“New Syrian Voices”: A network of citizen journalists tells the war
Nathalie Galesne - 16/10/2014
No one can claim not to know anything: the murderous madness of Bashar el-Assad, the horror of his prisons, torture, bombings, chemical weapons, the destruction of an entire country and the suffering of an entire people. No, no one can say “I did not know”. For almost three years, the web documentary “Syrie. Journeaux intimes de la revolution” (Syria. Intimate diaries of the revolution), designed by Caroline Donati and Carine Lefebvre-Quennell and produced by Emmanuel Barrault, tells the daily life of the Syrians trapped between the blind violence of the regime and the terror of the extremists of the IS (Islamic State) through the visual testimonies of the four main characters - Oussama Chourbaji, Amer abdel-Haq, Majid abdel-Nour and Joudi Chourbaji .
With an in-depth and original approach, the web documentary constitutes an alternative information to that disseminated by the mass media - prisoners of the dictatorship of current events - in which participatory journalism is reinforced thanks to the use of new web 2.0 technologies.
The web documentary follows the structure of TV series, with its “seasons” to depict the different stages of a war that seems to never end: the first season follows through the revolutionary outburst of the Syrians in 2012; the second tells the toughest winter, when the country falls into the war, which extends “on all fronts” (season 3), followed by “chemical horor” (season 4), the terrible abandonment (season 5 ) and finally, “To resist”, season 6, which is currently in progress. Each season contains a long section about the recent Syrian history.
This web documentary, hosted on ART and MEDIAPART, is turning into an even more ambitious project, titled “New Syrian Voices”. New journalists will be added to the existing team to enrich the editorial content and expand the network. The working method experienced with the web doc will be transmitted to others, to continue to document the conflict in Syria but also beyond its borders, as the number of Syrian refugees abroad now exceeds 2 million.
Interview with Caroline Donati accompanied by videos by Oussama Chourbaji, Amer abdel-Haq, Majid abdel-Nour and Joudi Chourbaji
How was the idea of New Syrian Voices born?
We first created the web documentary and the platform “Syrie, journaux intimes de la revolution”, departing from a shared reflection with Oussama Chourbaji and Carine Lefebvre-Quennell on the need to provide better information on Syria, which is not so much anchored to the news and images of war. “Syria, intimate diaries of the revolution” was born as a service at the disposal of citizen journalists, for a participatory journalism. Then we decided to extend the work of these first two years, to concretize this accompaniment at a distance and this type of testimony through the creation of the network "New Syrian Voices", a network that will enable these new voices to emerge. The protagonists of the "Diaries" will therefore be the core of this new network, which proposes a participatory and grassroots journalism, halfway between documentary and reportage. They will be the ones to mainly transfer their acquired knowledge and to train new authors for the platform.
I think this participatory and grassroots journalism is very suitable for telling a situation like the one that is going through this area of the world torn by conflict, and for informing the Western audiences tired and puzzled by these distant wars and the complexity of the geo-political relations, but also prisoners of stereotypes conveyed by the mass media. Our platform aims to be an alternative information model, of quality, based on rigor and innovation, a model that is valid both for the countries of the South and for the European press. The latter has much to learn from participatory journalism as it has developed, for example, with Altermondes.
How do you carry out the work concretely?
We have created a working group on Skype at the beginning: we asked the journalists involved to film thenselves daily, day and night, in their moments of loneliness, to witnessing what they were experiencing and how they felt. We clarified our approach and what we wanted to achieve, namely a chronicle of the Syrian reality based on their personal experience. As a citizen journalist, they are in the best position to describe the reality: more than just being witnesses to the reality, they embody it.
Each one describes the situation in which he/she is located, by filming the surrounding environment and turning the camera towards himself/herself, according to a predefined scheme.
When we received the first videos, we have formulated our observations on the form and content, and made suggestions for improving their work. Since then, we proceed like this day by day. We can for example ask them to document a particular situation, and not another one, because sometimes it is difficult for them to grasp what is important to us here, since it simply makes a part of their every day lives. With Amer for example, we insist that he shoot the surrounding environment in detail, because this helps us to understand how people live in a city under siege.
We asked Majid, who makes a part of a brigade of the Free Army, to film the daily lives of the fighters, not only at the front, but also in the rear, such as during the meals or at the shelter where they sleep.
We also ask them to speak to their relatives, and to interview them - if they are available, of course - in full respect of safety conditions, in order to inform about the conditions of life in such an extraordinary conflict situation. When Majid talks about his marriage, for example, he tells us that life goes on despite everything, and lets us to discover traditional Syrian society, unknown to most people.
How are the journalists followed?
The videos that they make are the result result of a constant exchange in our Skype or Facebook group. Nevertheless the journalists have a wide maneuver margin, because it is them that are the authors of the videos and they shoot completely alone. We explain them what we want, sometimes we have precise demands, but it is up to them to make them, because it is clear that what matters most to us is their personal look. In other cases, they are the ones to make proposals and decide what they want to shoot and show. There is something intimate in this storytelling approach, and it is them who set the limits. This is an essential aspect. On the other hand there are also the technical quality standards, and there have been cases where we could not publish contributions because the quality was not sufficient. In this case, we invite them to take up the subject again and deal with it in a different way. In principle, we rarely intervene with the videos on the cutting room. The French team's work consists mainly of organizing the shooting premises, giving them a sense and doing editorial work to contextualize: we write the introduction and choose a title that engages the audience. But even this work is done together: we ask them information about the missing contextual elements that we add by inserting in the text or in the introduction published on the website. In this work, Oussama’s role is essential, because thanks to his geographical position, he acts as a link between Paris and Syria.
How are you planning to use the funding by “Ebticar” to develop the project?
Thanks to the financial support of the Ebticar Media project we can maintain the online platform of “Intimate diaries of the revolution” until May 2015 and strengthen the training of journalists through the courses that will take place in Turkey. This job “at the base” is critical to ensure effective documentation of a very complex reality like that of Syria. The involvement of young citizen journalists for the entire period and the possibility to provide their fees are essential conditions to enable them to develop the skills necessary to implement and then manage their own content. With these skills, they can in turn train other young people on participatory journalism. Three new Syrian authors will join the current group and two of them are women. The first, Joudi, has already started working in early September.
We are planning two training workshops to finalize the transfer of skills. In addition, the French team wants to put together a manual to give them the educational tools. To begin with, the “Charter of grassroots participatory journalism” will be drawn together with the Syrian team, so that all the participants feel themselves real owners. And together we will create a teaser as a tool for additional promotion for the network. On the other hand, the launch of the Charter will be the act of foundation of the New Syrian Voices network. This term, New Syrian Voices, wants to embody a new way of democratic, free and solidary expression in the Mediterranean area.
Do you collaborate with other alternative Syrian media?
Of course, we are in contact with several other media, with other alternative networks, and we would like to involve some of their citizen journalists in the training courses that we are preparing, and they can also gradually become part of the New Syrian Voices network. Our research for dissemination channels also put us in contact with alternative media in Europe, because the participatory journalism has a future here as well, as part of the struggle for the democratization of information that is also underway in the old continent. One of these contacts is Altermondes, which has just created its own web version.
What sort of a dissemination do you expect for New Syrian Voices to make the project reach a wider audience? Do you think of creating a new autonomous web platform?
First of all we would like to make an Arabic and English version of the web documentary and build partnerships (web sites and web radio) to reach a wider audience and especially to make the project penetrate in its natural regional context natural. At the beginning, and on account of the available funds, New Syrian Voices will be able to create its own web platform, that in addition to the content created by the citizen journalists, will also contain all the editorial and training tools developed with the Syrian team during the “Intimate diaries of the revolution” period, as well as the training courses’ materials. The dissemination of the New Syrian Voices will focus on the entire Mediterranean area, not only on the Arab region.
Aren’t you afraid that the news coverage of the Islamic State’s (IS) actions in Iraq and Syria may prevent you from achieving your objectives on visibility?
It is true that the the issue of IS has a priority at the expense of other aspects of the reality in Syria. The war against IS in Syria is addressed by Oussama, Majid and Amer, because it is a part of the reality that they live in, that affects them directly. But they face it in a different way, through a personal narrative. And it is precisely this close witness approach that allows to involve the public. It can be seen clearly at the screenings at festivals that the project partcipates: the audience is struck by the story of these journalists because they’re perceived primarily as persons. They are citizens that address other citizens, departing from universal values and shared emotions, such as fear, grief, enthusiasm...
Moreover, the project is already disseminated on Mediapart, Arte, major media organs with a broad public but also open to the alternative approach that we propose. To show other things, those that usually are not seen, helps to attract an audience that no longer finds the information that it needs in the mass media. But it is, above all, our duty to inform.
What are your priorities right now?
Now we have to concentrate on broadening our audiences and keep them loyal, make them visit the site regularly. We are therefore looking for new partners and distribution channels internationally, to realize the Arabic and Syrian versions, and circulate them both on the web and the social networks, in Syria,in the Arab world and also in Europe. But the key to the visibility and the success with the public is to have quality, innovative and easily accessible information.
Translated from Italian by Övgü Pınar