The pictures were horrific: Dozens of dead children lying side by side with their eyes open, reportedly killed in a chemical weapons attack that Syrian rebels say was launched by the al-Assad regime.
In the two years of the Syrian uprising, which has killed more than 100,000 people and forced two million more to flee the country, the videos and images on Wednesday shocked a world that has become somewhat inured to violence in the country.
But is that what really happened? Did the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad really unleash chemical weapons that supposedly killed more than 1,300 people in the eastern suburbs of Damascus? Did the rebels? Or was it al-Qaeda-affiliated groups?
Days later, no one outside of Syria is really sure.
If anything, Wednesday’s top news story was just another poignant illustration of how difficult it has been to cover one of the bloodiest conflicts of the last half century.
The biggest problem for reporters has been access: There isn’t really any. Period.
The Syrian regime has largely forbidden foreign reporters from entering the country. When they do sneak in, they face extreme danger – 24 have been killed in the past two years, according to Reporters Without Borders, while dozens of others have been wounded or kidnapped. As the war has dragged on, fewer reporters go in and those who do are finding it increasingly difficult to move around and to access reliable information.
For this reason, most reporting of the conflict is currently being done from a distance, from Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
For those journalists who make it in with the opposition, the rebels have placed severe restrictions on reporters inside the territories they control, and many reporters find themselves unable to confirm any information beyond the limited area where they can travel.
“This war is so localized that you can interview someone in Aleppo and they have no idea what is happening outside their neighbourhood,” said Kristen Gillespie, the editor of SyriaDirect.org, a non-profit journalism initiative that trains Syrian journalists in an attempt to counter the agenda-driven reporting coming out of the country. “Government supporters do not talk to government dissidents. Apply this on a large scale, factor in misinformation from unprofessional media on both sides, cuts in electricity and communications channels, and there really isn’t anyone who can credibly digest and analyze what is happening on a national level.”
This creates additional challenges such as verifying the reliability of sources and footage coming in from Syria.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and a Syria expert, says a large part of the problem is that the increasingly radicalized narratives on both sides don’t fit the narrative most Western media outlets want to deliver.
“The entire West has a bias which is democracy – democracy is the religion of the West, in a sense,” Prof. Landis said. “And every time the West sees a struggle, it tries to fit it into this narrative of good versus evil, democrats versus tyrants, and unfortunately in Syria we have a narrative that doesn’t fit easily into that.”
Every reporter in Syria is faced with one big difficult challenge: simply sorting what is fact from fiction. Countless falsified or edited videos purporting to show massacres have popped up on the Internet, alongside many that testify to real atrocities worthy of attention.
Recent examples of forgeries include films claiming to show the murder of some 400 Kurds by extremists on the rebel side that later turned out to have been put together from videos of previous atrocities in Syria and other parts of the Middle East.
While most experts have stopped short of questioning the authenticity of footage from Wednesday’s apparent chemical weapons attack, there is a general agreement that a lot of unverifiable information is floating around.
“We are basing almost everything on the use of video and on opposition reports,” Prof. Landis said. “There have been tons of bad reports coming out of Syria. There’s a lot of exaggeration, lots of videos that have been falsified.”