But Syrian journalists who once enjoyed relative safety in northern Syria’s opposition-held areas now face a choice: to overlook the violations and crimes of armed rebel fighting groups, or to become their next victims.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the global journalism watchdog, at least 110 journalists have been killed in Syria while carrying out their work since the uprising began in March 2011. More than 60 others have been arrested or have gone missing. RSF did not specify how many of those were Syrian, but the global media spotlight often shines brighter on missing or dead international correspondents.
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Most media outlets were not allowed to report on the demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad from the beginning of the revolt. Activists in Syria, with their cell-phone cameras, stepped in to fill the void.
After Syria’s 2011 uprising, the formation of the Free Syrian Army led to the emergence of “liberated” zones outside of regime control. These areas provided shelter for media activists and journalists — a place where they could perform their jobs freely and openly, beyond the oversight and reach of state intelligence. Free expression flourished. New independent media outlets were formed by the dozen.
But today, those “liberated” areas are no longer a refuge. Al-Qaida-linked groups, which have grown to overshadow the FSA in northern Syria, have imposed their own culture of censorship and intimidation. Being a journalist has become dangerous again, for a new set of reasons.
On Oct. 29, Al Arabiya TV correspondent Mohammad Saeed, an Aleppo native, was gunned down in broad daylight at his barbershop in the village of Hreitan, north of the city. The perpetrators were never discovered.
In Aleppo province alone, more than 15 journalists and media activists have been kidnapped without any leads on their fate until now. Wael Ibrahim, Moayad Salloum, Abdul-Wahab al-Mullah, Isaac Mokhtar, Samir Kassab and many others were kidnapped not by the regime, but in the opposition-held areas.
In most cases, there is a lack of clear evidence to identify the perpetrators.
Most activists, however, accuse the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), pointing out that the kidnappings began with the rise in the number of its fighters in the north of Syria. And the majority of Aleppo’s kidnapped media activists are known for criticizing the al-Qaida affiliate and its brutal tactics.
Another media personality, Abdul-Wahab al-Mullah, gained local fame for “A Three-Star Revolution” — a television program that did not shy away from criticizing the province’s various fighting factions. Many saw this as the reason he was kidnapped from his home in the Masaken Hanano district.
One of Mullah’s close friends conducted his own investigation into the death, questioning neighbors. He said the car of Mullah’s abductors belonged to ISIS. Another acquaintance said he saw Mullah being interrogated at ISIS headquarters.
ISIS said that Mullah was not being held in their office, as they have with is every other activist who they are suspected to be holding.
Silencing the Truth
Mullah was kidnapped just weeks after the formation of a new Journalists’ Union in Aleppo. He was a member of its Preparatory Committee.
The goal of the Union was to put an end to the kidnappings and killings being perpetrated against media activists and journalists in the province. Many journalists here saw Mullah’s kidnapping as a direct threat to all local media.
Those who have chosen to remain in Aleppo face not only the threat of abduction, but an emboldened regime.
On Nov. 16, the headquarters of the Aleppo Media Center (AMC) was damaged in a government air strike they said targeted the building. Four activists were wounded in the raid and most equipment was destroyed or lost amid the rubble. The office of the activist-run Halab News Network (HNN) was heavily damaged in a similar strike.
These journalists are also limited in their work, most unable to report on any news in the government-held areas for fear of being swept up by the intelligence services.
At the start of the uprising nearly three years ago, the Assad government was the only party accused of targeting media workers. Today, the shelter that was created in the “liberated” areas is starting to fade away.
That leaves Syrian journalists with the heavy question: Will being a journalist become something impossible in Syria?
This article was translated from Arabic by Zain Frayha.