. Some of them were really good.

At the end of the day, one of the reporters thanked me in Arabic. Zein translated it as “thank you for caring about the Syrian people.” For me, that was a memorable moment.

As part of the final phase in our two-day training workshops, we asked the group to prepare pitches for human rights stories they would like to work on. We talked to each of them individually about their idea, and helped them with guidance on how their ideas could become reality. Zein and I will continue to work with them on their ideas after this training is done and we are back in Canada.

One journalist proposed an investigation into Syrian refugee children in other countries who had to work, because their families couldn’t afford to send them to school. The journalist questioned why countries would take families in and not ensure they had access to the essentials, like education.

Another idea was to do a story on a notorious Syrian prison, where allegations of human rights violations are rampant.

One specific proposal really struck me, I suppose because I hadn’t previously considered this issue. The journalist had only escaped from the war-ravaged country a month and a half ago. He told me that many people inside were experiencing normal life events, such as getting married and having babies, but with the Assad government in disarray, and no formal structure in opposition-held areas, these events are undocumented. That means children are born without birth certificates. Consider the impact of having no identification. Those children can’t be enrolled in school, get jobs, own property or eventually get married themselves.  I guess the idea surprised me because most of the stories we hear from inside Syria are about the horror and agony of war. It never occurred to me that in the midst of that chaos, life goes on.

The reporter asks why the United Nations and major world countries aren’t helping to provide ID of some sort to these people. Similar efforts have been taken by the UN and several European refugee agencies, when it comes to the plight of Palestinian refugees, particularly in Lebanon.

Good question. I agree, it’s worth asking. He is in contact with several people in Syria, facing this problem, and they’re willing to speak to him about it. I think he has a good story to report, and I hope the world hears it.

Another reporter, a young woman, wants to investigate the deaths of several Syrian journalists in Turkey, since the beginning of Syria’s civil war. She’s found family members of one journalist allegedly killed by ISIS right here in Gaziantep.

Her idea is timely, with the deaths of Halla and Orouba Barakat on the mind of everyone in that room.

If whoever killed those two women thought their crimes could stop Syrian journalists from writing and speaking, they couldn’t be more wrong.

These courageous men and women are just getting started.

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