Friends of Syria Conference: observing journalists in the wild

As I arrived at the Palace hotel where the Friends of Syria conference took place today, so did several hundred demonstrators. Waving Syrian and Palestinian flags, and banners against imperialism, Zionism etc, they entered the grounds barely impeded by the few police deployed at the entrance. Chants and slogans accused the US, Sarkozy, Qatar and others of cowardice, and said the Syrians and Arabs were not traitors.

As they got closer to the entrance, more police and security emerged from several directions to corral them at a distance. Photographers and camera crews emerged from the hotel at the sound of chanting, to get images and interviews. A few individual demonstrators got close to the hotel before being escorted back. I saw no violence, although one demonstrator told me that the police had treated them badly at the starting point of their march. A journalist told me that the police used batons on a few of the demonstrators in front of the hotel, but I did not witness that myself.

It was pure luck that I arrived at the same time as them, and so took some of the first images and video. I gave it all to the crew of Tunisia Live, one of few English-language news services based in Tunisia. They work as fixers for visiting journalists and seem to know their stuff – so if you need such services in Tunisia, give them a call! Some of the images are available here.

A much smaller group of pro-opposition demonstrators were waiting to one side, clearly with permission to be there, unlike the group who had marched to the hotel. Security let those who supported the conference in turn chant and march into the hotel, holding back a surge of pro-Assad demonstrators (video here). I saw a few of them around the lobby where the media were covering the conference with their (apparently brand new, identical) pre-Ba’ath Syrian flags. The presence of demonstrators supporting intervention was not only allowed, but actively facilitated by the police and security. The opposing demonstrators were not. This was almost certainly part of one of the conference’s aims, to introduce the Syrian National Council (SNC) to the assembled officials and receive recognition as “a leading representative” (not the representative) of the Syrian people. Dr Burhan Ghalioun, President of the SNC, addressed the conference.

I had applied for a press pass, planning to accompany a local independent journalist. In the event, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff did not issue me a pass, but allowed me to stay, so I spent the afternoon in a kind of official limbo. However, since they had apparently not provided enough passes, I fit right in with the others working there uncredentialled. Other aspects of the organization, particularly on the media side, were below the usual standard for an event of this type. Then again, Tunisia’s government is still finding its feet, and (as Secretary Clinton emphasized at the news conference later) the conference had been put together quite quickly.

I got to see journalists and diplomats at work and experience an international conference from the outside. There is a lot of sitting around and chatting involved, in between interviewing, filming, writing and editing. In my previous experience of such events – the Edinburgh European Council in 1992, the Sharm El Sheikh ‘summit of the peacemakers’ in 1996 – I was on the other side of the tracks, as a press officer or otherwise. The novelty of having no responsibility beyond observing was quite refreshing. I made some contacts. Mostly I watched people at work.

I admire the profession of journalism and many journalists individually. This is probably not a popular position today, in the wake of the Murdoch empire’s hacking scandal and other lapses in professional standards. But if the job is to be done right, it is a demanding one, one I’m not sure I would be cut out for. And it needs to be done right. Several journalists in both Egypt and Tunisia have complained to me of low standards in the profession in their countries. But it is clear than many are trying to do the job properly. Their countries need them to keep trying. We all need our journalists to do their jobs well.

The taxi home was very expensive, as taxis are in the evenings here. But it was worth it.

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