When murderers grant a media scoop

Diana Moukalled

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A few weeks ago, PBS correspondent Martin Smith visited Syria to report on government-controlled areas. He produced a documentary which shows life “Inside Assad’s Syria”, as he named the film. It gives an inside look into regime-controlled areas, introducing viewers to the mentality of those who defend the Assad regime.

At around same time, Vice News was working on a documentary on the al-Nusra Front, filmed from inside the party’s controlled areas. The film addresses how the organization governs and shows what sort of generation is being raised under its power. It marks the first documentary of its kind, and first time the organization has allowed journalists to come this close to its fighters and the areas it controls.

In both cases, the journalists were honest in broadcasting what they recorded. They know well that they were not free to move around and to ask questions. Their journalistic material was thus limited to what the Syrian regime allowed to be recorded and to what the al-Nusra Front wanted the world to see.

An inside look

Journalists accepting restricted freedoms in such cases does not warrant a professional demerit. The final work allows us to see, for example, the schizophrenia of Syrian regime within the areas it controls. For example, we saw how the regime built tourist complexes and planned festivals and concerts at a time when many of the world’s armies were crossing its airspace. This is in addition to the fact that many of the regime-controlled areas are literally few kilometers away from parts that the regime is shelling with barrel bombs.

Nothing should prevent the media interviewing evil figures, even if they are demons. But even this has regulations and rules

Diana Moukalled

The documentary on al-Nusra Front gave us a look into the religious education being taught to children in areas the group controls, showing us the age at which people are being introduced to such extremist ideologies. One of the lessons these children were learning was on the legitimacy of the principle of “spoils” of war.

Both films were examples of the kind of courageous and committed journalism that allows us to explore topics without any embellishments, exaggerations or even condemnations. In both documentaries, the journalists did not reflect stances or emotions. They simply presented an image of one of the most dangerous zones in the world. The few statements they made were to seek information or to narrate the stories of certain people and figures, and they did that without blessing, promotion or demonizing anyone.

Journalists entering conflict zones or interviewing those considered responsible for violence, whether murder or acts of terrorism, is nothing new. It is in fact the core of journalism.

Marred in mediocrity

But it is difficult not to compare the aforementioned firms with a recent similar case in Lebanon, concerning media coverage of the deal regarding the release of the Lebanese soldiers whom the al-Nusra Front had held hostage.

There were many violations in this coverage, in which the al-Nusra Front allowed a certain television channel to interview the hostages prior to their release and take footage of areas controlled by the group. Some got angry as they considered this a move which markets murderers and decapitators. The channel’s media coverage, which submitted to al-Nusra’s conditions, could certainly be criticized for its exaggeration and praise, thus distorting the legitimacy of the channel's exclusive coverage from inside the al-Nusra-controlled zones.

This is not the first time this has happened. Lebanese media, as well as Arab media in general, have repeatedly fallen into the trap of resorting to exaggeration and praise during exclusive coverage of regimes or armed groups like al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah, and currently, al-Nusra Front and ISIS.

Nothing should prevent the media interviewing evil figures, even if they are demons. But even this has regulations and rules. And as long as our media outlets are marred in mediocrity, the end result will not be exposing facts, but regurgitating nonsense under the pretext of a scoop.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Dec. 7, 2015.
Diana Moukalled is the Web Editor at the Lebanon-based Future Television and was the Production & Programming Manager with at the channel. Previously, she worked there as Editor in Chief, Producer and Presenter of “Bilayan al Mujaradah,” a documentary that covers hot zones in the Arab world and elsewhere, News and war correspondent and Local news correspondent. She currently writes a regular column in AlSharq AlAwsat. She also wrote for Al-Hayat Newspaper and Al-Wasat Magazine, besides producing news bulletins and documentaries for Reuters TV. She can be found on Twitter: @dianamoukalled.

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