A picture taken during a tour organized by the Syrian information ministry shows people walking past Syrian soldiers at a checkpoint in the district of Daraa al-Balad on September 12, 2021 after the Syrian Army lifted its two-and-a-half-month siege. Journalists trapped in the siege are no less fearful now that it has ended. (AFP/Louai Beshara)

Syrian journalists fear for their lives despite the end of the siege of Daraa al-Balad

On September 9, the Syrian Army and its allies lifted their two-and-a half-month siege of the district of Daraa al-Balad in southern Syria under a Russian-brokered ceasefire with local rebels. 

The deal is the latest chapter in the long saga of the district, a cradle of the 2011 revolution that was recaptured by Syrian Army forces in 2018 but where some rebels remained in partial control. In 2018, CPJ and its partners relocated at least 40 local journalists to safety in France, Germany, and Spain after the state recaptured the area.

Though the deal alleviated the dire humanitarian crisis in Daraa al-Balad, it also left the district with an even larger Syrian Army presence — a worrying development for the small number of journalists who remain in Daraa al-Balad working for pro-opposition media.

Journalists who do not toe the line of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are in danger, according to Yara Bader, a coordinator with the France-based press freedom organization Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, who spoke to CPJ via email. 

“It is forbidden to have a variety of voices or narratives,” Bader said. “Alternative narratives must be kept secret and those promoting them are at risk of arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, unfair trials and imprisonment for long years, torture and mistreatment.”

During the siege, CPJ was in touch with Daraa al-Balad reporter Abu al-Taieb, one of 11 “journalists, media activists, and media service providers” the Syrian Journalists Association said in a statement on Facebook were trapped in the territory.

Al-Taieb goes by a pseudonym and works for pro-opposition news websites Nabaa Media Foundation and the Horan Free League. A video he sent to CPJ in mid-August shows a quiet street in Daraa al-Balad where the chirping of crickets alternates with the rattling of heavy machine guns.  

He told CPJ that as he covered the siege, he feared for his life, worried that if the regime took full control he could face assassination or arrest for simply reporting the news.

After the ceasefire, scores of rebel fighters moved to rebel-held areas in northern Syria, according to reports, but al-Taieb said that he and his colleagues decided to remain in the district amid the uneasy quiet.

“Me and my colleagues are still in Daraa al-Balad and didn’t leave for northern Syria, despite the grave dangers to our lives and those of our families and the fear of arrest and assassination. There isn’t a safe way to get out of here and unfortunately we don’t have the financial means that would help us get out,” he told CPJ via messaging app.

The siege began on June 24, when the Syrian Army and its allied militias surrounded Daraa al-Balad, after residents refused to turn in their weapons to Syrian authorities and boycotted the May 2021 presidential election, according to news reports. In late July, clashes between troops loyal to al-Assad and rebel forces erupted after the former began shelling the city, news reports said.  

At least one journalist was injured during the siege. Freelance journalist Atef al-Saadi was hit in his left leg by shrapnel from two bullets fired by the Syrian Army troops while he was covering clashes near the southern Syrian town of Muzayrib on July 29, according to the regional press freedom groups SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom. Al-Saadi was transferred to a hospital in Tafas, where shrapnel was removed.

The journalists who remain in Daraa al-Balad represent just a fraction of the reporting community that once inhabited the city. The profession took a hit in 2018, after the regime took control of Daraa province, which encompasses the district.

According to the terms of the 2018 Russian-brokered deal, rebels agreed to hand over weapons and positions and allow for the return of state institutions. In return, the regime provided guarantees that rebel fighters, civilians, and others affiliated with the opposition could live under state rule and wouldn’t be targeted for conscription or arrest by state security forces because of their previous activities, according to a translation of the agreement by the International Crisis Group and local journalists who spoke to CPJ at the time.

But many opposition-affiliated journalists told CPJ at the time they did not trust the regime not to target them, and they decided to leave Daraa province for the northern Syria rebel-held governorate of Idlib and later for Turkey, eventually relocating across Europe with CPJ’s help.

Okba Mohammad reported from Daraa in Syria before he fled to Spain. (YouTube/CPJ)

Okba Mohammad, a freelance journalist from Daraa and co-founder of the Madrid-based news website Baynana, was one of the people CPJ helped to get out.

“I saw no future for my journalistic work there. In the end the regime would have arrested, killed, or conscripted me,” he told CPJ. 

Mohammad thinks that the new ceasefire deal changes nothing for local journalists because of the tight security grip on Daraa al-Balad by the Syrian Army and allied Iranian militias and that the remaining local journalists have no faith in the 2018 deal.

In January, Mohammad reported for the international news and commentary site Global Voices about how opposition activists and fighters who were promised amnesty were being targeted anew with assassinations and arrests.

According to Mohammad, journalists in Daraa al-Balad face the dilemma of either continuing to work underground or leaving.   

“Journalists and media activists working for opposition-affiliated outlets in Daraa cannot show themselves in public,” he said. “If they want to do journalistic work, they have to use pseudonyms and avoid using their pictures for fear of persecution and assassination by security forces and Iranian militias.”

He said there is no such thing as “objective” journalism under the Syrian regime. Journalists “have to justify the regime’s deeds,” he continued. “Otherwise they are classified as enemies.”

Over the past year, CPJ has spoken to at least six journalists who fled Daraa province because of the death threats they were receiving from al-Assad-affiliated militias or because they were wanted by Syrian security forces.

The journalists, who prefer to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, all cited their reporting on the growing presence of the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias in southern Syria and the contraventions by the Syrian government of the 2018 deal as the reasons why they were threatened and fled.

CPJ emailed the Syrian interior ministry and the ministry of defense for comment but received no reply.

During the siege, al-Taieb said he expected the international community to do everything in its power to preserve the lives of the besieged families, including journalists. He now asks the world to remember the journalists in Daraa al-Balad.

“As long as we remain in this region, we are in grave danger,” he said.

[Editor’s note: The text in the 16th paragraph and the second caption have been updated to correct Okba Mohammad’s home town.]