Syria journalists ‘on the margins of history’

As Syria’s war grinds on, experts say local journalists bear the brunt of myriad dangers, with little public outcry.

Briton John Cantlie is being held captive by ISIL, along with more than a dozen Syrian journalists [Getty Images]

A third video of John Cantlie, a British journalist who has spent 22 months in the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters in Syria, was released last week. Wearing an orange jumpsuit, Cantlie criticised the US-led air strikes on ISIL positions, urging online viewers to “join [him] again for the next programme”.

Earlier this year, ISIL released similar propaganda videos showing the beheadings of US journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff. Also dressed in orange jumpsuits and kneeling in front of their captors before their deaths, the reporters had been kidnapped months earlier in Syria, which is now the most dangerous place in the world for journalists.

“It was [such a] barbaric and horrifying crime,” said Soazig Dollet, head of the Middle East-North Africa desk at Reporters without Borders (RSF), about Foley’s and Sotloff’s killings. “The propaganda from [ISIL] in this video was also one of the reasons why the reaction was that strong.”

Dollet told Al Jazeera that at least 19 Syrian journalists, and one foreign journalist, are still held by ISIL in Syria. 

“If you asked most people to name a single Syrian or Arab journalist butchered by [ISIL], they would almost certainly be unable to do so,” Syrian photojournalist Zaid al-Fares wrote in early September.

From the city of Raqqa, now firmly under ISIL control after the group seized the Tabqa airbase in August, Fares fled to Turkey after receiving death threats from fighters affiliated with the group in November 2013. They said: “Leave the city or we will arrest or kill you,” Fares told Al Jazeera from Gaziantep, where he now lives.

“Inside Raqqa, it’s impossible to work as a freelancer or just take photos in the city,” he said. “[Before ISIL], we worked freely; nobody stopped us or asked us what we were doing or why we were taking photos.”

IN VIDEO: Opposing sides of Syria’s media landscape

But abuses against journalists in Syria have taken place at the hands of virtually all groups involved in the fighting. “The Islamic State [ISIL] militant group is one of the most dangerous groups that journalists face, not just in Syria but throughout the region. With that said, they are not the only threat, not even close,” said Jason Stern, Middle East and North Africa researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

“Eighty-five percent of the journalists killed in Syria are local journalists. We often talk about how Syria is unprecedented in terms of the number of kidnappings, the murders of James Foley and Stephen Sotloff, but what’s not unprecedented … is that local journalists bear the brunt of the dangers,” Stern told Al Jazeera.

Regimes understand that there is a need for legitimacy, and a need for them to acquire legitimacy by trying to tell the story that they want to tell.

by - Dina Matar, senior lecturer at the University of London

In 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning attacks on journalists and media workers, including “torture, extrajudicial killings, [and] enforced disappearances“, as well as “intimidation and harassment in both conflict and non-conflict situations”.

More than 70 journalists have been killed in Syria since 2011, according to CPJ figures, while dozens of others have been arrested, detained, injured and intimidated. Both President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and opposition groups have been accused of cracking down on dissent in areas under their respective control, and of committing abuses against media workers.

Kurdish Asayish and People’s Protection Unit (YPG) forces have reportedly created an information ministry to control what news comes out of Rojava, a Kurdish-majority area in northeast Syria, and threatened independent journalists with expulsion. Other armed rebel groups are also accused of disappearing Syrian journalists and human rights defenders.

Regime forces, meanwhile, have arrested dozens of journalists, often keeping them incommunicado in unknown locations, while several have also died while in government custody after allegedly being tortured.

“[Syrian journalists] would take certain measures to protect their identity and their work,” explained an editor at The Damascus Bureau, a news website and training programme for Syrian journalists set up by the US-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. “They would use a different email account every time. Then at a certain point, they would stop reporting and stop working altogether. Other people have left Syria, mainly to Turkey, because of this pressure.”

Speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, the editor said that anxiety within the organisation’s network of about 30 Syrian journalists has skyrocketed. “Things have gone from bad to worse on the ground. They fear that there are [fewer] people they can trust… I could feel this mounting anxiety or concern,” the editor said.

“There’s a similarity in how armed groups or authorities act on the ground with respect to controlling [journalists’ reports] … you can see that more or less all the parties are interested in controlling what gets reported out of their areas.”

IN VIDEO: Syria – No country for journalists

For decades, the Syrian government – under Hafez al-Assad, and later, his son, Bashar – maintained an iron grip on freedom of information and expression across the country. State monitoring of digital communications and telephone lines created a widespread fear of speaking out publicly, while Syrian media was limited to state-owned outlets, or private entities with close ties to the ruling Assad family.

“Before [the uprising began in] 2011, even the concept of freedom of expression and freedom of information was just non-existent in Syria. There was no independent media… There was not even a drop of independence,” said RSF’s Dollet.

The situation deteriorated dramatically following the start of the war, and last year, Syria was the third most heavily censored country in the world, behind only Eritrea and North Korea.

“[Journalists] are seen by the protagonists of any conflict, whether they like it or not, as being part of it. The war does not only take place on the ground, it also takes place in the media,” explained Dina Matar, senior lecturer in Arab media and political communication at the University of London (SOAS).

Matar told Al Jazeera that in Syria’s sectarian conflict, like during the Lebanese civil war in 1975, local journalists might be targeted simply for belonging to a particular ethnic or religious group, or being from a specific geographic area.

“Regimes understand that there is a need for legitimacy, and a need for them to acquire legitimacy by trying to tell the story that they want to tell. If they see that a journalist is finding some gaps in that story … then they are going to target that journalist,” she said, adding that Syrian journalists “are almost forgotten, they’re on the margins of history”.

Yet despite these challenges, the work of journalists in Syria continues. “[It] is very dangerous because we have shelling, bombs, air strikes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s non-stop war in Syria. That’s very dangerous for anyone, not just for journalists,” photojournalist Fares said.

“For me, [journalism] is my gift; I am fighting for it. We have started a revolution [and] we will continue to the end.”

Follow Jillian on Twitter: @jkdamours

Source: Al Jazeera