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Dr. Waiel Awadd, veteran conflict journalist

Interview: Syria Unplugged With Veteran Syrian Conflict-Zone Journalist, Dr. Waiel Awadd

Waiel S.H Awadd is a writer and political analyst. He is also a South Asian based journalist since 1979 who has travelled extensively in most of South-Asian countries.

He has covered stories from Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Afghanistan, West Asia and Gulf Region. He worked as Bureau Chief of MBC (Middle Eastern Broadcasting Centre)-London,MBC-FM Radio, Kuwait, Oman and Damascus Radio and prior to that; run a special program: Dateline South Asia Bureau Chief of Al-Arabia TV channel (Dubai Media City).

He is a recipient of the fifth Rajiv Gandhi Excellence Award (2014) for the best journalist from overseas (Freedom of speech award).

I met Dr. Waiel Awadd when he came down to the Apeejay Stya University, Gurugram, where I was doing my master’s in Journalism and Mass Communication. He had come down to give us a lecture on conflict-zone reportage. Before the seminar began, I took a chance to talk with him and asked him for a brief interview. This was in March 2015 but the content is still current in any conflict scenario.

 

Excerpts from the interview:

1.)     You have been a political analyst and a writer since the late 1970’s and has travelled extensively. Could you take us to the roots of the inception of your journey as a war- journalist?

Dr. Awadd: “Well, the term ‘war-journalist’ … actually it is not accurate. The terminology has been used but it is a war reporting and we happen to be in a place where all the wars

are happening-from South Asia, Jaffna then we went to Afghanistan, then Kargil … then we went to Iraq , Iran then Kuwait then Iraq invasion …The whole region is under war …so.. We have been reporting. The fact of the matter- it used to be very difficult to report from war zones in early times because it was difficult communication, sending your story and being a television journalist as well …you need to have pictures. If you do not have pictures, you do not have a story. So, we have to be present at the side, on the spot…It is a very tough task; we were determined to bring the truth to the people and we succeeded and that’s how we used to report from the war-zones.”

2.)    What inspired to pursue this?

Dr. Awadd: “It was an adventure. It was research for the truth. I was the only Arab journalist based on this part of the world and that also gave me the mileage that I became the monopoly of the Arab world of reporting from the moment it was happening. One thing we learn in journalism is that you must have presence of mind. You have to know

where the story goes on. We do a proper preparation of the story and move on and we know if something is going to happen… whether a war is going to happen or an earthquake, we would immediately travel and it helps us to build the story and people will come to you because they know you are on the spot. Such things matter more when you are reporting for television, especially.”

3.)      Is it difficult to be objective and unbiased while reporting or writing from a conflict-zone area?

Dr. Awadd: “It is difficult , in the sense, depends on whom we are working for. If you are an independent journalist then it is not difficult… you can always report. If you are working for some Corporate company which is now unfortunately running the media houses then you are tagged only to those stories that they want to give you. Having said that, I would  not say that I was very much objective in my writing because it was area of war where it made no difference to my channel… it is not a national interest for anyone… so it was more of objective reporting , yes, but on the spot we were the only people;

I cannot make up a story… like it happened with me in Iraq war… When I was in Iraq and my channel was saying, “You do not know the pulse of the street, what are you doing? “and to that I

said, “That’s not my job! My job is to report the news …I am not here to manufacture news.” So, you need to report news and that’s how we do it. So, be objective because that is what gives you-the authenticity, credibility and accountability because you cannot forget that you have your audience, you have your viewers, you have people who are watching you, you have the world, you are building a public opinion on something. You must report the truth. If you do not report the truth, then that is not journalism.”

4.)     What are the perks and disadvantages of being a conflict-zone journalist?

Dr Awadd: “The most unfortunate part is that there is no proper training. You look at the journalists in general, covering warzone. They have never gone across any kind of training to report from a war- zone.

That is the disadvantage. We notice this in Jaffna…in Kargil…in Afghanistan. This is the reason why there has been maximum number of journalists dying in warzone. You are very easy to be kidnapped, you do not have a gun to protect yourself…you have your pen or the camera… so people think it is an easy task. So, they kidnap the journalists, ask for ransom… it happened with us in Konzo in Afghanistan where two of our colleagues got killed. We had to run away from the province… it happened to us in Jaffna and Iraq where I was embedded with the Americans and was held captive for fifteen days where there was an ambush. In Khush-aba-Udeen in Afghanistan, the same thing happened. You need to have proper training and you need to acquaint yourself with the area you are covering. And if you are good in English or languages and the native languages then you are able to do your job much better.”

5.)  Does it help if you are there with the locals? Do they help you out?

Dr. Awadd: “In any zone, you go for coverage; you need to have a local guide. You should have a good contact with the group there, with the NGO’s, with the civil societies, with the officials, you must be well-prepared to go. Warzone is not just reporting. Your safety is more important than your channel and your job. Because when you are safe only then only you can come back and report. If there are no you then there is no report left.”

6.)     So, what about the story? The urgency to tell the story?

Dr. Awadd: “The urgency to tell the story in war-zone time… if you have something to show to the world then, yes, you need to. During our times, earlier… there used to be problems with the satellites and sometimes are not able to deliver the news instantly but now with new technologies around…it is easier for the journalists these days. There also has been a big transformation in the way of reporting. In the way of reporting in the sense, you may be able to give the news faster but we must focus on the authenticity of the report. In some cases, corporate or some vested interest companies do not want you to give the truth. They will give you the story and if you report the story then you are doing damage than really reporting an authentic story. So, you need to immediately work out your own assessment to the situation and where you are. It all depends on you. If you are a good journalist, if you have done your homework and have the local contacts then you shall be able to report much better. That’s why we have stayed for a long time in warzones. In order to sustain in the field of journalism, what matters is you need to be on the field, you need to tell the truth , you need to tell the world…you need to be independent, comprehensible, balanced, quick, accountable and credible in your reportage.”

7.)     The Zaatari camp in Jordan hosts millions of Syrian refugees since the Civil War started, which also happens to be the world’s second largest refugee camp. As a veteran reporter and a political analyst, what are your views on the current refugee crisis?

Dr.Awadd: “You know, the irony of the matter is in 2008- Syria according to the UN was the number one country in the world hosting refugees. Now, in 2015- unfortunately, Syria got the tag of the largest number of refugees in the world. Having said that, there are two dimensions to the crisis: (a) it was a war imposed on us, on the Syrian people where people were forced to flee their country for safety and for a better life. In Syria, we have an immensely potential population and I am going to speak it out to the people there…We have people who have finished schooling, people who have graduated from Universities, well- educated. This is what we are losing- the productive class of my country to the West. These people who left to the Zaatari camp and to neighboring countries… Can you imagine in Jordan now? Even if you are coming to India, the Jordanians would catch you at the transit once they know you are a Syrian and they will force you into stamping your passport as a refugee in the Zaatari camp. Why? Because they are getting 3000$ from the UN, even if you are not going to the Zaatari camp. This fact, nobody knows. The camp has become a hub for the elderly Arabs to marry the young girls there and exploiting children, drug trafficking. Humanitarian issues become secondary to many people. I feel the pain. People who have been there and come back and tell the stories of how these people are being exploited- like a Bazaar there, buying young girls in the pretext of protecting them and giving them shelter. This is absolutely absurd. And this is only done by people who are not humane. They are paying the money, arming the mercenaries, funding them, smuggling them into Syria but when the refugees were going out of Syria, not a single Syrian was taken. Why? The question must be asked. Why? They wanted to see this humanitarian crisis happen in there because there is a doctrine in the UN which is called the RTP (Right To Protection). They wanted to implement this on the Syrian Crisis. They have something called the Humanitarian Intervention. We have to tell the world that it is not a crisis in Syria. Have you ever heard anything about Syria prior to 2011? Anything about Syria? Nobody talked about Syria that time because Syria was the most peaceful country in the most turbulent region of the world. For fifty years, we did not have a problem. Zero crime. We have a rich culture behind us since thousands of years. The war has been imposed on us. If you have a country where there is 1, 50,000 mercenaries, what do you expect? That means they wanted to kill maximum civilians, let them flee, let the crisis happen… this is what is happening… that is why you see 1.5 million in Jordan ,2.5 million in Turkey. Turkey got 3 billion $ grants from the European Union. Does it go to the Syrian refugees? Why are they allowing them to die in the sea? Same thing is happening at the Zaatari camp. After the Russian intervention in Syria, you will see that most of the areas where the rebels were fighting…people are coming back even if there were no homes left. People want to go back to Syria, therefore, they must restore back. Who wants to leave their own country when they had everything?”

8.)  Why has it not been reported if people know about these things?

Dr. Awadd: “You are absolutely right. It is a very good question. When you want to create a crisis, the first thing to do is to suppress the victims’ voice and news would be fed according to how they want people to receive a certain kind of information. Syria is already a very important geo-politically located country. They have discovered oil and gas. It is the third largest gas reservoir in the world. According to the US, by 2020 Syria would have been a geo-politic journal. If these are the issues, then people would do something to suppress. They closed the Syrian media, they closed the Syrian embassy, they closed Syrian embassies all over Europe, and they banned Syria from the Arab League- so you do not have my voice. So, if I want to feed you whatever news I want, I can. For example: like a doctor will give you a certain kind of medicine knowing your course of recovery. You do not hear these voices, but you go to Syria and ask people in Syria. See for your own self what is really going on. What you see and hear on the television is whatever people want to feed you. The UN, too, unfortunately have not been very objective in reporting. They have been discriminating the crisis. Who is running the UN anyway? The UN Democratic Institute. If the UN Security Council is telling you what to do, then you are not independent. Even they have closed their eyes with all these things happening in Syria and Yemen. Have you heard about Yemen since the past eleven months and the daily bombarding? Not even the UN or Human Rights Groups sent any humanitarian workers. They did not allow them because money is blinding them. It is a highly corrupted system and a highly corrupted organization. We need to expose these things- PEOPLE POWER. We are living in the ‘People Power’ age. This is the era that we need to tell people that we need to change. And these are the changes that we have to make : these are the places that we need someone to govern state, a democratic body , people can come and express themselves freely and make sure their voices are heard all over the world, not only for the interest of the West and the Americans. They find a better way: they say, “Our Democracy will bring Democracy to you.” And this imposed Democracy, we can see in the Arab world. They have destroyed everything. It has caused instability, radicalization, Islamophobia.”

9.)     What would you advise budding students who would be interested to become a conflict-zone journalist?

Dr. Awadd: “You have to have a proper training. You must always search for your safety. You have to be credible, accountable and quick. Authenticity of reporting is very important. You should be accurate; you should not cheat yourself- no matter what money you get. Journalism must retain its Fourth State stature- where they can change public opinion, give the truth to the people and let them decide. You do not have to manufacture news. The most important thing is not to manufacture news of how it happened, why it happened, when it happened.”

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