Sunday, November 27, 2005

Syria News - Damascus, Syria

The border crossing point between Lebanon and Syria

After a week in Lebanon, visiting a mix of media operations involved in broadcasting and print, I made my way to Syria. The Lebanon and Syria visits were arranged as part of the BBC World Service Trust's Middle East and North Africa Media Dialogue (MENA) project.

The main purpose of my trip was to help a small independent media operation in Syria, but I was keen to accept the invitation to get to know the media landscape in Beirut on my way. I had told the team on the MENA project that I would only work with independent media and that I would not take on any clients that are politically aligned or aiming to inform only one section of the community. Three months earlier they had asked me to work with Syria News in Damascus and this was a return visit.

I had planned to fly. Before I left London I had been warned that it would be dangerous to take the road from Beirut to Damascus. The political tensions had risen a couple of notches following the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri and the fact that the day I was planning to travel was Lebanon's national day.

Entering Syria from Lebanon

The trouble with flying was that it would take 12 hours taking into account the taxi to the airport, the flight to Amman, Jordan, the five hour wait in the airport and the flight and taxi the other end. I was told, by people in Beirut, that I was daft to think of going by air. In the end I decided to take a taxi and go by road up over the mountains, across the Beqaa Valley and down into Syria.

It's a fascinating journey. Heavy traffic travelling in both directions. Long queues of lorries waiting at each border point. Tanks, soldiers and heavy fortifications at both border crossings. Stunning landscape on all sides with shepherds and flocks of brown sheep clinging to the slopes.

An unscheduled stop just off the main road

I became a bit twitchy at one point when the driver took me off the main road to a cafe down a side road. Then I realised he just wanted to have a break and we shared a pot of mint tea and warm, freshly baked flatbread smeared with yoghurt and herbs. It was obvious a regular pit stop for him on this trip over to Damascus and his pals all greeted him, and me, like a long-lost friend. The driver insisted on paying for the snack.

Syria News is a great operation. I had been there once before and delivered a week-long training exercise in writing for the Web. This time we focused on helping Syria News build a sustainable business plan. Patrice Schneider, a colleague I frequently work with on MDLF projects, accompanied me. We ended the week having drafted a new business plan with a strategy for sustainability. The Syria News team are becoming close pals. Nedal and Danny have a clear vision for delivering issue-led journalism to inform the public debate.

Client: Syria News
Media Development Organisation: BBC World Service Trust