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

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
Ethical reporting - how to cover suicide responsibly

Sensationalist reporting of suicide cases has been shown to cause a rise in the numbers of people taking their own lives in affected communities. Journalists must take great care

Abeer Ayyoub
Abeer Ayyoub Published on: 7 Sep, 2023
‘Don’t let someone else narrate your stories for you’ - travel journalists in the global south

THE LONG READ: Life as a travel journalist isn’t just for privileged Westerners ‘discovering’ quaint parts of south-east Asia and Africa

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 1 Sep, 2023
‘People need to stop blindly obeying the law’ - journalists fighting on the fringes in Vietnam

THE LONG READ: Imprisoned, exiled and forced to base themselves overseas, independent journalists in Vietnam are punished harshly if they publish the ‘wrong’ sort of content. Some, such as Luật Khoa tạp chí, are fighting back

Al Jazeera Journalism Review Correspondent Published on: 25 Aug, 2023
Ethics and safety in OSINT - can you believe what you see?

OSINT is increasingly important for journalists in a digital world. We take a look at ethics, safety on the internet and how to spot a ‘deepfake’

Sara Creta Published on: 15 Aug, 2023
‘Other journalists jeer at us’ – life for mobile journalists in Cameroon

Journalists in Cameroon are using their phones in innovative ways to report the news for many different types of media, but major news organisations have still not caught up

Akem Nkwain Published on: 1 Aug, 2023
‘Life of journalists is cheap’ - how the Philippines became deadly for reporters

Forging ahead with a career in journalism is fraught with difficulty in the Philippines - and many are walking away. What went so wrong?

Ana P Santos Published on: 19 Jul, 2023
Analysis: Could AI replace humans in journalism?

Recent advances in AI are mind-blowing. But good journalism requires certain skills which, for now at least, only humans can master

Mei Shigenobu
Mei Shigenobu Published on: 17 Jul, 2023
Analysis: Comparing coverage of the Titanic submersible and migrant boat disasters

Two disasters costing human lives have occurred at sea in the past two weeks, but the media coverage of each was markedly different. How and why?

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 28 Jun, 2023
The silencing of Sudan's journalists - again

THE LONG READ: Detained, beaten and their cameras smashed - Sudan’s journalists are enduring a renewed crackdown on the media

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 7 Jun, 2023
'Rebuilt memory by memory' - recreating a Palestinian village 75 years after the Nakba

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: How it took the collective memories of several generations, painstaking interviews and a determined search through tall grass and prickly plants to recreate a destroyed community

Amandas Ong Published on: 4 Jun, 2023
Suffering in silence - the Kashmiri journalists facing a mental health crisis

THE LONG READ: Al Jazeera Journalism Review has interviewed more than 20 journalists in India-controlled Kashmir who are facing exhausting, insurmountable obstacles to doing their jobs safely every single day

Adil Akhoon
Adil Amin Akhoon, Khalid Bashir Gura Published on: 29 May, 2023
How to analyse satellite imagery

When you have a story, but still need to tie up loose ends to answer where or when a particular event occurred, satellite imagery can point you in the right direction

Sara Creta Published on: 25 May, 2023
OSINT: Tracking ships, planes and weapons

Tracking ships and planes is an increasingly valuable technique in open-source investigations carried out by journalists. In part 4 of our special series, we examine how it works

Sara Creta Published on: 18 May, 2023
How social media bans have crippled journalism in India’s Punjab

The Indian government has ordered social media platforms to block hundreds of accounts of journalists and activists

Meer Faisal
Meer Faisal Published on: 16 May, 2023
Tear gas and internet blackouts - reporting on protests in Pakistan

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: Following the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, violence has erupted across Pakistan. For journalists, it is like reporting from the centre of a storm

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 May, 2023
Remembering Shireen; my colleague and a 'role model for professionalism'

On the eve of the first anniversary of the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, Al Jazeera's Senior Correspondent in Palestine, her colleague commemorates the compassion, integrity and professionalism which made her the extraordinary journalist and human being that she was

Walid Omary Published on: 10 May, 2023
Planning and carrying out an open-source investigation

Part three of our special series of articles on using OSINT in journalism. This time, follow our four steps to completing an open-source investigation

Sara Creta Published on: 9 May, 2023
What is an open-source investigation?

In the second part of our special series on using open-source intelligence in journalism, we look at what constitutes and open-source investigation

Sara Creta Published on: 4 May, 2023
How misinformation in the media wreaked havoc on an Indian village

When journalists - and social media ‘influencers’ claiming to be journalists - aimed for sensationalism and did not check their facts about the outbreak of the HIV virus in an Indian village, the results were devastating

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 1 May, 2023