Journalism in today’s Syria: an insider’s view
Freelance journalist and blogger based in Damascus
Syria, Assad, internet cafe.
BBC Media Action has been commissioned to write a research series on support to media where rights and freedoms are constricted. The five country case studies analyses the threats to journalism in Syria, Uganda, South Sudan, Bangladesh and Cambodia and how best the media could be supported. Here, Syrian journalist Maurice Aaek reflects on the threats facing independent journalists during the ongoing conflict in Syria.
According to media reports, nine journalists were killed in Syria during August alone. But the risk of violence is not the only threat facing the press in Syria. The deep split within Syrian society, extreme views, lack of trust and the stereotypes Syrians have already adopted are making journalists’ paths more wearisome, like a journey through the desert with a broken compass.
For months, the authorities and their allies have not tolerated impartial or moderate Syrian journalists. And the opposition is following in the authorities’ footsteps. The attitude is ‘either you’re with or against us’ and Syrian journalists have had to choose. If the journalists are working for known media outlets, then they are classified according to that outlet’s affiliations without being asked.
But, if journalists are independent, the first question they will be confronted with is whether they are a “nationalist or a traitor” (when asked by the Syrian government) or a “criminal or a rebel” (when asked by the opposition). The answer to either question is rewarded by one side and punished by the other.
The deepening split in Syria is also affecting the audience’s consumption of news content. Journalists might consider their images to impartially portray reality but an image only has impact on the viewer once they have figured out who shot and published it, in addition to the photographer and publisher’s stand on the regime and the revolution.
Supporters of each side now watch videos through the filter of pre-determined facts in their minds. Viewers of a video of a killing might defend the suspected killer, assuming dozens of excuses that do not appear in the video, provided that the killer is on their side. And viewers often deliberately discredit the journalist, images and even videos, when the reporting goes against their convictions of who is a victim and who is a killer.
The territory controlled by the government and opposition is also neither clear nor fixed. It has become a complex map changing day to day. It is impossible to move between areas dominated by either of the sides without passing the other. Before angering either side, journalists have to take into account that they will have to deal with both sides sooner or later. Kidnappings, killings and arrests of journalists are not restricted to either the government or opposition supporters.
Another challenge is hostility towards the camera. Syrian independent journalists have always struggled with people refusing to appear on camera and talk about public affairs. Some have explained this as a fear of cameras, while others consider it an overall fear of authority. However, during the past year and a half, the relationship between Syrians and cameras has worsened. Fear has turned into aggression. Today, every camera is treated as intrusive until proven otherwise.
How could a journalist confronted by such challenges produce credible, impartial reporting for all sides? Unfortunately, many journalists are addressing only one side without regard for the other side of the audience. Other journalists have chosen to withdraw from the media scene altogether due to the impossibility of addressing all sides.
The search for a foothold for the professional journalist to tell all sides of the story feels like a mission impossible.
BBC Media Action’s case studies of countries where media rights and freedoms are constrained: