ISTANBUL – Media activists opposed to the Syrian government have documented much of the worst of the war in Syria. However, as President Bashar al-Assad regains control of opposition-held territory, these civilian journalists fear they will have no place in Syria’s future.
“It’s not like I did not see this coming. What were we expecting? The government will never allow the truth to come out,” Ahmed, a 29-year-old media activist who asked not to be identified by his real name for security reasons, tells Syria Deeply. He is among the many activists who fear that if Assad remains in power they will have no work – or worse – when fighting subsides.
Government mouthpieces dominated Syria’s media landscape before the conflict erupted in 2011. The ruling Baath Party owned and ran all media outlets in Syria between 1963 and 2001, according to a 2012 BBC study. Assad was the first leader to allow private publications when he became president in 2001, but the Ministry of Information monitored these outlets to ensure they “adhered to government policies and directives.”
When the Syrian uprising began, many civilians began documenting anti-regime demonstrations. When protests turned violent, these same media activists began recording the government’s alleged human rights violations, and a new media landscape emerged in the following years. By 2016, at least 196 “independent” media outlets were operating across political lines – 36 percent of which were opposition-controlled, according to a report by the Middle East Institute.
Opposition-affiliated media activists quickly became regime targets. “The Syrian regime has fought media activism systematically, committing hundreds of violations against journalists and citizen journalists, including killing, arrest and torture in order to conceal … the crimes against Syrian citizens,” said a recent report by the activist-run Syrian Network for Human Rights, which found that at least 634 journalists and civilian journalists were killed in Syria since the start of the war.
The Syrian government tried to silence them through threats, arrests and, ultimately, murder. In a recent report, the activist-run Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) said that at least 634 journalists and citizen journalists were killed in Syria since the start of the war.
Many media activists now also face displacement as the government clamps down on rebel-held parts of the country. In recently recaptured areas, media activists are confronted with a difficult choice: cease their work completely or move to opposition-held areas in northern Syria, such as Aleppo’s countryside or neighboring Idlib.
Ahmed says he chose the former.
In 2015, after two years of traveling across Syria shooting short documentaries and writing articles, using pseudonyms to keep himself safe, he says he had to retire. Moving back to the government-held capital of Damascus meant that he could not continue reporting. “It has been a couple years since I decided that I don’t want to risk my life and my family’s well-being anymore, especially now that the political situation is so complex,” he says.
However, those who choose to stay in opposition-held areas fear for their futures.
Mohammad al-Khatib, a 26-year-old-media activist, says he moved to opposition-held parts of rural Aleppo after fleeing Aleppo city when it fell under complete government control in December 2016. Many media activists are currently based either in Aleppo, Idlib or the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus – opposition-held areas that pro-government forces frequently attack.
“I change my mind everyday,” he says, referring to doubts over whether he should continue his work. “We don’t know how long this might last; maybe the regime forces will attack soon and reclaim these areas,” he adds.
Khatib, who has worked for prominent activist-run media networks like the Aleppo Media Center, says Aleppo city is an example of what will happen to media activism when rebel-held areas eventually fall under government control.
“Sadly, after we lost Aleppo and moved to other liberated areas, I started thinking more about my future,” he says. “Aleppo was everything because it was a liberated city that was ours after years of oppression, but look at it now.”
Media activists who are confined to the remaining rebel-held parts of Syria say their conditions are precarious at best.
Samer Bouidani, a media activist based in the besieged Eastern Ghouta, says he became a photojournalist after the Syrian army briefly arrested him in 2011. He says the torture he witnessed inside Assad’s detention facilities “compelled” him to document violations against civilians.
But after almost seven years of war, his priorities have changed. “I sit in Douma now and imagine how others are moving on with their lives only a few kilometers away in central Damascus, while we suffer from the lack of basic needs for survival,” he says. “Today, I have a very simple dream: I want to pursue my studies.”
Precarious economic conditions in Eastern Ghouta have changed the way media activists operate, he says. “The objectives of our work as citizen journalists have changed lately,” he says. “It has become a matter of business and money. We take photographs just to sell them now.”
A Post-War Media Landscape
Ayman Mehanna, executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation for freedom of the press, says that the future of media activism in post-war Syria is likely to be challenging. “In a war and post-conflict environment, one cannot be sure that everyone will have a place in the new system. Media practitioners and other human rights and relief activists on the ground are definitely at risk in the absence of international guarantees that can keep them safe,” he says.
In general, the post-war media landscape will likely reflect the military balance of power in Syria. Consequently, “we cannot expect an environment conducive to a safe and sound development of media,” says Mehanna, especially if the Syrian government assumes total control over the country. However, he says this does not preclude the establishment of activist-run media outlets outside Syria.
“We need to live with the idea that in the foreseeable future, free Syrian media will not be located in or working from Syria,” he says.
Future funding will also likely prove to be a problem. Sustaining the work of media practitioners and citizen journalists depends on interest and support from international donors, Mehanna says.
Even with limited funds, however, “those who have been documenting atrocities will not stop doing so, with or without funding,” he says, adding that the cadre of Syrian journalists who have been trained to produce a higher quality of journalism than ever before seen in Syria, will live on.
“Perhaps there will not be many avenues to publish new stories and reports, but documentation will continue until, one day, turning the data collected into judiciary evidence.”