Journalists remain defiant in Syria despite targeted attacks

On World Press Freedom Day, Noor Al-Bazzaz from Amnesty’s Syria research team describes how Syria’s defiant journalists are under attack from all sides.

The Syrian authorities have for decades tried to suppress any “truth” not sanctified by them. Perhaps then, I should not have been surprised by how quickly they stepped up the repression of free speech when peaceful demonstrations calling for reforms began in 2011, inspired by developments in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. Yet, in the context of the escalating violence and killings on the ground, there was something particularly Orwellian about the way the authorities relentlessly tried to solidify their monopoly on what the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) called “the reality of events”.

Government crackdown on media

The outbreak of popular protests in March 2011 saw the launch of a mass media campaign attempting to discredit news outlets that contradicted the official view of the unrest. Visas for foreign journalists became increasingly difficult to obtain and many journalists already present in Syria were intimidated into leaving.

By August 2011, new laws had been rushed through to prohibit the media from publishing information on “sensitive” topics. Ayad Charbaji, a journalist and editor of Shabablekmagazine, told me that he received a fax from the Ministry of Information as early as April 2011 outlining appropriate phrases to use when reporting on protests. He was later called for questioning by the Ministry after he did not comply with these guidelines, and his journalist’s licence was revoked.

By the end of 2012, harassment, arrests, torture and prosecution of journalists and citizen journalists had escalated significantly, making Syria one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. 2013 looks to be no different.

The rise of citizen journalists

The restrictions created conditions for a government-imposed “blackout” on many towns and cities, which many feared would act as a veil for government violations.  This fear, accompanied with new social media tools, prompted thousands of “citizen journalists” to begin recording what they saw.

Many foreign journalists I interviewed expressed astonishment at the risks these citizen journalists were taking in order to gather and disseminate information from areas where little would otherwise be known. British journalist Paul Conroy, who was injured when government forces shelled the makeshift Homs Media Centre in February 2012, told me: “The citizen journalists there were some of the bravest people I have ever seen… if it wasn’t for them, there would have been no information coming out of Homs at all, there would have been a total black spot during a time of slaughter.”

This is perhaps what rapidly made citizen journalists a real threat to the authorities, and consequently a primary target. ‘Abd al-Ghani Ka’ake, for example, was just 18 when security forces shot him in the back of the neck and killed him while he was filming a protest in Aleppo. Despite these risks, citizen journalists I spoke to expressed a profound determination to continue their work. Mu’az al-Ta’ani, from Dera’a, whose sister and mother were attacked by the authorities in their attempts to locate him, told me: “They targeted my family in order to weaken me, but they did not succeed. I will carry on recording and distributing information.”

Abuses by armed groups

Sadly, as the country became engulfed in violence, some of the armed opposition groups resorted to abusing the very rights they said they were fighting for – including the rights of journalists and others to express their views and report what they see without fear of retribution.

Some armed groups have used their social media pages to identify journalists they believe are pro-government, label them as “media shabiha” (shabiha are pro-government paramilitary forces notorious for their brutality), issue threats against them and celebrate or take credit for their deaths.

For instance, the armed group Jabhat al-Nusra posted a statement in August 2012 claiming responsibility for the summary killing of Mohamad al-Saeed, a presenter on Syrian state television. Across the spectrum of political opinion – and despite the dangers they all faced – every journalist I spoke to ardently proclaimed their right to express their views without being targeted for prosecution, abuse or death.

Yara Saleh, a presenter for the pro-government TV channel Ikhbariya, told me that even after she was kidnapped and ill-treated by an armed opposition group in August 2012, the first thing she did upon her release was go back to work. She said: “Freedom of expression is my right; they cannot kill me for it.”

Another journalist, Hussain Mortada, who was injured in a sniper attack on 26 September 2012 after being threatened by armed opposition groups for “pro-government reporting”, told me: “We fight them with our words, they fight us with bullets”.

He continued with a sentence that I heard repeatedly from others: “They don’t want to see any opinion or picture different to what they believe… so they attack us.”