Syria’s Citizen Journalists on the Frontline of Press Freedom

On International Press Freedom Day, Syrian journalist and Syria correspondent for Reporters Without Borders Mansour Omari discusses the rise of citizen journalists documenting the conflict in Syria, which is an act of resistance itself.

Written by Mansour Omari Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

From the very first demonstration against the Syrian government in 2011, until the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun in 2017, Syrian state media has pushed a narrative that has always been very different to the facts on the ground – if they even reported these incidents at all.

This follows in a long tradition of state security offices controlling Syrian media, effectively turning it into a propaganda machine.

In 2011, thousands of Syrians started using their smartphones to film what they saw going on around them, uploading videos and photos, and providing news. But what compelled so many to do this, and was it helpful to the flow of information coming out of Syria?

Blocking or hindering the work of journalists is a mutual “value” among governments and people in power who want to hide their unacceptable practices from the public.

Prior to the revolution, Syria, for example, had not had a free press for half a century. It has now become almost the world’s deadliest country for journalists, according to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, in which Syria is ranked 177th out of 180 countries.

A Dictator’s War on Press Freedom

With the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, the Syrian government launched an offensive targeting various sectors of Syrian society, one of which was the media.

Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president and predator of press freedom, followed his father Hafez al-Assad’s belief that media was a threat and independent journalism a crime. In a speech at Damascus University delivered on June 20, 2011, just a few months after the Syrian people took to the streets demanding freedoms and basic rights, Assad publicly declared his stance against media and citizen journalists.

Describing the uprising in Syria as “a crisis,” he said, “I did not talk about the external component and its role in this crisis. I did not talk about the components that we all know. There are people who are well paid to carry video cameras, film and collaborate with the media.”

Assad repeatedly demonstrated his scathing attitude towards independent media and journalists in his speeches and interviews published in the official state news agency, SANA, from March 30, 2011 to March 31, 2016.

Assad mentioned the word “media” around 80 times and associated it with “war” 10 times. Other phrases he used while talking about the media included: “media fabrications,” media attack,” “media battlefield,” “the bloody media machine,” “hostile media,” “money coming from outside just for the media,” “the moans and groans of the Arab media.”

Journalism Under the Regime

Caught in a dilemma of journalistic ethics and the need to make a living, further complicated by fear of retaliation, professional Syrian journalists had very few options: Either keep working in Syria for the state propaganda outlets, or leave the country. That is, if they had managed to survive detention and persecution by the Syrian regime in the first place. Consequently, many fled the country or moved from regime-controlled areas to the “liberated” areas in Syria.

When the Syrian uprising morphed into an armed struggle, the Syrian government increasingly lost control of vast areas. With the loss of state control, its imposed rule on media faded, enabling media to flourish in those areas. However, its grip became even tighter in territories still under its control, forcing many reporters out.

By the end of 2013, the so-called Islamic State and other Islamic groups gained control of vast areas in Syria, depriving media workers of the freedom they required, forcing many to flee their newly acquired space. In addition, this dire situation in the opposition areas led to the migration of Syrian media to other countries, mainly to neighboring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

The Rise of the Citizen Journalist

For citizen journalists, reporting the news became a basic act of resistance carried out by ordinary Syrians in their revolt against Assad regime. Their activities also included coordinating demonstrations, providing relief and boycotting.

As more and more citizens across cities and towns in Syria began to mobilise, this work became more organised and specialised. This led to the formation of committees of “coordination” – groups of individuals cooperating with each other in all activities of the Syrian revolution.

At a certain point, there was a coordination committee in almost every neighborhood in Syria. As these groups became better organized and took on more work, official Media Offices began to appear. While these offices were not able to be totally professional, most of them relied on the basic principles of journalism and started regional coverage, depending on the capabilities of their volunteers, known as media activists.

Later, mergers and attempts at structural development began in some of these offices, eventually producing semi-professional groups which often relied on volunteer staff as their correspondents. These volunteers considered their work of providing news a part of their revolution against decades of press censorship by the Assad regime, and as a part of their “duty” in resisting the government crackdown on journalists since 2011.

The Syrian Frontlines Today

In today’s Syria, there are four main areas of de facto control, each run by different powers: the Assad regime; ISIS; Islamic groups; and the Kurdish PYD. Each is imposing its own style of war against the media and journalists.

Independent media and journalists are the prime targets. Professional journalists are hounded using several methods including arrest, killing, kidnapping, deportation, physical attacks and threats.

These areas are emptying of professional and foreign journalists, leaving the job of independent reporting in Syria to citizen journalists, who have played a key role in providing news to the world. Media offices have also evolved over the years, and contributed to the emergence of media organizations that have reached a higher level of professionalism.

Today, most of the western journalists covering Syria are based in Beirut or Turkey, but they have several semi-permanent sources inside Syria, most of whom are citizen journalists.

Many reporters working with major media outlets were not journalists in 2011, nor do they have have an academic background in journalism. They are Syrians who started their media activities at the beginning of the Syrian revolution.

Though the four main ruling forces in Syria are in a state of conflict against each other, they have a shared enemy – independent media – and a shared aim – targeting the freedom of the press.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

This article was originally published by The New Arab and is reprinted here with permission.

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