A man walks through rubble in Damascus in October 2018, caused by years of war. Safety remains a key concern for Syrian journalists. (AP/Hassan Ammar)
A man walks through rubble in Damascus in October 2018, caused by years of war. Safety remains a key concern for Syrian journalists. (AP/Hassan Ammar)

Damascus journalist has a million stories but none she can safely report

Joudy Boulos has a million stories she wants to write. But as a Syrian freelance journalist living in Damascus, her ability to report is severely limited by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is so dangerous that “Joudy Boulos” is a pseudonym the journalist sometimes uses when reporting and to protect her safety. Her work is published in local and Arabic media, as well as Liberated T, a campaign run by the international non-profit Institute For War & Peace Reporting (IWRP) to improve and broaden the portrayal of Syrian women in the media.

Syria is regularly ranked among the deadliest countries in the world to be a journalist. CPJ documented in July how at least 70 journalists were trapped in southwestern Syria, where they faced the encroaching threat of forces loyal to Assad. Since the outbreak of the war in 2011, 123 journalists have been killed, the majority of them local. The country also ranks second on CPJ’s Global Impunity Index of countries where journalists are murdered and their killers go free.

Boulos, who has been detained twice for participating in demonstrations in Syria, told CPJ that she avoids reporting on Assad’s regime as it’s simply too dangerous. She said that while she can cover the humanitarian disasters and mass destruction in her homeland, she can never say that the regime was responsible.

While journalists like Boulos remain frightened for their safety, their bigger concern is that seven years into the war, and with ongoing crises in other parts of the world, people have stopped listening. “This is what scares us the most, reaching a point where nobody, even us, is able to talk about what’s happening,” Boulos said.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]

What are the most difficult aspects of being a journalist in Syria right now?

I work in regime-held areas. For me, the concerns are not bombardment, about getting killed. We have other concerns. We don’t have cultural concerns, as maybe rebel-held areas. Working as female journalists in rebel-held areas is so much harder, because you need to face the community, the military violence. In Damascus, it’s different.

For me, the most difficult thing is how to get the messages from the people and how to convey them in a way that doesn’t put me in danger, and is good for my principles.

How do you navigate those concerns and make sure Syrians’ stories are getting out there?

It’s a kind of game. Sometimes I spend hours putting words into a phrase. For example, in our areas the state media always describe rebels or opposition fighters as “terrorists.” I don’t like to use this word. Sometimes you cannot use the word “rebels,” of course, but you try to figure out what words we can use. We don’t say “regime.” It is like a game of words.

It is hard to write about places where I do not live, and that were destroyed by regime forces, such as Eastern Ghouta and Yarmouk camp. It was hard to write about those places, which are not my places and were destroyed by regime forces, and how to describe what happened there without mentioning who did all this.

How has being a journalist in Syria changed since the war began?

I started writing about what I was witnessing on blogs in 2011 and I started my journalistic work in 2014. Working in 2011-12 was very different. At that point we had access to rebel-held areas, and we used to go to demonstrations and meet a lot of people. The threat then was getting killed or detained, but it was easy to get the information you wanted. It was easier for people to speak. Everybody wanted to say something about their lives, but now it is very hard to speak to people. Everyone is afraid. I usually cover social, economic, and humanitarian stories. I don’t cover politics because it is really dangerous now. It’s better to focus on people’s stories.

What steps do you take to protect your security as a journalist?

I do all the digital security things. I use a VPN, Signal. We use Telegram. They are safer than Skype, but it’s not that safe. When I use WhatsApp, I always delete everything.

How do you protect yourself on social media?

If you look at my social media pages, you’ll see they’re funny, silly pages. I don’t publish anything against the regime. I’m afraid to “like” some things or comment. I avoid all of those things because I discovered how they are monitored. For example, a friend of mine lost her father. In July they got the death certificate. He was detained for five or six years. I was afraid of posting any “like” or a sad comment for her on Facebook. I preferred to go on a private message and tell her.

I am worried about informants too, but I do my best on my Facebook. Whenever you get to know someone new–colleagues, journalists–you think, “What if they are from the regime side? What if they know anything about me?”

Have you faced threats related to your gender as a journalist working in Syria?

In regime-held areas it’s not a problem. Most of the time you have the same fears as male journalists, and sometimes it’s easier to be a female journalist in Damascus. Men are always subject to being considered terrorists by the regime. Passing by a checkpoint as a woman is easier. Sometimes you get benefits from being a woman in regime areas, but sometimes it’s harder to [gain] access or to interview people. Some people don’t think you’re qualified enough to do what you’re doing.

What do you think about the practice of journalism itself when you’re working under these restrictions?

When I compare my work to people working outside [Syria], I don’t think we are doing journalism at all in Syria. We’re just covering things, we’re not reporting. There’s no real journalistic work because it’s dangerous. There is some journalism, but it’s really dangerous and really hard to access information.

There are ways for my work to be seen, but there are games you play with the level of censorship. For me, the level of journalism is too low. I think it was better in 2011, 2012. Even pro-regime journalists are subject to harassment or questioning. You feel like you can’t say anything. My friends and I were joking that it’s better to write about fashion and make-up, it’s easier.

What are the stories that you want to report but can’t?

I want to go to prisons and report on how people are living there, or how people are paying bribes to get them out. I know how my family suffered when I was in prison. They paid a huge amount of money just to know anything about me, where I was, because I disappeared for three months.

[A few] weeks ago I met families from Deir Ezzor and they spoke about how they fled [and] the bombardment. Maybe I can do something with them in the future, maybe a book. I have tons of testimonies. This goes also to digital security–where do I keep these things? Keeping them and writing is so dangerous. I go home and I have a separate email and save them in drafts in my email. It’s only dedicated to writing. I’m afraid of losing a USB or a hard disk.

There are a lot of things to write. I have a million stories and I write them down for me, but I cannot report them.