They call themselves citizen journalists, media workers, or media activists. Amid the chaos of conflict, they are determined to gather and distribute the news. By María Salazar-Ferro
Syria is the most dangerous country in the world for reporters and yet, every day, hundreds of its citizens risk their lives to shoot photos, record video, and file reports on the civil conflict. Many are trying to reach the international community. Others want to raise the level of awareness on the ground. Most fear that without their work, the conflict’s atrocities will go undocumented. And some say they do it because, in war, there is no other work.
Since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, Syrian and foreign journalists and media workers have been targeted, research by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows. At least 63 have been killed in retaliation for their work, and approximately 30 others were missing at the end of 2013. Early on, the government of President Bashar al-Assad barred the international press while its security forces arrested and brutalized dozens of local news gatherers. Rebel forces counterattacked–targeting journalists and outlets believed to be pro-government. By late 2011, journalists faced yet a third front with the appearance on the battleground of non-Syrian Islamist militant groups that have attacked, abducted, and killed them.
A local independent press movement has grown in the midst of this chaos, and today, while no verified number exists, CPJ research shows that scores of Syrian outlets are actively reporting. “Prior to the revolution there was only one story being told: the story that the regime wanted to tell,” said Mowaffaq Safadi, an exiled Syrian journalist in Turkey. “Now, even if the media is not all professional, at least we have our different stories being told.”
Syria’s president inherited the job from his authoritarian father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria as president from 1971 until his death in 2000. Until then, only news outlets run by the government or affiliated with the ruling Arab Socialist Baath Party were allowed to publish. When the younger Assad came to power, there was some initial hope for change, and the local press took its first tentative steps toward greater independence and more open criticism. However, a 2001 press law that legalized private publications–banned since 1963–also maintained severe restrictions. It required all private publications to be licensed by the government, and prohibited them from reporting on military affairs or topics that could “harm” national security or “national unity.” Violators faced up to three years in prison and heavy fines.
With these restrictions in place, some independent online websites began to flourish in the early 2000s, according to Massoud Akko, a Syrian who monitors the country’s press freedom from Norway and bills himself as a media activist. These early blogs, Akko said in a telephone interview, focused on general news and politics. “People used them to issue their opinions,” he said. But the government began to filter online dissent, blocked politically sensitive sites, and detained bloggers. Online self-censorship became pervasive and, in 2009, CPJ placed Syria third on a list of the 10 worst countries worldwide for bloggers.
Then came the euphoria of the Arab Spring. As spreading dissent in the region bubbled up in Syria–inspiring vast public demonstrations in the first half of 2011–a makeshift, independent media began to surface. Its members, however, were not all professional journalists. Instead, most say they are citizens swept up by the revolution, or revolutionaries who took on the role of news gatherers as a contribution to Syria’s political change. They call themselves citizen journalists, media workers, or media activists.
“The revolution was a very emotional moment for everyone, including me, and it was natural to want to join the protests,” Safadi told CPJ. “I decided to start filming the protests because what you saw on Syrian news was ridiculous, it was insulting. Filming was the natural thing for me to do to tell the story of what was happening. So I started filming and uploading what I was finding to YouTube.”
International reporters swarmed the country as the initial protests intensified. But by the end of March 2011, the government had begun its crackdown, expelling journalists, barring others from entering, and forcing outlets to shut down operations, making Syrians on the ground even more anxious to spread the word.
Many Syrians, who like Safadi had nominal media abilities but access to mobile phones, cameras, or the Internet, improvised as journalists. In March 2011, Omar Alkhani had just returned to Syria from years abroad with the hope of starting his own marketing firm. He told CPJ that as the first demonstrations erupted in his Damascus neighborhood, his impulse was to take photos. Eventually he created a Facebook page dedicated to documenting the uprising. “I began alone,” Alkhani said. “But as only one person I could not cover everything, so I asked friends who had skills to help me, and as things started to get bigger, we started a union for people working with the revolution who were working to coordinate demonstrations and to cover what was happening.”
Dozens of similar groups began popping up across Syria, The New York Times reported in June 2011. Most were conceived as social media-centric groups that organized protests. But the need grew to spread information to Syrians and the outside world, first about the protests and then about the government reprisals, and so these groups turned into de facto news agencies that remained deeply involved in the politics of the revolution.
Known as coordination committees, media centers, press centers or media unions, these mostly informal alliances continue to operate in parts of Syria. Journalists working with media centers publish information on social media, or file stories to independent online Syrian radio stations or news blogs. Some media centers working in rebel-controlled areas are able to publish ad-hoc magazines with succinct information on the conflict, economic and social issues, and general news. They print about 300 copies at once, and publish sporadically. Other Syrian journalists work independently of media centers and file directly to Syrian or international outlets abroad.
Media centers remain decentralized and mostly function autonomously. Their members work out of residential spaces, using a few laptops, cameras, and printers, and the essential tools they need to get online. “It’s not hard to get your hands on these things,” said Rami Jarrah, an award-winning journalist who co-manages the citizen press group ANA News Media Association. “It’s just dangerous.”
It is not always clear where financial backing for Syrian outlets and media centers comes from. It is believed some support comes from international organizations, foreign governments, and individual donations. Private donors, Jarrah said, are Syrians outside the country or people in neighboring countries, who give small sums to cover the costs of setting up and paying for satellite Internet connections, or who directly donate laptops, cameras, and other equipment.
With the war well into its third year, the dangers for journalists have multiplied since the appearance of the first media centers in the spring of 2011. Then, it seemed the Assad government was the primary obstacle to those seeking to document the uprising. Now, the kinds of threats journalists face daily differ depending on where they are and which armed faction controls the area, said Razan Ghazzawi, a Syria-based blogger and former press freedom campaigner. She was arrested in 2011 for her writing and in 2012 for her activism on behalf of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.
According to the U.S.-born Ghazzawi, there is constant turmoil as the revolution’s many antagonists maneuver for control. And according to Jarrah, “There is a complete shift on the ground all the time. Every day there are several battles going on, and at the end of the day each battle has changed something. So it is impossible to know who is controlling what.”
Government-controlled areas remain almost impossible for independent journalists to work in, said Ghazzawi. The government controls everything, including communications and the streets. “You cannot have a camera in the street or lift your mobile. It’s a very high security situation and you are subject to arrest,” Jarrah said. “Citizen journalists arrested are never heard from again.” Journalists working in these areas do so very discreetly, sending their work for publication outside Syria through a variety of communication channels.
Many, according to Jarrah, have government links or jobs, and file secretly. Their motivation: “To expose the crimes that are being committed by the regime,” Jarrah told CPJ. “Their information can have a big impact.”
Though it is still very difficult for international reporters to enter Syria, the Assad government allowed more foreign correspondents into the country after it agreed to a Russian-American plan in September 2013 to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons to avert American airstrikes. Who is allowed in remains arbitrary and personalized. But he vast majority of those who obtain visas work under constant surveillance and tight restrictions in government-controlled areas. A few international journalists still sneak over the border to report without authorization.
According to Ghazzawi, Syrian journalists working in rebel-controlled areas, which she and others call “liberated,” have the most freedom, though they work under the constant threat of shelling and other forms of indiscriminate attacks. In these areas, media centers continue to operate, often with protection from rebel authorities. Open criticism of rebel groups and actions, however, is not always tolerated, and CPJ has documented several attacks on journalists and outlets perceived to support the government. Tolerance from Free Syria Army (FSA) fighters, Jarrah said, tends to depend on the battalion.
Then, there are the multiple battlegrounds where not only are the government forces and the FSA fighting for domination, but also such extremist groups as the Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). Journalists say it is very difficult to physically report in areas where there are continuous battles and a clear lack of basic infrastructure. According to Ghazzawi, journalists working there often lose their tools–laptops or Internet-accessing equipment–to shelling, or they are forced to abandon them as they hastily change locations.
Contested areas where extremist groups have control, even temporarily, are particularly dangerous. Syrian and foreign journalists have consistently been kidnapped and brutalized. “Where there are Islamist groups like ISIS, it’s very similar to where the regime is,” said Jarrah, whose news agency has been targeted and has had at least one reporter who was kidnapped. “But the regime remains more dangerous for citizen journalists because while ISIS and other groups don’t arrest everyone, and discriminate based on who attacks them and who doesn’t, the regime does not.”
Akko, the media activist, agrees that security varies from area to area, though he says other concerns are universal. One such concern is getting paid. Journalists working only with media centers are rarely compensated. Rather, they offer their material and information freely online. Others, who have gained more experience, freelance for regional outlets or the Syrian media based abroad. According to Akko, those who freelance work for small sums. He estimates that on average Syrian independent media and regional Arab outlets pay individual journalists US$50 per article, regardless of the security situation. According to Italian journalist Francesca Borri, foreign freelancers willing to sneak into the country are paid as little as US$70 per piece. The truth, says Akko, is that most journalists working on the ground in Syria are not paid.
Basic security concerns are also shared by most. The greatest requirement for journalists in Syria remains the ability to shift locations at a moment’s notice to avoid capture and incarceration or, worse, death. Many journalists who spoke to CPJ cited as a turning point the February 2012 attack on a press center in Homs that killed American reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik. Though the deaths occurred on the 19th consecutive day of shelling by Assad forces on the Baba Amr neighborhood, many believe that they were not a coincidence but the result of a targeted attack on the journalists, who had huddled in the improvised office. Speculation varies on whether it was the satellite phones or the Internet signal at the center that helped pinpoint their location. But to the local media, the lesson was clear: technological tools can get the news out, but they can also leave a clear and dangerous trail.
Jarrah said “tough lessons” like the one from Baba Amr make up the unofficial guidelines of Syria’s independent press. Journalists “learn how to work the hard way,” he told CPJ. “When they see colleagues get arrested because of a mistake they made, they avoid repeating it.”
Akko agrees that, so far, mistakes have been the most effective teaching tools, though journalists have also organized online and face-to-face training sessions. At these meetings, those who have more experience share basic information with those who are starting out. The training differs, according to Akko, a professional journalist and active member of the Syrian Journalist Association, a civil society group created in 2012 to build independent journalism and monitor press freedom in Syria.
Most often the training focuses on digital and physical security, but it can also include information on journalistic ethics, writing structure, and camera angles. Despite the good faith effort, Akko believes that these workshops are not sufficient to strengthen the news gathering work that is being done in Syria.
International non-governmental organizations have also organized workshops outside the country that touch on many of the same subjects. However, journalists who spoke to CPJ remain uncertain about whether these arehaving any real impact. Mostly, they worry that the knowledge gained abroad by journalists and activists in exile, as well as some who travel in and out of the country, does not make its way back into Syria. “There is something wrong in the delivery of the training,” said Alkhani, the marketing entrepreneur turned chronicler of the revolt. “It’s always the same people who are doing [them], and always the same people who are attending. So there is a real problem because the information is not getting to the people who really need it.”
In general, Syrian journalists said that the efforts of the international community to support them have been off track. “A journalist is a journalist even if he is Syrian, Dutch, French or American,” Akko said. “No one is really talking about our journalists. And there should be more of a focus on the situation of the journalists who are working inside Syria.” Though none of the journalists interviewed by CPJ made specific suggestions, all agreed that the international community needed to devote more resources to supporting the work Syrians are doing.
An additional problem for the professional growth of Syria’s independent press, according to Akko, is the continuing flight of experienced journalists, many of whom once worked for the government-controlled news outlets. Since the conflict began, the writers, newscasters and others working for the government-controlled media have fled en masse, taking their considerable knowledge and experience with them. By CPJ’s count, more than 70 Syrian journalists have left since 2011, although others put their numbers higher.
Many, like Rania Badri, the former host of a popular morning talk show on a radio station owned by the Assad family, worked for government media and quit their jobs to join foreign or independent media outlets. Badri left the country shortly after resigning and started a short-lived independent radio station that reported Syrian news from abroad. It was closed because of continued threats. She now lives in Paris and no longer works as a journalist.
Those forced into exile include citizen journalists. Most fled through Jordan, Lebanon, or Egypt, and settled in Turkey, where their legal situation remains vague. In October 2011, the Turkish government extended “temporary protection” to all Syrian refugees, but journalists based there have said they live in a sort of limbo, unclear how long official protection will last.
Most of the international press corps seems to have left Syria as well. After several killings and a succession of kidnappings, which spiked in 2013, fewer foreign journalists and outlets are willing to take the chances required to report from Syria. International non-governmental media groups, like the London-based Rory Peck Trust, have published cautionary statements urging foreign freelancers to stay away. And journalists themselves have publically questioned whether the story is worth the risk. “It would be unwise (at best) and irresponsible (at worst) to go inside Syria as an independent journalist at this time,” award-winning photojournalist Javier Manzano told the Rory Peck Trust in August 2013.
Yet, as the most experienced news gatherers withdraw from the field, the explosion of people reporting from Syria and outlets disseminating information continues to grow. Consistently, journalists who spoke to CPJ said there is no way of knowing how many Syrian outlets exist today. The overall landscape includes hundreds of radio stations that broadcast online and a handful on FM; more than a dozen newspapers and a few magazines that publish informally inside Syria with help from local committees or rebel groups; and myriad websites, blogs, and social media pages. The quality of content and analysis and their political affiliations vary.
For security reasons, many outlets born in the early stages of the revolution have moved their operations abroad, mostly to southern Turkey. From the border, groups like Jarrah’s ANA, as well as individual journalists, have easy access to information from sources inside the country and from the continuous flow of refugees. Most important, they are well positioned to hop over the border to report.
Alkhani, the marketing specialist turned photographer, worked from southern Turkey for several months. He told CPJ that in March 2013, as the crisis grew worse in the capital, he left Damascus for Antakya in Turkey. By then, his photos had gained some notice, and he had freelanced for Reuters, Demotix, and other agencies. From Turkey, Alkhani said, he easily entered Syria on a weekly basis to report.
Alkhani said he also provided others helping the rebel cause with additional services, and in August 2013, he agreed to help an international organization smuggle equipment to access the Internet into Syria. On his way back, Alkhani was stopped outside Aleppo by a group of armed individuals. He was held for 35 days by fighters he suspected of being ISIS members. “They gave me five charges,” Alkhani said in a phone interview. “One for doing photography; two, for helping foreign journalists, infidels, get into the country; three, for being a Satan worshipper because of videos they found on my laptop; four, for adultery because my wife is Christian; and, five, for not supporting the Islamist State. Every time a charge was delivered, I was tortured.”
The photographer said over the course of his abduction, his captors whipped him repeatedly while threatening him with worse violence. Alkhani said everything he had with him was confiscated, including his laptop, camera, iPad, and some money. When he was finally released, the photographer was driven, blindfolded, back to the Turkish border, where he was told to get on a bus out of Syria. “They didn’t say why they were releasing me,” Alkhani said. “But they did Shariah Law on me, and they took all my stuff, so I could not work anymore.”
Most of the news outlets operating from abroad tend to rely on networks of journalists inside Syria. According to Jarrah, ANA’s network of reporters is made up of friends of friends, or friends of relatives who can provide information on daily events in their neighborhoods. “We seek them,” Jarrah said. “They don’t seek us, because there are too many outlets competing. We seek them, we vet them, and we decide whether to get information from them.” One of the main qualities Jarrah said ANA looks for is objectivity, and therefore it prefers reporters with few links to political networks, or activists without real ties to the evolution.
But objectivity, others say, is very hard to come by at a point when those who are reporting on the Syrian war are also those who have been living it for several years. “Those working today are a mixture of people who are suffering, have personal aspirations, and are facing personal circumstances that show in their work,” said Safadi, in a Skype interview from a café in Istanbul. “Although they are motivated to provide essential information from inside Syria, they are exposed emotionally, and they are connected to what’s happening personally. It’s hard to stop and have the objectivity needed to report.”
Daniel DeFreia, CPJ’s 2013-14 Steiger Fellow, and Jason Stern, research associate for CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program, contributed reporting.
María Salazar-Ferro, CPJ’s Impunity Campaign and Journalist Assistance Program coordinator, reports on exiled and missing journalists, and has represented CPJ on missions to Mexico and the Philippines, among others.