In April 2014, around 17 Syrian activists set out to document the abuses of Islamic State after the militant group took over and declared the northern city of Raqqa to be the caliphate’s capital.
The activists, working anonymously for their safety, formed a group, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), which is one of the few reliable and independent sources of news left in the Islamic State stronghold. The group’s Raqqa-based members secretly film and report from within the city and send the information to members outside of Syria, who transfer the news to local and international media. Since its inception, RBSS has publicized public lashings, crucifixions, beheadings, and draconian social rules, thus providing the world with a counter-narrative to Islamic State’s slickly produced version of events.
In July 2015, Abu Mohammed, an RBSS founder who lives outside Syria, told CPJ: “The threats come in different forms, but they happen most days.” He said that members outside of Syria, including himself, often receive phone calls and emails saying that if they don't stop publishing, they will be killed. The group’s Twitter and personal email accounts have been hacked. But the journalists inside Raqqa face the greatest risk, Abu Mohammed said. “Cameras have been placed to monitor anyone suspected of working for us. If a suspect is caught in the street, they will be killed in front of everyone.”
RBSS has been declared an enemy of God by Islamic State, and at least two RBSS members have already paid the price with their lives. In October 2015, Ibrahim Abd al-Qader, an early member of RBSS, was killed by Islamic State operatives, along with his colleague Fares Hamadi, in an apartment in Urfa, southeastern Turkey. Al-Moutaz Bellah Ibrahim was kidnapped by Islamic State and murdered in May 2014. In July 2015, Islamic State released a highly produced video, showing two men saying they worked for RBSS. The men are then strung up on trees and shot. One of the founders of RBSS later told CPJ that the two men did not belong to the group.
While RBSS was formed to document the atrocities of Islamic State, its members have also reported critically on the Assad government’s bombings, other rebel forces, and civilian casualties caused by U.S.-led airstrikes. The group has established itself as a credible source among Syria monitors and journalists globally. RBSS members have broken several stories, including the failed special operations raid to save U.S. freelance journalist James Foley and the other hostages.
Since 2011, at least 85 journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work in Syria. The country has ranked as the most deadly place for journalists for three consecutive years. CPJ has also helped more journalists fleeing into exile from Syria in the past five years than from any other country.
The text of theRaqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently acceptance speech, as prepared for delivery, is below.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for inviting us here today, and giving us the chance to say a few words.
I speak today on behalf of millions of Syrians who are looking for a free, democratic and united country.
I am deeply sad for my beautiful country. It is suffering greatly from regime fever and the cancer of terrorism, so greatly that I fear its spirit will melt.
We are caught between two aggressive and brutal forces. The first is a criminal regime, obsessed with power, claiming to fight against terrorism by killing children.
The second spreads evil and injustice, and paints our nation black.
Each of them considers us criminals because we are disclosing their actions to the world. Now the mere mention of the name of "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently" has become a crime punishable by death.
Members of "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently" are no different from any of you. We love our home and we have ambitions and dreams of raising a family and living happily.
We work through peaceful means to combat the dark forces, and our publications have a great impact in planting signs of peaceful resistance. We carry out graffiti campaigns on the walls inside the most dangerous strongholds of ISIS, attempting to prove to the world that we will defeat arms with thoughts.
Maybe we're not professional journalists, maybe we're only "citizen journalists." We don't care a lot about labels. We just want to prove ourselves on the ground as a force facing the most brutal regime, Assad, and the most dangerous organization, ISIS.
Let me illustrate the size of our suffering. This beautiful city, New York, has a population of about eight and a half million people. Imagine that more than two million people were forced to flee and the city had no teachers, doctors, postal workers.
People watch the suffering in Syria, and they believe that it is far away from them. But the distance from Damascus to Rome is almost the same as from here to Miami. This evil, which began in Syria, will not stop there. The power for good that is given to us by God should be used to confront the evil.
I accept this award on behalf of those Syrians who have been silenced and those who are suffering in order to build a free and democratic country. They do not need just an award, but they certainly need your help. We dedicate this award to our martyrs, Moataz Bellah Ibrahim, Ibrahim Abd al-Qader, and Mohammed al-Moussa, the father of one of our co-founders. We also dedicate this award to our friends who gave their lives, Fares Hamadi, Bashir al-Saado, Faisal al-Habib, Rakan al-Enzi and Atallah al-Khalaf. Finally, we dedicate this award to the undercover heroes of our campaign and to the entire people of the city of Raqqa.Thank you.
- At least 85 journalists have been killed covering the Syrian conflict.
- More than 90 journalists have been abducted since the conflict began in 2011.
- The Bashar al-Assad government is responsible for more journalist deaths in Syria than Islamic State. At least 48 journalists, or 57 percent, have been killed by military and government officials, CPJ research shows.
- Islamic State is one of the greatest threats to journalists across the MENA region.
Significant work and citations:
- Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently: Website, Facebook page, YouTube channel
- The Telegraph: The failed US mission to try and rescue James Foley from Islamic State terrorists
- The Associated Press: Deadly strikes by US-led coalition targeting IS in Raqqa
- The Washington Post:Inside an undercover network trying to expose Islamic State’s atrocities
CPJ’s reporting on RBSS, the Islamic State, and press freedom in Syria:
- How Islamic State uses killings to try to spread fear among media
- Killed in Syria: Al-Moutaz Bellah Ibrahim
- James Foley's killers pose many threats to local, international journalists
- Broadcasting murder: Militants use media for deadly purpose
- 2015 Exiled Report: When the most dangerous place for journalists is your country
- Behind the numbers: Researching Syria's killed journalists
- Database of journalists killed in Syria
More on the Awards
The ceremony • Awardees: Cándido Figueredo Ruíz, Paraguay • Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, Syria • Zone 9 Bloggers, Ethiopia • Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque ("Zunar") - Malaysia • Kathy Gannon, Benjamin Award