After shells slammed into Muhammad al-Abdullah’s home in January, he was forced to move in with relatives rather than repair the home. The 20-year-old photojournalist has not been paid in more than a year.
In 2015, Syria was the “deadliest country” in the world for press workers and the top country from which local journalists fled and went into exile, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found in a survey.
The journalists, photographers and media activists who stayed in the country are often the only sources of information to the outside world. Yet, on top of risking their lives, most reporters struggle to survive on sparse incomes in a war-torn economy.
Al-Sham Media Network, an outlet close to Syrian opposition groups, is meant to pay Abdullah $400 a month for covering events in his hometown of Saqba, on the outskirts of Damascus, and nearby areas, he told Al Jazeera.
“My monthly salary isn’t a lot, but they owe me $4,800 now,” Abdullah said. “I would need $2,000 to fix my home well enough to be able to live in it again, but I don’t have the money to do it now.”
In the Eastern Ghouta region of the Damascus countryside, Saqba has been the target of repeated air strikes by the Syrian government and attacks by armed groups loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
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“Every day, we cover massacres, attacks, clashes or battles,” he said. “We are putting ourselves in dangerous situations on the front line, while [news outlets] exploit us.”
In November, Abdullah and his colleagues covered Russian air strikes in the nearby Douma area that killed dozens of civilians.
Only a week earlier, at least 61 people were killed in Douma when Syrian government air raids targeted a marketplace in the city.
As the uprising that started as unarmed demonstrations in March 2011 grew into a full-on armed conflict, there was an exodus of local journalists and press workers from Syria, according to the CPJ.
More than 250,000 people have been killed in the bloodletting throughout the last five years, according to statistics from the United Nations.
Throughout that time, the CPJ has confirmed that at least 93 journalists have been killed in Syria in direct relation to their work.
Most international agencies pulled foreign correspondents from the country due to the security situation, and the watchdog estimates that 87 percent of those killed were local journalists. Many more journalists have been abducted since the conflict started, while others cannot be accounted for.
Sherif Mansour, coordinator of CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa programme, explained that Syrian journalists in many parts of the country face the risk of bodily harm or death from government forces and opposition groups.
European and North American governments, as well as international media outlets, have placed a heavy emphasis on foreign correspondents killed or abducted in Syria, such as James Foley and Steven Sotloff, both of whom were beheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Despite all of these challenges and the fact that we believe in the importance of our work, we are still being exploited.
Mansour, however, noted that the “most vulnerable” journalists in Syria are “freelancers and local and citizen journalists who operate online”, many of whom have been targeted by the Syrian government and armed groups like ISIL.
“Civil society, journalist unions and support groups can help journalists in emergency situations by raising awareness, providing relief and, in some cases, preventing them from getting into trouble through training,” he told Al Jazeera. “Without them, we would not know about public lashings, crucifixions, beheadings and draconian social rules, thus providing the world with a counter-narrative to [ISIL’s] slickly produced version of events.”
On January 1, Abdullah and two of his colleagues at Al-Sham launched an open-ended strike to protest the network’s failure to pay them.
“We are not doing this for money,” he said. “That is obvious. If I were just working for money, I would have quit journalism a long time ago. This is a national and moral duty for me.”
Upon announcing their strike, Abdullah and his colleagues published a statement stating their grievances. The journalists detailed the salaries owed to them and the incidents they had covered thus far without pay.
“We face many difficulties covering the situation in Syria, particularly here in Eastern Ghouta, where it is more challenging,” Abdullah said.
“One time in [Eastern Ghouta], a fighter pulled a pistol on me and tried to kill me because I was filming what was happening during a battle,” he recalled. “Despite all of these challenges and the fact that we believe in the importance of our work, we are still being exploited.”
In a statement, Al-Sham said that it cannot always pay its employees in full or in a timely fashion because it is a “revolutionary institution” with a difficult financial situation.
“The contract between members of Al-Sham is a contract connecting them to the revolution and its mission and not for employment and benefits,” the network said.
Hassan Taqi al-Deen, a journalist and photographer who is participating in the strike, covers the fighting in Douma for Al-Sham.
Government forces and pro-Assad armed groups have besieged Douma, resulting in high food and medicine prices, he told Al Jazeera.
“Every day, there are rockets and shells over our heads,” he said. “It is very upsetting that we live under threat of death and our efforts are being exploited.”
Firas Alwani, 32, a freelance journalist from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, said that the feeling of exploitation is common for reporters in Syria.
Alwani had spent two-and-a-half months in prison after Syrian police arrested him in July 2013 for articles about the uprising and criticising the government’s crackdown on protests.
“When you see death every day during the revolution, you feel compelled to get the information out,” he told Al Jazeera. “But it was impossible to survive in that situation. You risk everything for almost no compensation.
“No journalist can make it on a local salary in Syria.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_