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Mansour Omari

Syria's citizen journalists on the frontline of press freedom

A Syrian journalist carries a camera and a gun for protection from kidnapping, Aleppo [AFP]

Date of publication: 2 May, 2017

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Comment: In response to Assad's brutal crackdown on independent journalism, many ordinary Syrians began documenting what they saw around them - an act of resistance in itself, writes Mansour Omari.

From the very first demonstration against the Syrian government in 2011, until the most recent Khan Sheikhun chemical attack in 2017, the narrative of these incidents pushed by Syrian state media has always been very different to the facts on ground, if reported at all. 

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

In 2011, thousands of Syrians started using their smart phones 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 information flow coming from 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, as described in 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.

  Read more: Syrian journalists who sacrificed everything to cover the revolution

Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president and predator of press freedom, took after his father Hafez al-Assad in considering media a threat and independent journalism a crime. In a speech at Damascus University delivered on June 20 2011, just few months after the Syrian people took to the streets demanding freedoms and basic rights, Assad publicly declared his attitude 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, the Syrian president and predator of press freedom, took after his father Hafez al-Assad in considering media a threat and independent journalism a crime

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" ten 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, Syrian professional journalists had very few options: Either keep working in Syria and the state propaganda outlets, or leave the country, if they had managed to survive detention and hunt by the Syrian regime in the first place. Consequently, they started fleeing Syria or the regime-controlled areas to the "liberated" areas in Syria.

Syrian professional journalists had very few options: Either keep working in Syria and the state propaganda outlets, or leave the country

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

But by the end of 2013, media workers began to flee their new acquired space too, after Islamic State (IS) gained more powers and controlled vast areas in Syria, in addition to other Islamic groups who deprived media from the freedom it required.

In addition to the Syrian government-emptied territories, 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

Back to the role of 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.

Reporting the news became a basic act of resistance carried out by ordinary Syrians in their revolt against Assad regime

As more and more citizens across cities and towns in Syria began to mobilise, this work became more organised and specialised. Media group work began and "coordinations" - groups of individuals cooperating with each other in all activities of the Syrian revolution - were formed.

At some point, there was a "coordination" in almost every neighborhood in Syria. These groups began to organise and allocate more work, and "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 work of 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 in providing news as 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, IS, Islamic groups and the PYD are 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.

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

These areas are emptying of professional and foreign journalists, and leaving the job of independent reporting to citizen journalism in Syria, which has 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 organisations that have reached some 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, mostly citizen journalists.

Many reporters for the major media outlets were not journalists in 2011, and did not have an academic background in journalism, but Syrians who started their media activities with the beginning of the Syrian revolution.

Though the four main ruling forces 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.

 
Mansour Omari is a Syrian journalist and Syria correspondent for Reporters Without Borders.

He is the author of Syria Through Western Eyes: In-depth look on the Western reporting on Syria in 2013-2014. He has written for publications including The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Apostrophe and several Syrian media outlets.


Follow him on Twitter: @MansourOmari

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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