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Syrian journalists strive to report, despite shifting dangers

An analysis by María Salazar-Ferro, featured in Attacks on the Press: Journalism on the front lines in 2013, a worldwide survey by CPJ.

Syria is the most dangerous country in the world for reporters and yet, every day, hundreds of its citizens risk their lives to shoot photos, record video, and file reports on the civil conflict. Many are trying to reach the international community. Others want to raise the level of awareness on the ground. Most fear that without their work, the conflict's atrocities will go undocumented. And some say they do it because, in war, there is no other work.

Journalists Bryn Karcha (C) of Canada and Toshifumi Fujimoto (R) of Japan run for cover next to an unidentified fixer in a street in Aleppo's district of Salaheddine on 29 December 2012
Journalists Bryn Karcha (C) of Canada and Toshifumi Fujimoto (R) of Japan run for cover next to an unidentified fixer in a street in Aleppo's district of Salaheddine on 29 December 2012

REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

Since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, Syrian and foreign journalists and media workers have been targeted, research by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows. At least 63 have been killed in retaliation for their work, and approximately 30 others were missing at the end of 2013. Early on, the government of President Bashar al-Assad barred the international press while its security forces arrested and brutalized dozens of local news gatherers. Rebel forces counterattacked--targeting journalists and outlets believed to be pro-government. By late 2011, journalists faced yet a third front with the appearance on the battleground of non-Syrian Islamist militant groups that have attacked, abducted, and killed them.

A local independent press movement has grown in the midst of this chaos, and today, while no verified number exists, CPJ research shows that scores of Syrian outlets are actively reporting. "Prior to the revolution there was only one story being told: the story that the regime wanted to tell," said Mowaffaq Safadi, an exiled Syrian journalist in Turkey. "Now, even if the media is not all professional, at least we have our different stories being told."

Syria's president inherited the job from his authoritarian father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria as president from 1971 until his death in 2000. Until then, only news outlets run by the government or affiliated with the ruling Arab Socialist Baath Party were allowed to publish. When the younger Assad came to power, there was some initial hope for change, and the local press took its first tentative steps toward greater independence and more open criticism. However, a 2001 press law that legalized private publications--banned since 1963--also maintained severe restrictions. It required all private publications to be licensed by the government, and prohibited them from reporting on military affairs or topics that could "harm" national security or "national unity." Violators faced up to three years in prison and heavy fines.

With these restrictions in place, some independent online websites began to flourish in the early 2000s, according to Massoud Akko, a Syrian who monitors the country's press freedom from Norway and bills himself as a media activist. These early blogs, Akko said in a telephone interview, focused on general news and politics. "People used them to issue their opinions," he said. But the government began to filter online dissent, blocked politically sensitive sites, and detained bloggers. Online self-censorship became pervasive and, in 2009, CPJ placed Syria third on a list of the 10 worst countries worldwide for bloggers.

Then came the euphoria of the Arab Spring. As spreading dissent in the region bubbled up in Syria--inspiring vast public demonstrations in the first half of 2011--a makeshift, independent media began to surface. Its members, however, were not all professional journalists. Instead, most say they are citizens swept up by the revolution, or revolutionaries who took on the role of news gatherers as a contribution to Syria's political change. They call themselves citizen journalists, media workers, or media activists.

"The revolution was a very emotional moment for everyone, including me, and it was natural to want to join the protests," Safadi told CPJ. "I decided to start filming the protests because what you saw on Syrian news was ridiculous, it was insulting. Filming was the natural thing for me to do to tell the story of what was happening. So I started filming and uploading what I was finding to YouTube."

International reporters swarmed the country as the initial protests intensified. But by the end of March 2011, the government had begun its crackdown, expelling journalists, barring others from entering, and forcing outlets to shut down operations, making Syrians on the ground even more anxious to spread the word.

Many Syrians, who like Safadi had nominal media abilities but access to mobile phones, cameras, or the Internet, improvised as journalists. In March 2011, Omar Alkhani had just returned to Syria from years abroad with the hope of starting his own marketing firm. He told CPJ that as the first demonstrations erupted in his Damascus neighborhood, his impulse was to take photos. Eventually he created a Facebook page dedicated to documenting the uprising. "I began alone," Alkhani said. "But as only one person I could not cover everything, so I asked friends who had skills to help me, and as things started to get bigger, we started a union for people working with the revolution who were working to coordinate demonstrations and to cover what was happening."

Dozens of similar groups began popping up across Syria, The New York Times reported in June 2011. Most were conceived as social media-centric groups that organized protests. But the need grew to spread information to Syrians and the outside world, first about the protests and then about the government reprisals, and so these groups turned into de facto news agencies that remained deeply involved in the politics of the revolution.

Known as coordination committees, media centers, press centers or media unions, these mostly informal alliances continue to operate in parts of Syria. Journalists working with media centers publish information on social media, or file stories to independent online Syrian radio stations or news blogs. Some media centers working in rebel-controlled areas are able to publish ad-hoc magazines with succinct information on the conflict, economic and social issues, and general news. They print about 300 copies at once, and publish sporadically. Other Syrian journalists work independently of media centers and file directly to Syrian or international outlets abroad.

Read the full story on CPJ's site.

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