ISTANBUL, Turkey – Journalists in Syria’s opposition or rebel-held areas say they are being censored and violently intimidated, sometimes as badly as under the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Many Syrians in these areas where the government has been cast out had hoped the Syrian uprising would bring all sorts of freedoms, including press freedoms. However, those hopes have been dealt a severe blow over the past several years.
Journalists in areas held by a wide variety of opposition and rebel groups – ranging from national and Islamic opposition factions, including ethnic Kurdish groups and Islamist groups such as the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front and the so-called Islamic State – say they experience varying degrees of interference, and sometimes violent intimidation.
For many decades, most Syrian media was a propaganda tool in the hands of the Syrian regime. But in 2011, independent journalism, which flourished in the Arab world throughout the revolutions that year, found its way to Syria amid the uprising against Assad.
However, the war that has overtaken the uprising has gradually imposed new limits on the work of journalists.
In southern Syria, for instance, dozens of armed opposition factions control scattered but overlapping territories, and journalists working there say there is a lot of tension within these areas.
In the southern province of Daraa, for instance, where intense fighting gave way in 2014 to a more stable situation as ruling factions took over, there have been reports of several media activists being killed.
On Saturday, one of these groups, Jaish al-Islam, a coalition of Islamist and Salafist units active primarily around Damascus, stormed the home of a citizen journalist named Anas al-Khouli. They confiscated all his equipment but were not able to locate him. Al-Khouli was arrested by the same faction in July after they accused him of participating in a conspiracy to assassinate their leader. However, there was widespread suspicion that the real reason for his arrest was Khouli’s coverage of protests against Jaish al-Islam.
In the second half of 2014, a media activist named Ahmad al-Masalmeh was shot dead by unknown gunmen in Daraa. A short time later, another media activist named Qaysar Habib was killed in his hospital bed in the province, allegedly by fighters from a local faction affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, a group composed mostly of defected Syrian Armed Forces officers and soldiers intent on bringing down the Assad regime, after he clashed with the group.
In another opposition-held area in the south, Eastern Ghouta, a suburb not too far from Damascus that is currently under siege by Assad’s forces, “there is an internal censorship because of fear,” said a local media activist named Muhammad, who asked that his full name not be used for safety reasons.
Although there is no systematic censorship, he said, many parties try to control and influence journalists and the media’s portrayal of them.
In January 2016, another media activist named Abdul Moyeen Hommse was also arrested in Eastern Ghouta. He was detained for producing a video report that satirically polled people’s opinions about Syria’s future, contrasting President Bashar al-Assad with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.
Accused of “offending the revolution,” Hommse spent a few days in prison and lost his job, while the media channel that aired the report was banned from working in the area. Armed men also beat up one of the men interviewed in the video.
There are also reports of censorship and intimidation in Kurdish-held northern areas.
Syria’s Kurdish region has a long history of media activism from before the uprising in 2011; local journalists distributed banned newspapers that criticized the Assad regime and addressed social and political issues. Since the de facto autonomous Kurdish region broke away from the regime’s control, however, dissenting voices in local media are not as common as they once were.
“Local media, whether independent or party-affiliated, are in favor of the authorities,” said journalist Mustafa Abdi, from Kobani, a city near the border with Turkey that has been under the control of the Kurdish YPG militia since 2012.
Abdi said the main issue hindering the work of media activists in the Kurdish autonomous region is the close relationship between the media and the local authorities and political parties. “Even those who do not affiliate themselves officially with a particular political party accept and support whatever the authorities do. They do not address social and political issues, as they are supposed to do,” he said.
The Kurdish autonomous region established its own media directorate, which canceled the licenses of all media institutions and correspondents and called on them to reapply for licenses under a new set of laws outlining the authorities’ responsibility to facilitate journalists’ work.
But it is within areas controlled by Islamic State that journalists most fear for their lives.
ISIS monopolizes all media in its territory. It has divided the areas under its control into provinces, each with its own media office, responsible for all of the news and reports produced within that province. ISIS also prohibits any activity outside of its own official media network and has closed the only opposition-related media channel in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, confiscating all of its equipment.
Some official and semi-official media organizations function within ISIS, such as the Amaaq Agency and Dabiq magazine, which is published in four languages. These are widely regarded as propaganda outlets rather than news sources.
Although working independently in ISIS-controlled areas is almost impossible, some local journalists do work there in secrecy. The very rare reports to have come out of ISIS-controlled areas note that journalists are forced to pledge their allegiance in order to work.
Journalists must submit their material to the Islamic State Media Office before sending it out to any media organization. Those who deal independently or directly with media channels are punished. Some journalists who dared to work secretly in ISIS-controlled areas have been arrested or killed, in some cases after they fled to neighboring countries.
For example, Syrian filmmaker Naji Jerf was killed on December 27 in Gazientep, Turkey, where he had fled after documenting ISIS violence against activists in Aleppo.
The fighters of al-Nusra Front, considered the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, have also spread out across the country and have a presence in most areas controlled by opposition factions. The group’s power over the media increases the farther north one goes. Its power is greatest in Aleppo and Idlib, due to the presence of other factions in the north that share many of its ideological principles.
“The Nusra Front is always unpredictable,” said Ahmad, a media activist from the opposition-controlled part of Aleppo. Al-Nusra bans any reports that criticize its activities or its harassment of civilians and journalists. “Journalists must be careful when dealing with news related to one of the fighting factions,” he said.
Recently, al-Nusra disrupted a demonstration commemorating the fifth anniversary of the revolution in the northwestern city of Maarat al-Numan, just south of Idlib, beating the media activists and arresting some. The incident came a few days before they attacked one of Maarat al-Numan’s own fighting brigades, Division 13, with the aim of pushing it out of the whole area. The attacks continued to snowball, leading to waves of overt local resistance to al-Nusra.
Earlier this year, al-Nusra’s fighters also raided the Radio Fresh building in Kafranbel, near Maarat al-Numan, and confiscated all of the equipment and arrested the radio’s manager, Raed Fares, for “breaching Sharia etiquette” in a Facebook post, as well as for broadcasting songs from his radio station.
Since holding different opinions puts journalists in danger, many pretend to have the same ideology as al-Nusra so that they can continue with their work.
“A journalist must maintain good relationships with the ruling factions,” said Ibrahim, an activist from Idlib. “They simply cannot work as journalists if they do not.”