Isobel Yeung

The Audacity of News

Air Date: April 22, 2017

HBO VICE correspondent Isobel Yeung talks about her reporting from the frontlines of Syria and Sudan

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. We were pleased to host Ahmed Shihab-Eldin of AJ Plus, and formerly Vice Media, and today we welcome Isobel Yeung, correspondent and producer for HBO’s Emmy winning documentary series, Vice. Admirable audacious, Yeung is among Vice’s intrepid globe trotting correspondents. She first caught my attention, exposing willful perpetrators of rape in Africana and the Middle East, the inhumanity, the denials, the defensiveness, and ultimately, the destruction of civil society. On the season five premier of Vice, Yeung reports from civil war ravaged Syria, where she reveals the remnants of Aleppo’s devastation, but also the propaganda machine of the Assad regime. It’s a most stirring report, daring to challenge the government overlord guarding her tour of the country. And today we consider anew the courage of the correspondent, how she survives, in fact excels in these seemingly life or death situations. We warmly welcome Isobel, who just returned from another reporting expedition to Crimea. Thanks for being here.

YEUNG: Thanks so much for having me.

HEFFNER: You’re very modest, and you were saying off camera you’re, you’re not nearly as audacious or daring as I insist. But, to have the mindset, and to be prepared in the region of the world where human atrocities continuing, has continued, not since the holocaust have we really experienced that, how do you put yourself in those shoes, and be there to have the mental acuity and preparation to take on an assignment like that?

YEUNG: I mean first of all, I think you have to be yourself. I think you have to go in there. You have to open yourself up to certain vulnerabilities that obviously you are feeling in those sort of situations, um, and to obviously be, maintain a cynical outlook on things, maintain criticism, um, constantly be looking for where the truth really is, and how you get to the story, and speaking to a broad spectrum of people, not just the people that perhaps the government wants you to talk to or perhaps, uh, perhaps you go in there believing what the certain story is and how to get that.

HEFFNER: I think about the impediments now, in light of the president’s travel ban, and just the realistic factors that go into play, being able to get access, no less, to Syria, to the country, um, can you just tell our viewers, amid these evolving circumstances of immigration here, how, how did it work. Uh, when did you go. Uh how did you actually meet the Assad regime’s representative who was touring you through the country. What was that process like.

YEUNG: Hmm. I mean we wanted to do a story on Syria for a while now, um, and towards spring, summer last year, uh, me and my producer Alex Waterfield started looking into the possibility of how we could get that story. Um, and we wanted to go in on the rebel side, and we wanted to get the story from, from the ground where some of the most egregious atrocities are taking place. Um, and it turned out that that wasn’t really a realistic option. Um, it’s incredibly dangerous to go in on the rebel side. So we started looking at how we could go in on the government side, on the regime Assad-held, Syria, and actually the more we looked into it, the more we started thinking how that might be a more accurate portrayal. That might be a more accurate picture given the direction the country is going and has gone in the last few months especially, um, and how we could tell that story of what, what it means for Assad to essentially be winning the civil war. And so we started conversations with the ministry of information. Um, we started to talk about what we would be able to see on the ground, and how we would go about getting that story. We started to think about the restrictions that would be in place. We had a government minder with us the entire time, um, and how we could attempt to get a realistic portrayal of what it’s like to live under the dictatorship itself.

HEFFNER: And I think you preserved your intellectual and reportorial integrity in what were harrowing circumstances, being witness to the devastation, but also, as you did, and I urge everyone to go to HBO, HBO Go, watch the show on, which was the season premier on the fifth season of Vice, um, to see it for themselves, and to see you in the flesh, and in those um, war torn streets, um, but to, but to be able to, as you did, go onto a Syrian, government, state sanctioned television show, and pose questions to the state sponsored host, you know, without immediately being ejected from the country, I thought was pretty wild…

YEUNG: Yeah.

HEFFNER: I mean that you were able to sustain yourself there from Aleppo, to Damascus, to the island escape for the upper middle class, or upper class of Syria.

YEUNG: Mm-hmm. Yeah, that was uh, going on state TV was definitely an interesting experience. [LAUGHTER] Um, not quite what we expected at all. We went on there, and we sort of had permission to discuss some of the things that we wanted to discuss, and we thought this would be a great opportunity to kind of get a glimpse into how this machine works, how the propaganda cogs play. Um, and so we, we went on this, uh, state sponsored TV show. And once we got on there, it was extremely apparent that they were sort of trying to twist the narrative and to display the uh, they have this western journalist here, and this western journalist is trying to tell the story as they see it from the west, um, while simultaneously sponsoring the terrorists within their country. Um, and it was very apparent that I was sort of there as a puppet for, in which they could portray that. Um, and so it was important for us to be also asking them questions and to be, to try and get a glimpse into, into how the media there was working, because obviously the media is such an important tool in a dictatorship, and also in a democracy. Um, and so, it was just an incredibly awkward exchange. Um, the entire time, I had their producer in my ear, it was live TV, who was nattering away at me, telling me not to ask any questions, telling me just to answer their questions. Um, so yeah…

HEFFNER: To put it in perspective, it was, they were creating a travel show environment, right, where you did some sight seeing, you enjoyed a surf, and you presented the questions to them, after answering about your experience. But I gathered that was at the end, of the…

YEUNG: It was towards the end, yeah.

HEFFNER: So tell us where you started, and how you got there.

YEUNG: So we went in uh, from Lebanon we went into Damascus, the capital of uh, Assad-held Syria. Um, and from there we traveled to Latakia, which is on the Mediterranean cost. Uh, they were extremely happy to take us there because it’s a, it’s a beach resort, it’s thriving, they’ve been building various resorts there over the last few years, and they wanted to show this glitzier side of Syria and uh, you know, how Syrians take their summer holidays. Um, and that was an extremely surreal experience, to be there sunbathing whilst you can see Russian jets flying over your head, um, which are bombarding various cities at the time Aleppo, so from Latakia, we went to Aleppo, um, where the government had taken a major supply road at the time, and the rebels were firing back with hundreds of mortars in the time that we arrived there. So we saw some of the destruction firsthand there. Um, and from there we came back to Damascus and we thought it was important to hold some of the people accountable to get access to some of the government officials, to get access to some of the state run TV’s and to, to present the evidence that we’d seen, and to ask them questions as to how this is sustainable and how, how these atrocities are taking place.

HEFFNER: And, they basically told you that the mongrels, the, the rebels were responsible for all loss of life. I mean they were not willing to accept any responsibility for crimes against humanity, let alone one murder.

YEUNG: Yeah, I mean one of the uh, government officials, uh Fares Shahabi who um, is an important um, politician in Syria, and uh, extremely close to president Assad told us that uh, the reports that we see are different from the reports that they see, and that no, the government does not hold any responsibility for the mass atrocities that have taken place, um, the fact that half the population of Syria is displaced, and that hundreds of thousands of people have died is not the responsibility of the government, but the responsibility of the terrorists, the um, the western supported, uh, terrorist organizations that have taken over in Syria.

HEFFNER: They seem rather quick to point out that they view themselves as a secular alternative to the terrorists um, who they deem-, demonize in the same way that western folks might demonize an al-Qaida or an ISIS, in the sense that they are barbarians first and foremost. Is that an accurate reading of how they view this, the government, how, how the government views the rebels.

YEUNG: Yeah. I think that was something that they were extremely keen to show us. I think that was one of the reasons they wanted to take us to Latakia, to see this fancy beach resort. Um, I think that was one of the reasons they were keen to show us how Damascus is thriving, at least on the government side, how bars are open, how people are able to go to restaurants and eat in, eat in security and peace. Um, it was…

HEFFNER: It was a genuine peace there?

YEUNG: To a degree, yeah, I mean I think that uh, one of the, it’s important for the government to show that perspective, because they want the population that remains there to feel like, uh, maintaining secularism and maintaining a level of security, is a responsibility of the government, and the government uh, the Assad regime is the only one who is able to uphold that. Um, and so the, the opposition they brand um, with a big brush as terrorists. They’re all terrorists. Um, whether the opposition, the rebels actually started as a, as a peaceful protest against democracy, in the Arab spring of 2011, um, is beside the point, because they are extremely happy to brandish all opposition as terrorists.

HEFFNER: What surprised you the most, of your, in your reporting.

YEUNG: In Syria?

HEFFNER: In Syria.

YEUNG: Um, I think that the ability, um, hmm, I think, when we went to Homs, which was the birthplace of the revolution in many ways, um, it was completely destroyed, uh, levels of destruction that I’ve never witnessed and I’ve never, I’ve read about it, and I’ve seen pictures of it, but once you’re there you can’t picture how insanely apocalyptic it is. It’s like walking through a film set. There’s not a sign of life existing there. Um, and this was a city of almost 1.5 million before the war. Um, and to see that and to see sort of signs of life trickling back, and to talk to people who are beginning to move back there, and them saying that, you know, the government did no wrong there, even though we can see the devastation all around us, um, that’s it’s the government who is protecting them against the terrorists, even though you know that to a large extent, the buildings that they sat in, or the homes that they’re trying to rebuild have been destroyed by the government. Um, and so one of the most shocking things is that total acquiescence of the surviving population, the fact that people are so willing to get on board, or the fact that it was so difficult to find voices of opposition, um, within, the fact that it was so difficult to find people who would openly criticize the government, which perhaps shouldn’t have been surprising to me at all, because, I mean you go in under a dictatorship, it’s, it’s not surprising that people are fearful to talk to you.

Um, I mean their lives are at risk if you openly criticize the government. No one was willing to go on the record and actually tell us that. But, when the cameras were turned off, and when we had conversations with people off the record, it did become apparent that their, that a lot of that was based on fear. Um, and that yes, people were aware of some of the atrocities that Assad had been carrying out on the rebel held positions. Um, and they’re just too fearful to speak out. Some, one security official actually confided in me and said that, um, that they were more fearful of the government and of their employer than they were of the opposition, um, and that was a really telling moment to me, because this was someone who had been paid to watch over us, and paid to protect us, um, and so those were the sort of um, extremely revealing moments um, where I think some of the truth started to trickle through.

HEFFNER: Among those folks off the record that you talked to, was there any expression that, of regret that the government and the protesting faction, during the outset, were unable to find some, some means of negotiation so it did not turn into hell.

YEUNG: I mean I think there’s an expression of pure exhaustion, um, and that, that’s the same for both the opposition, and of rhythm government side. Um, I’ve spoken to people who have fled from the uh, from the dictatorship outside of Syria, and people obviously within Syria, and they all express this, how tired they are. I mean the war has now entered the seventh year, and of course there’s regret over, over the way that perhaps the government reacted. Um, there’s regret over the way that things unfolded. There’s regret over, um, the discord perhaps between rebel factions, um, and there’s regret over the huge amount of lives lost. I mean hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in this war, and millions of people displaced.

HEFFNER: So folks may be loyal to the regime but they are open about the fact that this was an ill advised direction to, to take to conflict toward sheer mayhem, from what could have been, as you suggest, arbitrated more diplomatically.

YEUNG: I mean I think the biggest regret is the, the way that the government reacted. Um, if the government had taken this to be what it was initially, which was a peaceful demonstration, um, demanding reforms from the government, then perhaps things wouldn’t have escalated in the way that they did. Um, it’s difficult to say how things would have escalated, because the government reacted with an extremely harsh crackdown. Um, and so I think, when you ask about regret, I think people mourn more than anything else the way that the government has handled the situation.

HEFFNER: So, Isobel, from one continent to another, from one country to another, you were also recently in Sudan.

YEUNG: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: What are you, what were you reporting on there?

YEUNG: Hmm. So I was in South Sudan, um, which is the newest country in the world, the youngest, uh, country in the world. It was created in 2011, um, in large part thanks to the US. Um, and, at that time there was a huge amount of hope for the country. Um, as we all know, shortly afterwards, in 2013, the country descended into civil war. Um, and ever since then it’s been in a, in a pretty dire state. It was an important time for us to go there because uh, with the new Trump administration, threatening to cut UN funding, um, it’s a very turbulent time for South Sudan, and so no one really knows what’s going to happen. At the same time, just recently, a couple weeks ago, um, South Sudan was declared to be in a state of famine. Um, and so we wanted to go there to see what the situation is, what, how things are unfolding on the ground, and what a new Trump administration might mean for the future of through country.

HEFFNER: And what might it mean.

YEUNG: Good question. Um, I mean, Trump hasn’t actually commented on uh, on South Sudan at all yet, so um, we don’t know…

HEFFNER: But we are facing imminent cuts to the State Department budget, and foreign aid.

YEUNG: Yes. Potentially. Um, it was interesting, because on the ground, I was expecting to see a lot of people protesting, matter of people, um, uh, extremely concerned about what the future of that mean. In fact I found the alternative. A lot of people, um, were extremely excited about a Trump presidency. People, there were rallies. We attended a Trump rally where people wore hats saying, Make the World Great Again. Um, and people were celebrating the fact that this was a Republican. Um, Republicans have had a lot of popularity in South Sudan be George W. Bush in no, in no small, because George W. Bush in no small hand played a huge role in securing the independence of South Sudan in 2011, um, contributed about 11 billion dollars towards the cause. So, what they’ve seen as a huge disappointment over the Obama era, um, they’re hoping for a big change in that, and they see a huge amount of hope in the direction that it could go under Trump. Um, I think with the leaders, they see hope because uh, whereas Obama has been extremely critical of some of the human rights abuses taking place in the country, um, perhaps they hope that Trump might play a softer hand.

HEFFNER: And was the situation one of, of famine and despair collectively now.

YEUNG: Yeah, it was um, it was really disturbing. Um, some of the, the most atrocious stories I’ve, I’ve ever heard. Um, a lot of the areas that we went to, a lot of the people have fled their own homes and are now living in these POC sites, the uh, Protection Of Civilian sites, which essentially are run by the UN, um, the UN mission over there, um, as well as by various humanitarian organizations. And these are essentially cities. I mean one of them we went to in Bentu, which is a unity state where famine was recently declared, has about 120,000 people living inside these POC sites. Um, and they aren’t really allowed to leave. I mean we spent some time with some women who, who do have to leave every day to go collect fire wood. They walk about ten hours a day to collect it, um, because they don’t have enough food or enough resources, and as soon as they leave, they know that their lives are under threat, and they know that government soldiers are roaming the area, and that there aren’t enough peacekeepers or the peacekeepers don’t have a strong enough mandate to protect them once they do go and collect this firewood, and so they know that every time they leave the, they leave the POC site, they are taking a real gamble that they will either be raped, or that they will be killed. And it’s astonishing to hear those stories when you realize their perspective on life, and the fact that they’re willing to take those risks is, is incredible. It’s something that you can’t imagine ever having to, having to face yourself.

HEFFNER: In this age of a Trump presidency that views smart power, soft power with disdain, and brute force with the American flag, “America First” — how do you think that’s gonna affect your job in these coming weeks and months.

YEUNG: I mean I think it’s tough to tarnish the whole world with one, [LAUGHTER] with one stroke. Um, but I would say that uh, there’s a lot of concern over how the US is going to um, uphold human rights for example, how the US is going to commit to things like UN funding. Um, and in, in places like South Sudan, that should, and is a real concern, because I mean, people within those POC sites for example, they, they wouldn’t be there unless those POC sites existed, which are directly funded by the UN. Um, I think that, I think that when you talk about bureaucracy, um, it’s gonna be increasingly tough for journalists to get those stories. Um, and the assault on freedom of the press which we’ve seen recently under the Trump administration should be a real warning sign in terms of where this democracy is going. Um, and I think that that’s dangerous. You see um, various countries around the world, um, having to self censor, and have, and you see various countries, various dictatorships installing a lack of trust in, in well established media organizations.

Um, on the other hand, I think it’s a huge opportunity for journalists like ourselves to go out there and get the stories and to ensure that we’re completely buttoned up on our facts, um, and to ensure that we, we have the right research and we’re getting the right stories, and also, also to expand our reach, um, and to think about what kind of stories we’re telling, um, to tell longer form journalism, where we’re not just clicking on headlines, which we can easily do now with the touch of a phone, um, and to, to ensure that our audience has a diverse reach, and to uh, get an in depth understanding as to how people both in the US and, and around the world are, are living.

HEFFNER: Do you think it’s, it’s a lack of curiosity at all that is, is the anti-intellectual um, the, the sort of storm of anti-intellectual populism that is brewing… Because you in many ways, I think, are the antidote to that, in developing stories with nuance that expose people, accessibly to the world. But there’s some sense I have that people don’t want to be exposed.

YEUNG: I think that, I think that you’re wrong actually. I think that a lot of, um, people say that you know, people have increasingly, young people have increasingly short attention spans at the moment, and with our ADHD, we’re just clicking on headlines and scrolling through things, and it’s incredibly easy not to, not to focus on topics and to…

HEFFNER: Which you did just acknowledge, right… [LAUGHTER]

YEUNG: Yeah, I think, I think that exists. But at the same time, I think that there is a first for, uh, more in-depth knowledge. I think that there is a platform for longer form journalism in which we, we try to understand and acknowledge uh, how perhaps someone feels in, living in a village in South Sudan which is a million miles away from what our lives are and how we live, but at the same time, I think that people do want tot open themselves up to that, and I think that, I think the election cycle and what’s transpired over the last few months has, has opened us up to that, as out of necessity, because we’ve all been, I think been guilty of somewhat living inside this echo chamber. And um, what happened when Trump became president was, it was a wakeup call to all of us, and I think that exposing people to those stories, and creating empathy for those characters, and um, telling stories that, beyond what our immediate, um, echo chamber might requite us to read or to see or to watch, is incredibly important.
HEFFNER: If the decline of foreign aid is going to be correlated to something, maybe it’s, like you’re suggesting, a surge of interest, but, if that happens, my fear at least, and I’m glad you disagree, I mean someone should disagree, is that the correlation is going to be a, a decline of interest, and a, an American first mantra that wins the day…

YEUNG: Hmm.

HEFFNER: You know, if the American people don’t stand up and understand the important of foreign aid, and fight to preserve it…

YEUNG: Yeah, I mean I think we have to be very aware of that, and I think that when you’re telling these stories, you have to be conscious that that mindset does exist, and people want to know what the context is, surrounding this country or this situation, or this person, um, and why we should care in the first place. And I think that that should be the premise of every story. You know, why do you go, why bother going to South Sudan when we have enough issues in our own country. Um, and I think that, providing that context is, is where you have to start with every one of those stories.

HEFFNER: Context is king.

YEUNG: Context is king.

HEFFNER: Thank you for being here with me.

YEUNG: Thank you so much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/Openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on twitter and Facebook@OpenmindTV for updates on future programming.