After raging battles between rebel forces and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, the latter gained control of much of Deir Ezzor province. Local journalists documented the instability and chaos.
But then ISIS swiftly implemented new rules for journalists working in areas under their control. The new rules drove many journalists to flee either to other parts of Syria or neighboring countries.
But some chose to stay and abide by the new restrictions. Amer, a journalist in Deir Ezzor, said while it was a risk to stay and keep working, he was motivated to document events taking place in ISIS territory. He felt that someone had to stay behind to report from within, to share the news with the world.
Amer said that the new rules from the ISIS press office dictate the local media’s scope of work.
“A meeting was held between independent journalists and the ISIS media staff to state how [journalistic] work will be conducted after ISIS gained control of the Deir Ezzor governorate,” said Amer.
At that meeting, a list of non-negotiable conditions was issued “for those who wish to continue working in the governorate.”
The conditions were formulated into 11 rules, directly issued by ISIS as follows:
1 – Correspondents must swear allegiance to the Caliph [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi … they are subjects of the Islamic State and, as subjects, they are obliged to swear loyalty to their imam.
2 – Their work will be under the exclusive supervision of the [ISIS] media offices.
3 – Journalists can work directly with international news agencies (such as Reuters, AFP and AP), but they are to avoid all international and local satellite TV channels. They are forbidden to provide any exclusive material or have any contact (sound or image) with them in any capacity.
4 – Journalists are forbidden to work in any way with the TV channels placed on the blacklist of channels that fight against Islamic countries (such as Al-Arabiya, Al Jazeera and Orient). Violators will be held accountable.
5 – Journalists are allowed to cover events in the governorate with either written or still images without having to refer back to the [ISIS] media office. All published pieces and photos must carry the journalist’s and photographer’s names.
6 – Journalists are not allowed to publish any reportage (print or broadcast) without referring to the [ISIS] media office first.
7 – Journalists may have their own social media accounts and blogs to disseminate news and pictures. However, the ISIS media office must have the addresses and name handles of these accounts and pages.
8 – Journalists must abide by the regulations when taking photos within [ISIS territory] and avoid filming locations or security events where taking pictures is prohibited.
9 – ISIS media offices will follow up on the work of local journalists within [ISIS territory] and in the state media. Any violation of the rules in place will lead to suspending the journalist from his work, and he will be held accountable.
10 – The rules are not final and are subject to change at any time depending on the circumstances and the degree of cooperation between journalists and their commitment to their brothers in the ISIS media offices.
11 – Journalists are given a license to practice their work after submitting a license request at the [ISIS] media office.
The meeting ended with a number of journalists agreeing to the new ISIS rules and signing circulars stating the terms of agreement. Those who didn’t agree to the terms fled the country.
Maher, a media activist, wrote on Facebook that leaving the governorate was very difficult because [ISIS] kept sending him messages, which fluctuated between intimidation and offering incentives to return. Some were threats of crucifixion or to arrest members of his family.
“The harassment of activists aims to push them to stop reporting on the repressive rule that [ISIS] is trying to impose in its areas,” he said. “Because activists were exposing these practices, it quickly made them the number one enemy of ISIS, which tried to shut them down at any cost, similar to what the Assad regime did at the beginning of the revolution. It had focused on shutting them down because of the kind of work they do that exposes the crimes [Assad] committed against the Syrian people.”
Maher equates ISIS rule to the strict censorship he faced under the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
“The regime was arrested, imprisoned and tortured many in its prisons, many of whom died as a result. It was common for an activist to be detained once or twice, and then released from prison for several months,” he said.
“However, in the case of ISIS, activists are considered infidels and are sentenced to death, crucifixion and more, simply because they oppose ISIS policies. The charge [against me] was ready and so was the punishment. To make matters worse, ISIS threatened to arrest members of my family to stop me from exposing their practices on the internet.”
He also talked about the great difficulties he faced when choosing the right time and place to flee the city, adding that planning his escape required a lot of effort.
“It was not easy. There were many checkpoints that terrified me when we approached them by bus. The inspection was very thorough. All passengers and their personal belongings were checked,” he said.
Maher had once been part of the civil movements in his hometown, hoping to build free and democratic institutions. Under ISIS, those hopes have been dashed.
“ISIS had dissolved them all because they consider them ‘infidel institutions’ that are pro-West.”