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

How to cover major sports events

With the World Cup Qatar 2022 in full swing, the fourth part of our series on sports journalism focuses on how to cover major sporting events

Younes El Kharashi Published on: 1 Dec, 2022
How do sports journalists find and report the news?

In the third of our special series on sports journalism, we focus on the best ways to find and report sports news - from nurturing your sources to writing news stories

Younes El Kharashi Published on: 29 Nov, 2022
How to get started in sports journalism

In the second part of our special series on sports journalism, we explore the ways in which sports journalists can make a start in their careers

Younes El Kharashi Published on: 24 Nov, 2022
Sports journalism is no ‘easy life’

In the first of our special series of articles focusing on sports journalism, we examine the wide range of skills and ethical knowledge it takes to be a great sports reporter

Younes El Kharashi Published on: 22 Nov, 2022
Connecting continents - the trials and tribulations of diaspora journalists

THE LONG READ: The tireless work undertaken by diaspora journalists to change narratives about their homelands and to build bridges between communities still goes largely unacknowledged

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 8 Nov, 2022
The common struggles of female journalists around the world

Female journalists from different regions speak out

Safina Nabi Published on: 1 Nov, 2022
Al Jazeera Investigations - the making of the Labour Files

An Al Jazeera investigation into the running of the UK’s Labour Party has revealed evidence of an ‘Orwellian’ smear campaign against its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a ‘hierarchy’ of racism within the party and even the hacking of journalists. Here’s how it came about 

Phil Rees Published on: 19 Oct, 2022
'If women are dying as a result of it, then I should report about it' - telling the untold stories of Cameroon

Journalists like Comfort Mussa, based in Cameroon, say that seeking out the untold stories of real people and having the bravery to cover taboo subjects are essential to their work

Akem Nkwain Published on: 3 Oct, 2022
The devastating silencing of the ‘Voice of Palestine’

Al Jazeera English’s Senior Correspondent recalls the last time she saw Shireen Abu Akleh and what it has been like to cover the investigations into her killing by Israeli forces

Natasha Ghoneim
Natasha Ghoneim Published on: 21 Sep, 2022
The trials, tribulations and irreplaceability of political cartoonists

How political cartoons have evolved in recent decades and are now shaping public discourse in southern Africa

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 1 Sep, 2022
‘Silence is no longer the answer’ - the Kashmiri journalists living in exile

Kashmiri journalists living in self-imposed exile abroad talk about threats to their families and their determination to keep reporting on human rights abuses

Raqib Hameed Naik Published on: 29 Aug, 2022
Navigating Taliban rule as a YouTuber - one year on

For the YouTubers who stepped into the shoes of journalists who fled following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the message is clear - broadcast what we tell you or be closed down

Sayed Jalal
Sayed Jalal Shajjan Published on: 18 Aug, 2022
Casualties of Partition - telling the story of Zainab and Boota

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: On the 75th anniversary of the Partition of Pakistan and India, a writer recalls his efforts to uncover the mystery of a family divided and asks if we always have the right to push for the ‘truth’

Haroon Khalid
Haroon Khalid Published on: 15 Aug, 2022
‘We have to walk miles to cover the news’ - journalism in Sri Lanka

The ongoing economic crisis in Sri Lanka has been widely covered by international media. But what is life like for journalists in the country right now?

Abeer Khan Published on: 7 Aug, 2022
‘No less than a fight for survival’ - life for mobile journalists in India

THE LONG READ: Mobile phones have made a career in the media more accessible to independent journalists. But they have also made it easier to exploit them

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 2 Aug, 2022
When covering refugee stories makes you a figure of hate

A wave of anti-migrant sentiment is gripping South Africa and those journalists covering it, who are migrants themselves, have become a particular target

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 28 Jul, 2022
How do journalists work under information blockades?

THE LONG READ: Internet blockades are used by governments to stifle dissent, unrest and even the reporting of war. We take an in-depth look at this phenomenon and highlight ways journalists can carry on working regardless

Adil Akhoon
Adil Amin Akhoon, Saliq Parvaiz Published on: 7 Jul, 2022
Virtual reality in the newsroom - placing us in the middle of the story

Journalists can use virtual reality to get a much clearer view of what is happening on the ground during conflict or other major events. This is how it works

Hadeel Arja Published on: 23 Jun, 2022
Why are so many journalists being killed in Bangladesh?

A decade after the brutal murders of a prominent journalist couple in Dhaka, the killers have still not been brought to justice - they remain at large along with those responsible for the deaths of many other journalists

Rokeya Lita Published on: 20 Jun, 2022
She showed me a picture of her dead son - moments later, she was back with the tea and cake

Listening to stories of trauma and loss - such as those of women in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir - is what many journalists must do to find and report the truth. The way in which we listen while setting aside preconceived notions of how victims ‘should’ behave is critical

Anam Z
Anam Zakaria Published on: 16 Jun, 2022
‘I still have nightmares’ - reporting on hate crimes in India

A handful of brave journalists have taken on the task of documenting and exposing hate crimes - often at great personal cost

Safina Nabi Published on: 14 Jun, 2022
Caught between warring factions - life as a journalist in Cameroon

Cameroon’s anglophone crisis has resulted in large parts of the country becoming no-go zones for reporters who must find other ways to do their jobs

Akem Nkwain Published on: 8 Jun, 2022
'We are not scared; we will tell our stories' - introducing Somalia’s first women-only newsroom

Braving threats from Al Shabaab as well as disapproval from their own, often patriarchal communities, six pioneering women have set up their own news agency in Somalia

Abdullahi Mire
Abdullahi Mire Published on: 1 Jun, 2022
‘You will be silenced’ - investigating human traffickers in Nigeria

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: Philip Obaji Jr has devoted years to uncovering and reporting on the sexual abuse and human trafficking of displaced women and girls in Nigeria. This is his story

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 18 May, 2022