In the wood-paneled Holeman Lounge of the National Press Club in Washington D.C, on October 22, Zaina Erhaim, 30, apologized: “I’m not a war zone reporter.” It was an unexpected comment from a brave journalist living and working in battle-torn Syria. She explained, as she received the Peter Mackler Award from Peter’s daughter, Camille: “I wouldn’t be there if it was not my home country.”
And yet, it was clear to the audience of 75 that her courage and determination to bear witness in the harshest of circumstances earned her the prize. Erhaim is not only exposed to the same risks as ordinary civilians in Aleppo, she is also wanted by many security agencies, terrorist and governmental, for simply reporting the truth.
In a brief but forceful acceptance speech, Erhaim displayed the qualities that make her a superb reporter: humility, focus and a sharp sense of humor.
” I feel a burden to complete what my colleagues and friends have died for. They died to make the world see what is going on,” she said, lamenting the fact that international media organizations center their reports on the geopolitical aspect of the conflict. For Erhaim and her trainees, the regime’s barrel bombs flattening schools and hospitals in her city of Aleppo are the immediate preoccupation.
Yet Syrians love their country and try as best they can to go about their lives, she said. “What I was trying to do in the last three or four years is just report on lives and not just wars or massacres,” she said.
More than anything, Erhaim expressed well-deserved pride at training women in journalism techniques, whether or not a man accompanies them. She playfully recalled how one of her trainees bribed her husband into coming along for a shoot – in a country where women cannot venture outside without a male escort – by “giving him what he wanted.”
Erhaim is the Syria project coordinator for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. She has trained about 100 citizen reporters from inside Syria, approximately a third of them women, in print and TV journalism. Her films, “Syria’s Rebellious Women,” document the lives of ordinary women propelled by the war to take over in hospitals, training centers and other civic duties.
In a panel discussion after the award ceremony, Erhaim was joined by three veteran female reporters with extensive Middle East reporting experience: Hannah Allam of McClatchy Newspapers, Miriam Elder of BuzzFeed News, and Mashable’s Louise Roug, who moderated the panel. Each of them brought her own perspective to the conflict and the difficulties of reporting as a female from a Middle Eastern culture that constrains them considerably in public places.
Erhaim, for instance, expressed disappointment that western media are concentrating much of their coverage on the beheadings and other atrocities committed by the Islamic State, or ISIS. She said this ignores the ongoing reality on the ground that more than 90 percent of the Syrians who are being killed are the victims of bombings and other attacks by the Assad regime.
The following day, as is the custom for the Peter Mackler Award recipients, Erhaim addressed a group of students at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. The event was co-sponsored by the Association of Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists.
The students asked about the state of the media in Syria, outside of the Assad regime’s controlled areas. Erhaim, who would likely be arrested if Assad’s men came upon her and no longer travels from city to city, spoke about the few radio stations and news outlets published in and out of Syria. But she highlighted how disjointed the country has become: “The news from the South of the country feels like international news to me,” she said.
Queried on the refugees now arriving in Europe in large numbers, “it’s not that people want to go to the European Union, people just want to live,” she noted. And to would-be free lancers tempted to travel there to cover the story, she warned, “No story is worth a life.”