Kristen Gillespie is a reporter based in Jordan and Syria. She graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2005 and was a 2005 OPC Foundation scholar. She is working on the launch of the English-language news website for the Arabic-language news channel Syria al-Shaab, which means “Syria of the People.”
Q: You said the reality in Syria is different from what American see. What is happening?
A: Americans see Ban Ki-Moon announce that a recent double bombing in Damascus that killed more than 50 people was the work of Al-Qaeda. They see the Assad regime deny any responsibility for massacres, and they see uneven and confusing coverage due to the inability of the Western media to adequately cover the Syrian story. Even my own friends who are knowledgeable about the region noted how difficult it is to unravel what is really happening.
Still, there is plenty to be done to determine whether the regime is telling the truth. Why haven’t journalists asked Ban how he concluded the bombings were the work of Al-Qaeda? The U.N. doesn’t have an intelligence agency and did not conduct an inquiry. Yet no one asked where they got their information. Can the U.N. thus be considered an honest broker?
Why does the CNN reporter who interviewed Asma al-Assad a few months ago allow her to denounce the atrocities in Homs but does not ask why her husband committed them? Why are we not reading more about how the Syrian regime trained and sent fighters into Iraq to kill Americans?
Q: Is this activism or journalism?
A: We use journalistic practices to tell an untold story to the best of our ability given the circumstances. As a journalist, I’m not particularly comfortable relying on second-hand information. It’s not the activism vs. journalism question that concerns me, but the fact that I’m working blind. Ideally, I’d be inside Syria covering events myself but I believe the Syrian government has already killed several journalists, including Marie Colvin. In addition, any Syrians I talked to could be subject to arrest or worse. This is why journalists are not inside Syria – the government won’t allow it. Why not? Because they are killing citizens and by barring reporters, it allows them to cast doubt on accounts of the crimes because journalists are not there themselves. What I can say for sure is that credibility is our priority.
Q: Who is vetting the videos that your 10,000 volunteers are sending? What is the criteria for them to be posted on your website?
A: An editorial committee decides which videos are the most relevant and trustworthy. The Arabic channel has been on the air for nearly a year, so they have a system in place and trusted sources who provide material that is aired. The channel is a low-budget operation compared to the propaganda machine Assad’s regime perfected over decades, and we understand that all we have is our credibility. Without it, we would not have the confidence of the Syrian people, dozens of whom have been tortured and shot to death while in the act of filming and transporting footage to Syria al-Shaab.
Q: How many journalists work on the website?
A: I’m working with about 20 Arabic-speaking journalists and we use information transmitted from Syria.
Q: No one could have predicted the political domino effect in the Middle East since the spring of 2011. What has prepared you the most to cover these events?
A: Indeed, I think Arabs are the most surprised by the uprisings. They are demanding freedom and democracy and they are not backing down, despite being arrested, tortured, fired upon and denounced by their own leaders.
It is just this type of totalitarianism in which extremism flourishes. With democracy and freedom – real, grassroots efforts toward this end – extremist elements will no longer have the space to grow.
No one knows how far the revolutions will go – recently, the most powerful figures under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, including Mubarak himself and his omnipotent former Interior Minister Habib Adly, sat in a dock in a packed courtroom outside Cairo. They were dressed down by the judge in their collective trial in the harshest of terms. It’s not a sight I ever thought I would see.
This is why I don’t bother to read opinion pieces speculating about the future in the Arab world. It’s unknown, and we continue to see that anything is possible.
I arrived in Damascus in the fall of 1999 with two suitcases and Arabic so bad that I couldn’t get from the airport to the institute where I was to study. (The driver left me on the roadside nearby and somehow I found the place on foot). From that point to now, I spent these years traveling around the Middle East, studying Arabic, listening to people and doing my best to speak their language. I know the back story and what peoples’ grievances are, and I lived them too. I have seen that life under varying degrees of tyranny (depending on the country) can be terrifying for Arab citizens.
Q: Is your site funded and if so, how/whom is it funded? What is the time frame of operation under your current funding situation?
A: A secular, pro-democracy Jordanian-American media entrepreneur who saw one of Assad’s speeches early after the revolution began decided he wanted to take action to help the Syrian people. He has funded the channel Syria al-Shaab, which began airing in July 2011 from his own pocket simply because of this conviction that the people’s version of the story is not being told due to a language barrier and lack of media access. The revolution has dragged on and the budget is tight.
It is a story that must now be told to English-speaking audiences in order for them to make sense of what is happening inside Syria. The recent massacres in Houla and Hama made it into the English-language media, but we see deadly incidents that do not. It is all part of a larger picture of what the Syrian regime really is. While Assad has plenty of supporters, the regime also has plenty of people in the Arabic-speaking world who understand full well how murderous it really is.