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A reporter’s odyssey in Assad’s Syria - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Ask any reporter worth his salt where he would wish to be these days and you are likely to hear: Syria.

Journalists know that they have to deal with two kinds of happenings: events and undercurrents.

Events are things that happen in a moment, as it were, within a specific frame. An election is an event, as is a big fire, an earthquake or a memorable concert.

Undercurrents are made of sequences of events that, taken together in the medium and long-term, form a coherent pattern. Unlike events that are readily visible to anyone with enough curiosity, undercurrents often go undetected until they give birth to big events.

On rare occasions, events and undercurrents present themselves concurrently, providing the enterprising reporter with a smorgasbord of journalistic opportunities.

Experiencing its own version of the “Arab Spring”, Syria is furnishing one of those rare occasions.

It is there that history is in the making as a nation fights over the shape of its future. That is the undercurrent. There are, however, events galore as well, with President Bashar al-Assad’s private armed groups trying to conquer rebel cities such as Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deraa, among others.

Sadly, Syria remains closed to almost all journalists from the outside world while local journalists are either parroting official propaganda or languishing in Assad’s prisons.

The Syrian ambassador to London managed to arrange for two BBC reporters to secure visas, for a few days. However, once there, one was kept a virtual prisoner in Damascus while the other had to hide in a building in Homs under fire from Assad’s forces. Last month, things took a turning for the worst as far as covering the Syrian revolution is concerned. Marie Colvin, a veteran war correspondent with the London Sunday Times, and Remi Ochlik, a French news photographer, were killed in yet another bombing raid by Assad forces on Homs.

One could imagine the frustration of the media that have to rely on Youtube and chat-room messages to guess what is happening in Syria.

With such a backdrop, one could imagine the excitement that an eye-witness account of the Syrian drama by a professional reporter could inspire among media people.

Precisely such an account is presented by Ghadi Francis, a young Lebanese journalist working for Al-Jadid television and writing for the Al-Akhbar daily in Beirut.

Published by Al-Saqi in London, Ms. Francis’ account comes in the form of a book with the title: “My Pen and My Pain: Hundred Days in Syria.”

From the start it is clear that, though having some sympathy for the Assad regime, Ms. Francis is too much of a professional to fall for the Ba’athist regime’s propaganda. Meticulously, she reports the position of the regime’s supporters, whom she estimates at around 20 per cent of the population, without endorsing it. At the same time, she tries to shed some light on the opposition which she claims is more divided than many assume outside Syria.

Pieced together, her interviews with a number of opposition leaders could help put the puzzling jigsaw together.

Francis’s account is chiefly interesting because she is not one of those “return-ticket” reporters who fly to a capital city, talk to the tax-driver between the airport and the hotel, meet a few officials, and return with pretensions of being an expert in the affairs of the country concerned. In contrast, Francis pretends to know nothing about Syria, a student always keen to learn from people with as many different backgrounds as possible.

From Francis’ account, President Assad emerges as a megalomaniac surrounded by bootlickers intent on fanning the fires of hubris. He may even be a prisoner of a sinister Star Chamber of security chiefs, Alawite sectarian leaders and barons of corruption.

The dialectics of the Syrian drama, according to Francis, is formed by a regime that is prepared to destroy the country in the hope of ruling over the ruins on the one hand and an opposition determined not to give up even if such destruction takes place.

Because the book has no rigid structure, Francis is able to offer numerous anecdotes that shed light on the darker side of life in Syria. Her account of how the security forces operate recalls the KGB’s modus operandi. And that is no surprise since the KGB helped found and train the Syrian intelligence services from the 1960s onwards.

We also meet technocrats and officials who had not bargained for Assad’s “rule by massacre.” These are basically apolitical individuals who joined public service in the hope of securing a good job, a decent salary and a secure future without, however, getting implicated in bloodshed. Today, they cannot abandon the regime if only because the opposition would not wish to embrace them.

Francis’ experience underlines what many of us have always known: the Assad regime cannot tolerate anything resembling independent reporting, even from a potentially sympathetic journalist. Francis ended up being arrested by Assad’s security forces and then expelled from Syria and declared persona non grata.

Well, the good job she has done was worth her troubles and tribulations.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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