Practical info for foreign journalists
The first and main concern for a journalist interested in covering Syria is the physical access to the country. At the time of writing (March 2017), there are two only ways to enter Syria: from Lebanon through the Masnaa-Jdeidet Yabus border crossing point (BCP) and from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq through the Faysh Khabur-Simalka BCP. Only in the first case, the entrance is considered legal by governmental authorities, as the Damascus central power does not recognise the de facto autonomous region of Rojava in Northern Syria. Nowadays, it is highly dangerous trying to enter illegally through Turkey, Jordan or Iraq as the borders are militarily sealed and close to the frontlines between armed opposition groups, radical militias and loyalist forces.
Since 2012 and 2013 many journalists have been kidnapped and went missing when trying to enter Syria through these corridors. International organisations have recorded hundreds of killings of journalists in the country since 2011, making it one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists to operate. Whereas the majority of them were Syrian, American, Japanese, Lebanese, Canadian, French and British were also killed during the period. The authorities have reiterated that they reject any responsibility for those journalists who have entered the Syrian territory illegally.
A journalist can enter Syria also through the Damascus Airport coming from Amman, Istanbul, Dubai, Beirut, Baghdad, Teheran, Jedda, Cairo, Abu Dhabi and other Middle Eastern cities. Before approaching any passport checkpoint at the Damascus airport or at the Masnaa BCP along the Lebanese/Syrian border, the journalist should have obtained a media visa from the Syrian authorities. In theory, the procedure is easy: The reporter should submit a request to the closest Syrian embassy or consulate (usually in Beirut, Lebanon, as Syrian embassies in European countries were closed after 2011) offering their credentials as professional journalists with a specific assignment from a defined media outlet.
In practice, though, the reporter can obtain the visa only in two cases: either after receiving a formal invitation from Syrian authorities interested in sending political messages through specific Western mainstream media; or through the intervention of a mediator already in contact with journalists and with very good relationship with the authorities in Damascus. Some mediators operate in Beirut and are in general very close to the local Hezbollah militia and/or to the Iranian authorities; other mediators operate in European capitals and regularly organise media tour in government-held areas inside Syria. In this framework, it could be difficult for a freelance reporter or photographer that does not represent a strong Western media and with scarce connections inside the Damascus governmental echelons to obtain a journalistic visa. In case of denial, there will not be any explicit communication from Syrian authorities. The reply could be as simple as: “We are waiting for a fax from Damascus.”
Entering the Syrian autonomous region of Rojava from KRG through the Faysh Khabur-Simalka as an accredited reporter could be as difficult as accessing Syria from Lebanon. In 2015 Syrian-Kurdish authorities restricted access to media operators and a journalist will need informal privileged contacts among the Rojava authorities to enter the region. Once inside, both in governmental-held territories and in Rojava, reporters and photo-reporters should be careful in taking pictures and filming videos outdoors with no previous formal authorisation as there could be minders, militiamen, security officials disguised in civilian clothes monitoring the journalist’s behaviour during their field work.
In and around Damascus and the other main Syrian cities there could be besieged areas out of the control of government forces. It could be dangerous trying to cross the borders to enter those areas as local authorities have reiterated they do not guarantee the safety of media operators. In Syria reporters cannot approach directly a representative for the military and security apparatus. They can interact - upon request - with officials, local authorities and governmental representatives. These people represent only the façade of formal power and their statements are fully part of the official narrative of the events. In Rojava there are governmental-held pockets both in the cities of Qamishli and al-Hasaka where reporters could face detention at checkpoints manned by loyalist forces. In fact, the Damascus authorities do not recognise the legitimacy of the media permits issued by Rojava authorities and consider illegal the access of foreign reporters from Iraqi Kurdistan.