"Running for Cover" in the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium

'Running for Cover' event stirs a day of thoughtful discussion and debate about Syrian conflict, media, politics

October 11, 2016

Newhouse Center for Global Engagement brings in experts from around the world

The Newhouse Center for Global Engagement hosted a daylong event Oct. 6 to examine accountability in the Syrian Conflict. “Running for Cover: Politics, Justice and Media in the Syrian Conflict” brought together expert panelists from around the world and stirred a day of dialogue in the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium at Newhouse. 

The event's unique "fishbowl" format included an empty chair that allowed audience members to join the panel discussions alongside the experts. The auditorium became an exhibit space as well, with images of Syria and the people suffering through the Syrian conflict—provided by Pictures of the Year International, Reza Visual Academy, Ed Kashi of VII Agency and World Press photojournalist Javier Manzano—on display on the walls.

Attendees also had the opportunity to view 360° video stories from the Syrian region, provided by The New York Times, ABC News and ROYT. 

"The Geopolitical Situation in Syria"

Panelists:

  • Lamis Abdelaaty, assistant professor of political science, Maxwell School
  • Bassam al-Ahmad, executive director, Syrians for Truth and Justice
  • William Banks, founding director, Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, Syracuse University
  • Mehrzad Boroujerdi, chair of political science, Maxwell School
  • Sherine Tadros, representative and head of New York (UN) Office, Amnesty International

Professor Ken Harper opened the event by calling attention to the photos of people affected by the Syrian Conflict, displayed inside and at the entrance to the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium, which were provided by Pictures of the Year International.

“I wanted to make sure we’re surrounded by the faces of those being affected,” he said. “Everything we’re doing (with this event) is out of respect for those who are suffering.”

Panelists used the discussion to put the conflict in an historical context, look at the international response to events and begin to explore possible solutions. “This is no doubt the humanitarian and political crisis of our generation,” said Sherine Tadros, who facilitated the panel. “Four hundred thousand people have been killed—including at least 15,000 children.” But, Tadros added, “We hear so much about Syria that it’s almost difficult to be shocked anymore.”

Panelists discussed military interventions and the hurdles to a diplomatic solution in Syria, stemming in part from the differing goals and motivations of the many players involved—including Russia, the Islamic State, the Kurds, the U.S. and others. “This war may last another 10 years,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi.

Boroujerdi said he feels the common portrayal of the conflict—freedom fighters versus a single dictator—is “the wrong narrative.” He also warned that removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power would not be a simple solution. “He may be a dictator, but he’s a dictator with a social base.” Bassam al-Ahmad said dividing the country would also be questionable, given the diversity of the people, but that he believes decentralization may be an answer.

Tadros said that while many are pushing for a no-fly zone, she fears the ramifications of this approach. “It sounds very good: let’s ground all flights and then no one will bomb Syria,” she said. “But then you’d have to enforce that. And in the process of enforcing it, you’d essentially be starting a world war… It’s a huge escalation. And there is a theory that you have to escalate the situation to deescalate it, but many people will die if a no-fly zone is imposed.”

Panelists also discussed Syrian refugees, noting that while the world only seemed to take notice once refugees started arriving in Europe, the crisis had already been ongoing in the Middle East. “The real refugee crisis is in Syria’s neighboring countries,” said Lamis Abdelaaty, noting that Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have the largest population of Syrian refugees, and that less than 10 percent have gone to Europe. Tadros said the idea of a refugee crisis in Europe comes not from the numbers of people seeking shelter there, but from the unwillingness of many EU countries to cooperate in terms of burden-sharing. Abdelaaty pointed out that the future of Syria is being jeopardized by the vast numbers of children in refugee camps who are missing out on an education.

Watch the video>>

—Wendy Loughlin

"Accountability for Atrocity" panelists. Photo by Kathleen Flynn

"Accountability for Atrocity"

Panelists: 

  • Bill Wiley, executive director, Commission for International Justice and Accountability
  • Radwan Ziadeh, senior analyst, Arab Center Washington D.C. and founder and director, Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies
  • David Crane, founding director, Syrian Accountability Project, Syracuse University College of Law.

Few will dispute that horrific crimes are being committed every day in Syria. But in times of war, when the normalcies of life and society are thrown into chaos, who is held accountable for their crimes—big or small?

During the “Accountability for Atrocity” panel, Syracuse University College of Law professor David M. Crane said investigators will construct a crime map to document and track verifiable incidents. That type of work is being done by organizations such as the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, founded by Bill Wiley, one of the other panelists.

Wiley said his organization tracks crimes and builds what he calls a “structure” of people to lay out a chain of responsibility. In a situation like Syria, Wiley said his commission would not start with a target like Presiden Bashar al-Assad since he has likely not committed the actual crime.

“It would be beneath them to dirty their hands,” he said. But they are responsible for the crimes because they happen on their watch. Through the gathering of facts and documenting power structures, Wiley and the commission can connect high-level individuals to low-level acts.

Panelist and Syrian Radwan Ziadeh seemed to express his country’s frustration in the lack of accountability for years of atrocities. Ziadeh, a senior analyst at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C., compared the world’s refusal to intervene in Syria to the lack of attention paid to the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s, when millions of people died at the hands of the country’s leader.

Crane encouraged the audience to continue talking about Syria.

“You don’t have to go out and save the world,” he said. “Lead a discussion over coffee. Be aware. Everyone in this room can do something.”

Watch the video>>

—Emily Kulkus

 

Panelist Sherine Tadros, of Amnesty International Photo by Bryan Cereijo

"The Media’s Role"

Panelists: 

  • Roy Gutman, freelance journalist and former foreign editor and correspondent, McClatchy and Newsday
  • Ned Parker, Reuters enterprise reporter and former Edward R. Murrow fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations
  • Reza, photojournalist, National Geographic, and founder, Ainaworld, Reza Visual Academy
  • Sherine Tadros, Representative and head of New York (UN) Office, Amnesty International
  • Ben Taub, contributing writer, newyorker.com
  • Hub Brown, associate dean for research, creativity, international initiatives ad diversity, Newhouse School

The Syrian media was once a well-funded international press corps but after years of war, the country’s journalists are finding it harder and harder to cover this complex and violent war. The third panel of “Running for Cover,” discussed how journalism from the war zones could be improved.

The panel discussed the drastic difference in the role of media before and during the crisis in Syria.

“Many U.S. news outlets were present all over the world even until the last decade and then poof,” Parker said of a dwindling number of international correspondents working for American media.

Photojournalist Reza shared his personal experiences while in Syria, while documenting the daily lives of the people most affected by the war.

“The refugees are covering their struggles themselves,” he said. “They are streaming videos, but those are not seen by us.”

Panelists discussed the role of the media in the Syrian conflict but also questioned reader interests.

“I see more Kardashians on TV than Syria,” Tadros said.

The panel questioned whether the media should be an advocate of policy change or a vehicle of information.

“Media is not the human rights activist...It costs money to make news. There is no infallible news station. Everyone has a bias. You have to filter that,” she added.

Much of the panel’s discussion swirled around the idea of a journalist’s role, particularly in a time of great conflict like what’s happening in Syria. They discussed how it was not the job of a journalist to sway opinion, but only to make people aware of their surroundings.

Journalists are not experts, only seekers of truth, panelist and Syracuse University professor Boroujerdi said.

“Try to pursue the truth no matter who you anger because you are going to anger people and people are going to hate you,” he advised a student who asked how she could pursue her goals to become an “unbiased journalist.”

The panel concluded that the “end game” should be accurate coverage, not only in Syria but in every place of conflict; the media should never be the mouthpiece of the powerful. Panelists also encouraged young journalists to come up with new ideas to bring important stories to people around the world.

Watch the video>>

—Aishwarya Choudhury is a broadcast and digital journalism student at the Newhouse School.

 

"Social Media in Reporting War" panelists.

"Social Media in Reporting War"

Panelists: 

The fourth panel of “Running for Cover” discussed how social media has been used to report on and bear witness to conflict and atrocities. The panel addressed how social media has become a robust force in journalism and how so many forms of media are using the tool to report stories big and small.

Panelists agreed that social media is being used effectively by those being affected by the war in Syria but also by terrorists and the Islamic State to spread fear and propaganda.

“If there’s bad guys using it, we definitely need to, or it’s a body blow on democracy,” panelist Andrew Beiter said.

Ammar Abdulhamid, who is from Aleppo, said social media can be used to help people understand the scale and horror of the war. He spoke of the terrors and brutality that Aleppo is facing as the most affected part of the Syrian conflict, and said “these are the causes social media should be used for to attain a world that actively encourages peace.” He concluded his remarks by encouraging students, teachers and journalists to use #Aleppo on their social media accounts.

“We are hearing so much that we are not supposed to, and know so much more,” panelist and Newhouse assistant professor Jennifer Grygiel said.

Manar Shabouk, who teaches Arabic at Syracuse University and is from Syria, said people are not tuning in to social media to learn about this war as much as they could be.  

Speaking of refugees, she said, “they own cameras, they own the story, they even upload them on social media but their voices are not heard. The goal of social media is defeated there. There has to be a way of making journalism more human.”

She spoke of Refugee TV that shares stories from war-torn areas. Shabouk implored her audience to share the hashtag and propagate the news.

Panelists agreed that social media usage would continue to grow in reportage and citizen journalism. They encouraged students, teachers and all journalists to make the best use of the medium to bring forth honest, real time information about all sides of the conflict.

Watch the video>>

—Aishwarya Choudhury is a broadcast and digital journalism master’s student at the Newhouse School.

 

"Next Steps" panelists.

"Next Steps"

Panelists: 

  • Andrew Beiter, education director, I Am Syria
  • David Crane, founding director, Syrian Accountability Project, Syracuse University College of Law
  • Roy Gutman, freelance journalist, former foreign editor and correspondent, McClatchy and Newsday
  • Ken Harper, director, Newhouse Center for Global Engagement
  • Elijah Shama, student, Newhouse School, founder of Reporters Without Borders, Syracuse University chapter
  • Bill Wiley, executive director, Commission for International Justice and Accountability

During the last discussion of the day, “Running for Cover” panelists all seem to agree on several things: the conflict in Syria continues to be complex, violent and should be a humanitarian priority for the world.

Journalist Roy Gutman described a crowd-sourcing journalism project out of Syria he’s currently testing to see if he can tap into writers in some of the country’s hardest-hit communities.

Student Elijah Shama said journalists of all ages should continue reporting on the real people of the Syrian conflict. Humanizing the war will bring more attention to the atrocities and hopefully help people, he said.

The latter half of the discussion addressed how modern forms of media are shaping the conflict as it continues and how media coverage could affect who is prosecuted for its crimes. Professor Ken Harper asked panelists how newer technologies such as virtual reality could be used in courtrooms once the conflict ended. He described presenting a recreated prison or torture room via virtual reality to help a judge or jury better see or understand the circumstances of a crime. Both Crane and Wiley seemed intrigued by the idea.

Both also acknowledged how difficult it will be to use any of the citizen journalism from Syria in a courtroom in the future.

“Ninety nine point nine percent of what’s coming out in Syria is useless in court,” Crane said. “Maybe somewhere in the pedabyte there’s a needle in the haystack.”

Wiley said he fears that the sheer amount of Syrian-generated media—from photos to videos to Tweets—could cloud the investigation.

“The amount of information that’s coming out can be helpful but also overwhelming,” he said.

Both said the most effective method for documenting verifiable incidents will be by old-school methods: in-person interviews, original documents and written verification by those who witnessed things first hand.

Watch the video>>

—Emily Kulkus

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