BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone.
[SOUND OF MUNITIONS FIRING/VOICES]
And this is the sound of incendiary munitions in the area of East Ghouta in Syria on March 7th. Syrian government forces have been laying siege to the Damascus suburb for months. The result has been endless anguish and misery. Doctors Without Borders has said that in the two weeks between February 18th and March 3rd, over a thousand people were killed. More are reported every day, but not reported enough, says one reporter, not nearly enough.
BOB GARFIELD: Thalia Beaty is a journalist with Storyful, a news outlet that monitors and fact-checks social media for news outlets to use. She got in touch with us, writing, quote, "The silence…around this brutal stage in the Syrian war is difficult to reconcile with what I'm seeing." She's been watching the stream of horrific videos and posts from East Ghouta, all featuring civilians caught in the crossfire or just plain targeted in a bloody civil war, victims of a scorched-earth campaign by the Assad regime, trying to route opposition fighters, just as in Aleppo in late 2016.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Some heartbreaking video from Aleppo today, children begging for food, their desperate attempt at evacuation uncertain. We’ll have the very latest. That’s next.
BOB GARFIELD: That brutal siege, unlike the current atrocities, became big news here, at least in part because the US government was agonizing over its responsibilities.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It has been one of the hardest issues that I’ve faced as president. The world, as we speak, is united in horror at the savage assaults by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies on the City of Aleppo.
BOB GARFIELD: And just last year, more headlines were generated by the bombing of Raqqa by a US-led coalition.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The battle to dislodge ISIS from its makeshift capital, Raqqa, in Syria is intensifying, as US-backed militia press the offensive.
BOB GARFIELD: And then those headlines ceased, with our goal apparently achieved, the displacement of ISIS from the heart of its so-called “Islamic State.” But Storyful’s Thalia Beaty says it's been far more difficult to focus the world's attention on the horrors in East Ghouta, despite the carnage wrought by airstrikes that haven't ceased for weeks.
THALIA BEATY: We saw that begin to intensify in January and then very much intensifying in February, with hundreds of people being killed a day.
BOB GARFIELD: How are you able to piece together and to meter the intensity of these attacks and the death toll from where you are?
THALIA BEATY: Well, it’s fascinating because the media environment is actually very rich there. There are people we consider media activists and there are people who we consider news outlets and they release videos to YouTube and Facebook. We can communicate with the people who do this and because of satellite imagery we’re able to verify not every single piece of footage but many. Then there are other corroborating reports from these same news outlets or from outlets based in Damascus where the Syrian government is. So there are sources to be had. There’s actually an incredible effort by people who are living there to bring attention to this conflict.
BOB GARFIELD: You have been corresponding with two little girls in Ghouta, Noor who is 10 and Alaa who is 8, and they speak English and they are under siege. Tell me who they are.
THALIA BEATY: Their mother is an English teacher and they take videos of themselves.
NOOR OR ALAA: We are Noor and Alaa from East Ghouta. Today was very difficult day here in East Ghouta, more than 200 attacks here in Ghouta.
THALIA BEATY: At first it was in their classroom and then it was in their home. Sometimes it was doing homework at night. You can hear at times the warplanes overhead.
[SOUND OF WARPLANES]
And then it just gets increasingly more desperate. There is a video of dust and --
[SOUND OF CHILD OR WOMAN SCREAMING]
-- screaming, and we are fairly confident that we can, you know, match that video to footage that they’ve taken previously. It seems like the place where they live.
NOOR OR ALAA: To anyone who can hear me, how many victims do you want to see before stopping the bombing, hundreds of the children and civilians killed and injured. You are just watching what is happening here!
THALIA BEATY: This is what I mean when I say that while it's not possible to be there in person, it is very possible to reach these people. Their mother wrote me, like, very forcefully in November, repeatedly trying to get me to bring attention to this conflict. And it really wasn't until two or three weeks ago that their videos were recognized by news outlets. A young girl ran a Twitter account from East Aleppo that garnered a great deal of attention.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Thousands of people around the world have been following the Twitter account of a seven-year-old girl. I don’t know if we can take the picture of seven-year-old Bana fullscreen just to show --
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: -- tweets, “My name is Bana, I'm 7 years old. I am talking to the world now live from East Aleppo. This is my last moment to either live or die.”
THALIA BEATY: There are remarkable parallels. The fact that these people are being killed is not news enough. It really is quite remarkable and it makes me feel quite crazy.
BOB GARFIELD: If we were to judge only by mainstream Western media, East Ghouta is hardly going on at all, this compared to the sieges of Aleppo and of Raqqa, which did get quite a bit of Western coverage. What's the difference?
THALIA BEATY: In my mind, it’s a political difference. In Aleppo, if East Aleppo fell that would be the end of a political future in Syria for the opposition. And it did fall.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Events have moved in his favor. His army has dealt the rebels a major defeat in Aleppo. Mr. Assad is stronger now than ever. And his great ally Russia is the major force behind the truce agreement.
THALIA BEATY: And the story in Raqqa, you know, also has a global significance. It was a US-backed fight against ISIS, which was holding the city.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: As ISIS loses its grip on its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, CNN has the first journalists actually inside the old city. Stay with us.
THALIA BEATY: It was also a siege of a civilian population and very deadly. And then when you look at East Ghouta you have the Syrian government fighting opposition groups that have been under siege for years, and there is not an active US presence there. It just doesn't seem that media outlets know how to tell this story of human suffering without a geopolitical angle.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s a number of other factors that could be at play. You know, one of them is just the sheer “Trumpization” of the US newsfeed. He sucks sort of all of the journalistic oxygen out of the air. The other is the impossible situation on the ground for Western journalists in Syria. And then, of course, there's other global distractions, such as North Korea. How much do those factors play into our seeming to have turned, you know, a blind eye towards the humanitarian crisis in Eastern Ghouta?
THALIA BEATY: A great deal but I also think that there are things happening that are of global interest. The UN Security Council approved a ceasefire in East Ghouta that was essentially ignored starting the next day. I don't know of the last time that has happened. It is, I think, newsworthy. It’s something to talk about. We live in an era of different norms, and Trump’s presidency, I think, is part of that. I think there is a whole series of perspectives on why the response now when a thousand people are killed in two weeks is different from the response when a Syrian gas attack killed 1400 people in East Ghouta.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The conflict took an even uglier turn in 2013 when the government used sarin gas against the people in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. I don’t think anyone can forget seeing the images of the children's bodies wrapped in these white shrouds.
THALIA BEATY: You know, that captured the eyes of the world. It is a different moment.
BOB GARFIELD: That is a bit peculiar. When a, a regime kills its own citizens with outlawed chemical weapons the outrage ticks up worldwide, when they use ordinary munitions, killing exactly the same number of people or more, the world seems less put out.
THALIA BEATY: It is remarkable, from my perspective. The reason why chemical weapons are a news hook is because they were a red line for President Obama, which he let slide, and Trump has talked about that he would take a stronger stand on. This week, Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the UN, said that the US would do something. There is something to talk about with the chemical weapons.
BOB GARFIELD: There's one other factor that may be at play here. The struggle seems to be lost for the Assad opposition. It seems to be just a matter of time before he finally prevails. Is it that the world’s just given up?
THALIA BEATY: Well, this is a very important moment because if the world has given up, we will watch this same thing happen in Idlib and Hama where the opposition also holds territory. They’re different groups but if it's okay to enact a scorched-earth campaign against the opposition, against the civilians that live there, if it's okay in East Ghouta then my anticipation is that we will see that happen again. So I think this is a, a newsworthy moment, an important point in how this war ends, if it does.
BOB GARFIELD: On the subject of stories that people are trying to tell, please tell me about Ahmad Hamdan.
THALIA BEATY: So Ahmad Hamdan and Amer Almohibany, I consider them media activists. They take videos and photos, one of them, Hamdan, for a local media activist site, and the other, Amer’s photos are frequently published by AFP, Agence France-Presse. But they also had this comedy sketch that they would do about life under siege. They’ve started several campaigns or they’ve tried to draw attention to the airstrikes on East Ghouta, one of which was hashtag #IAmStillAlive. And, of course, that’s very sad because Ahmad Hamdan was killed this week in the bombing.
BOB GARFIELD: We actually have the tape of one of their videos. These two guys are sitting playing checkers, only with, with cookies, and, you know, it’s, it’s very dark sort of comedy. And, and they are, they’re having a, a chitchat about the, the political situation.
THALIA BEATY: Okay, so what, just to run it through, he says --
-- Is there something new? And then Hamdan says, well, do you think the 9th round of Geneva talks will solve things? And Amer says, why is there a 9th round? And Ahmad Hamdan says, I don’t know, I stopped following after the 4th.
But I, I didn’t know Ahmad Hamdan. I, I corresponded mostly with his friend, Amer, but you can see in these videos and in the posts he has on Facebook that he's a person with really a sense of humor. In Arabic, you say “dumah khafif,” his blood is light. And it’s really amazing to watch people make the best of their lives, to just live their lives in whatever situations they find themselves. I, I want to encourage people to tear their gaze away from like the magnetic force of, of the White House and to look in the other places in the world. There are many things happening and there are many ways to tell these stories that are compelling, even though they obviously include really terrible elements.
BOB GARFIELD: Thalia, thank you very much.
THALIA BEATY: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Thalia Beaty is a journalist with Storyful, a news agency that monitors and fact-checks social media for other news outlets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, once maps, like history, were drawn by the victors, not so much anymore.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.