Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Omar outside
Omar Al Hajj reports for Al Jazeera from Kyiv, Ukraine [Photo courtesy of Omar Al Hajj]

From Syria to Ukraine - telling the stories of Russian aggression

Omar Al Hajj, a Syrian journalist working for Al Jazeera, explains what it’s like to go from covering war in his own country to bearing witness to another on a different continent


The war in Ukraine was front-page news all over the world before the first bullet was even shot. No war in the modern age has had quite the media response as the one going on in Ukraine. But it is far from the only war which is causing mass human suffering and displacement, and certainly not the only one journalists have been covering for the past decade.

In Syria, where war has been raging for 11 years, millions have been displaced while the regime - backed by Russia - has deployed chemical weapons considered illegal in modern warfare against rebels as well as civilians. Only a handful of journalists from Western media outlets have remained, leaving it to Syrian journalists themselves to tell the world what is happening to their own country.

Omar Al Hajj, now reporting for Al Jazeera from Kyiv, was one of those journalists. 

There are parallels between the two wars - for one, Russia is a main aggressor in both. “But in Syria it was impossible to act freely as a journalist in the field,” says Al Hajj. “The chances of getting killed by an airstrike were very high, and I felt compelled to take many more risks than I’m taking today in Ukraine, because, simply, it was my homeland.” 

Omar 1
Reporting from Ukraine for Al Jazeera [Photo courtesy of Omar Al Hajj]

A ‘legitimate’ target

Then, for Al Hajj, there is the matter of remaining neutral as a reporter. Can a Syrian journalist who is witnessing, on a daily basis, the killings of the hundreds and displacement of hundreds more truly separate himself from his feelings? 

As for many journalists covering war within their own countries, the work is deeply personal to Al Hajj.  “The suffering of the victims is at the centre of my interest, not just getting the news. 

“I did not see my father for more than eight years - my brother for more than nine. So, suffering is always present in my stories. That is the essence of journalism that I believe in.” 

So far, the experience of being a journalist in Ukraine has been markedly different from Syria, says Al Hajj. “In Syria, journalists are viewed as legitimate military targets by the Russians, and wearing that 'press' vest just makes you an obvious target - without hesitation."

In Ukraine, journalists - so far - have received different treatment. “I’m talking to you now from a hotel where dozens of journalists from different media outlets are staying,” Al Hajj explains. “The Russian army is doing its best to avoid targeting journalists.” 

Furthermore, in Ukraine, he is working with a full television crew, whereas in Syria he was often the cameraman, the reporter and the producer, all rolled into one. “I was doing everything on my own.”

Omar 2
Omar Al Hajj acts as cameraman and reporter while reporting from his homeland of Syria [Photo courtesy of Omar Al Hajj]

Musings on covering war

While Al Hajj grew up in Syria and is therefore highly knowledgeable about the context, history and reality of the war there, he found himself in the new position of having to learn about the history of Ukraine and Russia, like any other foreign journalist must do about Syria before coming to his own country.

“Before my arrival in Kyiv, I read about the history of the country and that of the Soviet Union. I studied the background and history of the two sides and read about linguistic and cultural variations within the country, economic aspects and military abilities. This is vital information that any journalist who is eager to cover a war in a balanced and professional way should know.” 

There is always a balance to be struck between covering events on the ground and ensuring the safety of your crew. “The safety of the crew comes first always,” says Al Hajj. “The scoop is never important enough to risk your life for it. That’s why we always try to read the armies’ regulations about safe paths in war zones, before we go out to coverage, or at least follow the press releases of the armies’ spokespersons. That doesn’t mean that we will blindly follow their narrative, but we will try to maintain our safety as much as possible. 

“We need to be aware that we are covering a war, nothing less.” 

Omar 3
Covering the war in Syria [Photo courtesy of Omar Al Hajj]

The official narrative is important, but..

There is also the issue of evaluating the narratives coming from either side during a war. “In covering the Russian war on Ukraine, we basically rely on the statements of the two fighting states, but that doesn’t mean that we accept them unquestioningly.” 

In the case of Ukraine, the official narratives from both sides are wildly different, with Russian claims of “liberating” Ukrainians from a “fascist” government - a notion which is provably false.

So how does he make judgement calls? Al Hajj says he believes what he sees with his own eyes. During field coverage, interviewing eyewitnesses and observing the military progress on the field, are the main ways to form a perspective away from the official narratives.

He does not repeat statistics and data by rote. “I do report the numbers that the Ukrainian defence ministry declares about the Russian casualties, but I always state the source,” he says. He also maintains a healthy scepticism, no matter where the information is coming from.

For example, Ukrainian official statements denied that the Russian army had entered Bohodukhiv City in the Kharkiv province of eastern Ukraine. So Al Hajj went there and saw for himself that this was not true. “I didn’t state that those reports were wrong clearly on the live coverage, I just stated what I could see for myself: ‘We are on the city borders and there are Russian tanks.’.”

Finding sources who will contradict any official narrative can be very hard, however. “We have to remember we are in the middle of war, and the authorities’ mood is aggressive, so everything anyone says is being monitored.”

Omar 4
Wearing a 'press' vest can make you a target in Syria, where Omar Al Hajj is pictured here [Photo courtesy of Omar Al Hajj]

The importance of language  

Al Hajj also says that journalists covering war must be very careful about the terminology they use to describe events on the ground. Around the world, the war in Ukraine has been variously described by media outlets as  “the Russian invasion”, “the Ukrainian crisis” or “Russian aggression”. 

“From the outset, Al Jazeera was very clear in its terminology, and you can see that clearly when correspondents use the phrase ‘the Russian war on Ukraine’.” says Al Hajj. “We  must provide balanced and unbiased coverage of both sides, without any emotional or editorial bias. What we care the most about, is reporting the absolute truth away from the political conflicts between the ‘east’ and the ‘west’.” 

He adds: “If we are covering a massacre, its aftermath and its effects on people, it should be described as it is seen by the journalists covering it.”


Translated from the original article by Muhammad Khamaiseh




More Articles

Journalism in chains in Cameroon

Investigative journalists in Cameroon sometimes use treacherous means to navigate the numerous challenges that hamper the practice of their profession: the absence of the Freedom of Information Act, the criminalisation of press offenses, and the scare of the overly-broad anti-terrorism law.

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 12 Apr, 2024
The Perils of Journalism and the Rise of Citizen Media in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia's media landscape is grim, with low rankings for internet and press freedom across the region. While citizen journalism has risen to fill the gaps, journalists - both professional and citizen - face significant risks due to government crackdowns and the collusion between tech companies and authorities to enable censorship and surveillance.

AJR Contributor Published on: 6 Apr, 2024
Silenced Voices: The Battle for Free Expression Amid India’s Farmer’s Protest

The Indian government's use of legal mechanisms to suppress dissenting voices and news reports raises questions about transparency and freedom of expression. The challenges faced by independent media in India indicate a broader narrative of controlling the narrative and stifling dissenting voices.

Suvrat Arora
Suvrat Arora Published on: 17 Mar, 2024
Targeting Truth: Assault on Female Journalists in Gaza

For female journalists in Palestine, celebrating international women's rights this year must take a backseat, as they continue facing the harsh realities of conflict. March 8th will carry little celebration for them, as they grapple with the severe risks of violence, mass displacement, and the vulnerability of abandonment amidst an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Their focus remains on bearing witness to human suffering and sharing stories of resilience from the frontlines, despite the personal dangers involved in their work.

Fatima Bashir
Fatima Bashir Published on: 14 Mar, 2024
A Woman's Journey Reporting on Pakistan's Thrilling Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally

A Woman's Voice in the Desert: Navigating the Spotlight

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 8 Mar, 2024
Breaking Barriers: The Rise of Citizen Journalists in India's Fight for Media Inclusion

Grassroots journalists from marginalized communities in India, including Dalits and Muslims, are challenging mainstream media narratives and bringing attention to underreported issues through digital outlets like The Mooknayak.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 3 Mar, 2024
Why Journalists are Speaking out Against Western Media Bias in Reporting on Israel-Palestine

Over 1500 journalists from various US news organizations have signed an open letter criticizing the Western media's coverage of Israel's actions against Palestinians. They accuse newsrooms of dehumanizing rhetoric, bias, and the use of inflammatory language that reinforces stereotypes, lack of context, misinformation, biased language, and the focus on certain perspectives while diminishing others. They call for more accurate and critical coverage, the use of well-defined terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and the inclusion of Palestinian voices in reporting.

Belle de Jong journalist
Belle de Jong Published on: 26 Feb, 2024
Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Blackout on Imran Khan and PTI: Analysing Pakistan's Election Press Restrictions

Implications and response to media censorship and the deliberate absence of coverage for the popular former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in the media during the 2024 elections in Pakistan.

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 Feb, 2024
Digital Battlegrounds: The New Broadcasting Bill and Independent Journalism in India

New legislation in India threatens the freedom of independent journalism. The draft Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 grants the government extensive power to regulate and censor content, potentially suppressing news critical of government policies.

Safina Nabi Published on: 11 Feb, 2024
Pegasus Spyware: A Grave Threat to Journalists in Southeast Asia

The widespread deployment of spyware such as Pegasus in Southeast Asia, used by governments to target opposition leaders, activists, and journalists, presents significant challenges in countering digital surveillance. This is due to its clandestine operations and the political intricacies involved. The situation underscores the urgent need for international cooperation and heightened public awareness to address these human rights infringements.

AJR Contributor Published on: 5 Feb, 2024
Media Monopoly in Brazil: How Dominant Media Houses Control the Narrative and Stifle Criticism of Israel

An in-depth analysis exploring the concentration of media ownership in Brazil by large companies, and how this shapes public and political narratives, particularly by suppressing criticism of Israel.

Al Jazeera Logo
Rita Freire & Ahmad Al Zobi Published on: 1 Feb, 2024
Cameroonian Media Martyrs: The Intersection of Journalism and Activism

Experts and journalists in Cameroon disagree on the relationship between journalism and activism: some say journalism is activism; others think they are worlds apart, while another category says a “very thin” line separate both

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 28 Jan, 2024
Silent Suffering: The Impact of Sexual Harassment on African Newsrooms

Sexual harassment within newsrooms and the broader journalistic ecosystem is affecting the quality and integrity of journalistic work, ultimately impacting the organisation’s integrity and revenue.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 23 Jan, 2024
Echos of Israeli Discourse in Latin American Media on Gaza

Heavily influenced by US and Israeli diplomatic efforts, Latin American media predominantly aligns with and amplifies the Israeli perspective. This divergence between political actions and media representation highlights the complex dynamics shaping Latin American coverage of the Gaza conflict.

Rita Freire Published on: 23 Nov, 2023
Why have opposition parties in India issued a boycott of 14 TV presenters?

Media workers in India argue that boycotts of individual journalists are not the answer to pro-Government reporting bias

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 23 Oct, 2023
The bombs raining down on Gaza from Israel are beyond scary, beyond crazy

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: As Israel bombarded Gaza for the third night, I found myself closer to a missile hit than I could have imagined

Maram Humaid Published on: 11 Oct, 2023
Reporter’s Notebook - what I learned from covering the Kalash people

As journalists, our fascination with Indigenous communities can blind us to our ethical obligations to respect privacy and dignity of those we document - we must reflect carefully

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 5 Oct, 2023
The French banlieues and their troubled relationship with the media

Discriminatory media coverage of recent unrest in the suburbs of Paris shows that little has changed since the uprisings of 2005

Ahmed Nazif Published on: 28 Sep, 2023
Why are Zimbabwe’s elections always surrounded by media controversy?

Election season in Zimbabwe has long been shrouded in controversy, with intimidation of opposition activists and journalists, combined with disorganisation at the ballots creating a perfect storm for chaos. This year was no different

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 25 Sep, 2023
Analysis: The media’s coverage of the Pakistan cable car incident

It was a roller coaster ride with news organisations all over the world giving minute-by-minute reports on the daring rescue. How does the media create suspense and is this sort of coverage useful?

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 21 Sep, 2023
How to use data to report on earthquakes

Sifting through data sounds clinical, but journalists can use it to seek out the human element when reporting on natural disasters such as earthquakes

Arwa Kooli Published on: 19 Sep, 2023
‘I had no idea how to report on this’ - local journalists tackling climate change stories

Local journalists are key to informing the public about the devastating dangers of climate change but, in India, a lack of knowledge, training and access to expert sources is holding them back

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 13 Sep, 2023