A catastrophe on top of a catastrophe: how independent Syrian media responded to the 2023 earthquake

Syrian independent media and journalists fought for their audiences right to receive credible information during and after the devastating earthquakes in February 2023. They are still working to push for accountability in a politically volatile and fragmented Syria, where victims of the earthquakes have received little help.

Early on 6 February, around 4:20 in the morning, journalist Raafat Junaid was sleeping in his home in Aziz in northern Syria, when he was woken when his house suddenly started moving. The shaking started light but suddenly turned more violent.

“It felt like the whole world was shaking,” he remembers.

Junaid and his wife took their three children and hurried out of their house, which was still standing but had large cracks in it. They drove them to one of the nearby camps for internally displaced Syrians.

“We know that in these situations, the safest place to be is in a tent. So I left my wife and my children there with some relatives.”

Junaid drove back to Aziz to check on his sisters, brothers and other family members as he could not reach them by phone. The electricity was cut and there was no mobile connection. Around 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning, after he had made sure his family was safe and his relatives were alive, Junaid started working.

He grabbed his camera and asked around to find out where the earthquake had hit the hardest. He went to the town of Jindires, around 60 kilometres northwest of Aleppo. Until recently, the town was controlled by the Syrian National Army but has now been taken over by the Sunni Islamist group Tahrir al-Sham.

“The destruction was enormous. Most of the town was completely destroyed.”

Aid delayed for days

Raafat Junaid has been working as a journalist since the revolution in 2011, but the first thing he did when he arrived in Jindires was not to document the consequences of the earthquake.

“As a journalist and a human being, I could not just start photographing. I had to help the people. No proper help or equipment had arrived to save people stuck in the rubble. So I helped trying to dig people out. We were using only our hands or very simple tools,” he says.

Raafat Junaid did not know this at the time, but it would take Syrian president Bashar al-Assad more than a week to allow UN aid deliveries to pass through border crossings to the besieged northwest Syria. Life-saving aid and equipment was halted in a situation where literally every minute counted. For days, millions of people were largely without access to critical search-and-rescue reinforcements and lifesaving aid, as al-Assad attempted to weaponise aid for his benefit by rejecting the use of border crossing through Türkiye and ordering all aid to go through regime-controlled areas.

“I knew that it was also my duty to document the disaster, so once in a while I would take some photos or some video footage and then I would put down my cameras again and keep digging. This went on for around seven days. After seven days, it is very unlikely that you will find someone alive under the rubble,” Junaid says.

His story echoes the words of Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the UN, that many first responders to the affected areas of the earthquake where victims themselves.

“The greatest heroism has been Syrians saving Syrians,” he said in a press release on 28 February 2023.

IMS partner Syria Untold has described in detail how the work of civil society played a crucial role in absorbing the initial shock in the absence of International aid and how the regime actively obstructed these efforts. One of the pillars of the civil society in the days after the earthquake were local journalists like Raafat Junaid.

55,000 people dead, millions left homeless

One year ago, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake rocked southeast Türkiye and northwest Syria, followed by thousands of aftershocks, resulting in the deaths of around than 55,000 people, injuring even more and displacing millions from their homes.

When a natural disaster occurs – and in the immediate time thereafter – people need more than material aid like shelter, blankets, food and water. They need information: where to go to find help, where to look for your loved ones, how to act to keep yourself safe.

In such disasters, journalists often operate as interlocutors between aid organisations and the people they are trying to help. Having an established and strong connection with their audiences, they are able to provide them with life-saving information on how to receive help and keep themselves safe. Their role is crucial, especially in weak or conflict-torn states where there is no or limited centralised means of communication between state and population.

“We focused a lot on stories of people who needed humanitarian help, like people who had lost their homes and needed shelter, people in need of clothes and blankets, children who had lost their parents. We communicated with organisations and shared our photos and videos with them,” says Raafat Junaid.

“For years we have been dealing with the dead”

In Syria, the earthquake marked yet another disaster on top of the prolonged and ongoing disaster that the Syrian people have endured for the last 13 years: the war fought in Syria between the Bashar al-Assad regime and different oppositional military fractions, with the involvement of several regional and world powers. Even before the earthquake, 70 percent of Syria’s population needed humanitarian assistance. According to the UN, the earthquake hit when “Syrians’ needs were highest, when the economy was at its lowest and when infrastructure was already heavily damaged.”

”Prior to this earthquake, we had encountered a hundred earthquakes by Bashar al-Assad. The bombardment from airplanes is no less destructive than the impact of earthquakes. So for years, we have been dealing with the dead, we have been dealing with them almost daily. We have been covering the massacres. This is why, if you see a dead person in front of you, you are not very affected. You can help move that body and return to do your work as a journalist.”

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Being both a journalist and a victim

Journalists in northwest Syria are themselves often deprived and displaced. Raafat Junaid has, in his own words, been displaced “seven or eight times”. During the earthquake, journalists were victims of the same disaster that they were trying to cover. This is the reason that one of the first things IMS did was to provide help to local journalists. Through the Syrian Stabilization Support Unit (SSU), money from the Danish Union of Journalists’ safety fund was handed out to journalists who had been directly affected by the earthquake.

This was done in order to make sure that they could buy new equipment if their own had been damaged or find shelter if their houses were uninhabitable. Seventy journalists were located and supported directly through this fund, helping them to continue their coverage. One of them was Raafat Junaid.

“Without the local journalists in northwestern Syria, the world would not have known about the massive destruction in northwest Syria and how it affected the already vulnerable Syrian population,” says Munzer Al Sallal, Executive Director of the Stabilization Support Unit.

The world relies on local Syrian journalists

All of IMS’ Syrian media partners ramped up there coverage immediately after the earthquake. One example is the online magazine, Al-Jumhuriya, which focuses on political and cultural analyses and in-depth articles and normally operates differently than media bound by the the day-to-day news cycle.

However, they quickly reorganised their editorial set-up to enable them able to publish stories related to the disaster on a daily basis, providing both their audience inside Syria with valuable information as well as feeding their international audience – including international media outlets – with credible stories and updates from the ground.

Reporting from disaster-affected areas is not only crucial because of a general principle of access to information, but because images, reports, and footage from affected areas – especially when published in larger international media outlets – are likely to affect politics, aid, fundraising efforts and more.

However, northwestern Syria is notoriously dangerous and inaccessible for foreign journalists. It is not entirely impossible to enter, however, it comes with a significant safety risk and it is incredibly costly. Immediately after 6 February, it was clear that international media outlets focused overwhelmingly on Türkiye while Syria was largely overlooked. One of the main reasons, as described by editors at the foreign desks of the two largest TV stations in Denmark, was the media’s inability to send reporters to Syria.

“We know that our Syrian partners, which are still able to cover all the different areas of the country, are deeply aware of their responsibilities. They both ensure that their audiences inside Syria have access to credible information – which in a situation like the earthquake can be lifesaving – and that reporting from Syria reaches the international news. They are ultimately working to make sure that the country and its devastating situation is not forgotten and de-prioritised, and to try to help the people affected receive sufficient aid and support,” says Camilla Bruun Randrup, IMS’ Syria programme manager.

Insisting on accountability where there is none

Politicians cannot prevent natural disasters as such. However, it is first and foremost a political responsibility that people are not left unprotected and unsupported before during and after disasters. This is why investigative journalism with the aim of holding people in power to account is so important in the wake of events like the earthquake in Syria and Türkiye.

Syrian daily Enab Baladi quickly zoomed in on the politics of getting aid into Syria.

“The days after the earthquake were an intense struggle,” says editor Ula Suleiman.

“We especially covered the question of aid: has aid arrived? Why was it delayed? What were the reasons? We talked with people on the ground and with civil society organisations. We talked with the civil defence team that was responsible for providing aid to the people. But they lacked equipment and they needed help,” she says about the first chaotic days.

Later, Enab Baladi’s reporting helped unveil how organisations misused the aid that finally did enter Syria.

“Certain organisations were receiving donations from other countries, but they were simply selling it or hiding it. This meant that even though the regime made announcements that Syrians received help on a daily basis, this was not what happened. We wrote a story on how the Syrian Red Crescent were controlling the distribution of earthquake aids and sending it to certain regions loyal to the regime, while hindering the distribution of aid to other regions,” Ula Suleiman says.

Other examples of accountability journalism by IMS partners have focused on reconstruction efforts, orphaned children, internal forced migration and the trauma of survivors.

“It is challenging, but we continue to cover everything related to the earthquake. We want to put authorities on the spot and hold them accountable for providing shelter, providing medical aid, securing basic livelihoods. They have let down the 6,000 people who died in the earthquake in Syria and many more who still need help,” says Ula Suleiman.

Documenting present events for justice in the future

In a context like in Syria, where different groups hold authority and there is a lack of proper governmental institutions and checks-and-balances, accountability journalism is both difficult to produce and the chances that it will have immediate political impact are extremely slim.

“Our Syrian partners and independent journalists in Syria have been steadfast in working towards accountability and justice in Syria. Not only regarding the earthquake response, but generally for the last 13 years. Even though they know that justice might not be served any time soon, they will document and archive events to support accountability efforts on the violations committed against the Syrian people. And then hopefully, these reports and this material can be used to secure justice in the future,” says Camilla Bruun Randrup.

As for Rafaat Junaid, he will continue his journalistic work in Syria.

“The war in Syria is not only a military one, it’s also an information war. So I see myself as playing an alternative role. Instead of a rifle or a gun, I shoot with my camera. I try to raise the voices of those who are suffering. This is my mission,” he says.