Behind the story: Meet the journalists who risk the wrath of all sides to cover Syria’s south

All through September, Syria Direct has published a series of interviews and reports on the state of southern Syria, by reporters there, in collaboration with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. [Read our primer on southern Syria here.]

Five journalists—two from Suwayda province, two from Daraa and one from Quneitra—completed an online journalism training and worked one-on-one with Syria Direct’s full-time reporting and editing staff in Amman.

The reports and interviews comprising the month-long series provide a ground-level view of the country’s southern provinces. In their conversations with local residents, leaders, activists and authorities, these five reporters capture how large-scale developments in Syria—peace talks, ceasefires, economic policy and even the odd sight of Russian soldiers wandering through villages—impact the daily lives of citizens.

As the series approaches its end, we decided to turn the microphone around and spotlight the five reporters, all of whom work clandestinely and at great personal risk. Here, the journalists tell us why they do it.

Noura al-Basha, Suwayda

Noura al-Basha, 27, is a longtime source of Syria Direct who lives in Suwayda province. She has an eye for a story and a talent for getting people to open up. Al-Basha was a natural candidate for the month-long training, and subsequently produced a trove of insightful reporting.

One of her interviews this month was with a Suwayda village resident who was kidnapped and released after his family paid a ransom. In a conversation with the kidnapped man and his father, al-Basha profiles a village in the province’s rural outskirts, where kidnappers regularly exploit the lack of security and military officials to extort the local populace.

Suwayda city, September 2017. Photo by Noura al-Basha.

“I had always dreamed of becoming a journalist,” al-Basha says. “Suwayda was among the areas that suffer from inadequate media coverage, and the events happening there were not being highlighted.”

Q: Suwayda province is largely controlled by the Syrian regime. Could you talk about some of the challenges this creates for you and your fellow journalists?

The regime controls large parts of Suwayda, so journalists struggle with the fear of being investigated [by security officials] or the thought of being detained just for raising a camera when something happens. That is why people publish works under different names—so that no one will know their true identity.

But since I’m a woman and living in an area where the regime maintains a minimal presence, I’ve been able to continue my work, despite my fears.

Q: Do you find that being a woman in a field largely dominated by men in Suwayda province provides some advantages? I would imagine it also creates difficulties. 

I can move more freely. I am not wanted for military service, which is a challenge for many young men. In terms of negatives, eastern cultures put limits on young women and the way they live their lives, even though I find that that is less the case in Suwayda society. I am often worried about my family and their reputation.

Q: You spoke with a Druze sheikh for a previous report. Did you feel that being a woman affected the conversation?

I felt that he had a very strong personality—a man of his standing, experience and social ties—so I felt somewhat shy. But after the first question, I gained my footing, especially because I felt as though he were proud of me, which gave me a lot of moral support.

Q: Where do you see yourself moving forward?

I really want to work with an international news agency and become a well-known journalist in my field.

Q: Do you have any message that you’d like to pass on to Syria Direct’s readership?

My message would be about my experience with Syria Direct. It has taught me how to confidently put together credible reports without leaving any holes and without contradictions.

**

Samer al-Halabi, Suwayda

“I must remember that there is a large group of people in my province who support Bashar al-Assad or who refuse to pick a side,” says Samer al-Halabi, 29. “It is my duty as a reporter to maintain professionalism.”

Al-Halabi is a pseudonym. He is wanted in Suwayda province for military service, but instead works as a journalist for an underground local news page in what he calls a “neutral style.”

“I moved away from terms like ‘regime forces,’ using ‘the Syrian army’ instead,” he says. “I avoid using any sectarian phrasing and also highlight violations by all sides.”

Today, al-Halabi’s page has more than 80,000 followers.

One example of al-Halabi’s prolific work this month is a series of interviews with residents from across the political spectrum in his home province commenting on the deployment of Russian personnel there as part of an international ceasefire in southern Syria. The varied reactions of residents embody the tensions between pro-regime and pro-opposition supporters in a province united by the desire to survive the war in one piece.

Q: Suwayda province is controlled by the Syrian regime. Could you talk about some of the difficulties you face as a pro-opposition journalist?

Suwayda is a regime-held area, so any official journalistic work is monopolized by the regime and local media sources. My work, and the work of my colleagues, is difficult and done in secret.

Most residents in the province are neutral. They have lost trust in official media and local media networks play a much larger role for residents.

To be clear, the opposition media and its methods have largely failed in Suwayda from the beginning of the revolution until today.

Q: Could you tell us a bit more about what you see as the failure of opposition media in the province?

It is no secret that the majority of people in Suwayda are neutral, with the next largest group being those who support the regime. 

Opposition media has a policy of using phrases such as “regime forces,” “shabiha casualties” and so on. It left a bad impression on followers in the province, especially since a portion of Suwayda’s men have served, fought and died in the regime’s ranks. Opposition media adopts very confrontational methods, describing regime support and anyone neutral as collaborators who stay silent about the truth. This makes people cautious and anxious when it comes to opposition media.

The media must play a role in sending out a larger message. I hate Bashar al-Assad. I am opposed to the regime. But I must remember that there is a large group of people in my province who support him or who refuse to pick a side. It is my duty as a reporter to maintain professionalism.

Q: Has your commitment to providing neutral coverage created difficulties for you with news agencies or colleagues in the provinces?

Certainly. If my identity or where I work were discovered, I would be surely be killed.

I founded a news page last year with a group of activists using this new, neutral style. I moved away from terms like “regime forces,” using “the Syrian army” instead. I call “the Free Syrian Army” an “opposition faction.” I avoid using any sectarian phrasing and also highlight violations by all sides. I tried to be as impartial as I could.

In just one year of work, I was able to gain 80,000 followers, with [articles] reaching 300,000 people—half of the province’s population—at times. I am now convinced that media can have a powerful role in society.

For example, I recently published a report on detainees from Suwayda. How many detainees have died from torture? The report reached a high viewership among neutral and pro-regime audiences. This is not a new topic, but the people of Suwayda do not follow opposition media.

The biggest difficulty is that I cannot reveal my identity to anyone. I’ve received numerous threats from the mukhabarat and militias. But I am happy with the work that I’ve done. 

Q: Have you received any threats from the opposition?

Yes I have. For instance, I’ve been accused of working for Daesh [the Islamic State], even though I’m Druze.

In all honesty, if we shed light on the practices of any armed group in the south, they’ll threaten us. For me, the biggest danger right now is posed by the regime and its militias, as I am in territory under their control.

Q: Do you have any message you’d like to pass on to Syria Direct’s readership?

My message would be that I wish every human being in the word would support Syrians to any extent possible, even if it were just through words. The suffering we’ve lived through for seven years has been very painful, and most Syrians have nothing to do with what is happening. All we want today is to live in peace, away from war, killing and displacement.

**

Samir a-Sa’adi, Daraa

Samir a-Sa’adi, 32, is a journalism student and reporter in Syria’s southern Daraa province. “I work for a cause and an oppressed people who have suffered,” he says, admitting that he struggles with the journalistic concept of neutrality. “In a situation like this, I cannot be neutral and stripped of my humanity. I convey reality as it is, but there is a bias for the oppressed.”

The Roman amphitheatre of Bosra a-Sham in Daraa province, May 2017. Photo by Mohamad Abazeed/AFP.

One of a-Sa’adi’s reports this month looks at the beginnings of reconstruction in towns and villages across rebel-held Daraa province. He speaks with a construction worker in the province, as well as several residents about why they are investing now to rebuild homes damaged by years of war.

Q: Could you tell us about some of the obstacles faced by you and your fellow journalists in Daraa province?

To work as a journalist at this point in time—a time of war, instability and chaos—is like working in a minefield. Journalists can be killed or tortured at any moment, and by any side if he wants to cover violations or inhumane practices carried out by a particular party.

It is a dangerous profession, and journalists provide a humanitarian service because that profession requires sacrifice.

Q: Where do you see yourself moving forward?

If possible, I will work as an editor or managing editor of a media outlet in a new Syria, where voices are not silenced and freedoms are not suppressed.

Q: Do you have any message that you’d like to pass on to Syria Direct’s readership?

My message to those following the site is that Syrians are a civilized people seeking freedom and striving to build a state of institutions. The terrorist ideology of some militant factions is completely foreign to our society.

**                                                                                         

Jawad Abu Hamza, Daraa

Already a working journalist in Daraa, Jawad Abu Hamza, 27, has earned bylines with the BBC Arabic, the pan-Arab daily Al-Quds al-Araby and Orient News.

“The one thing that drives me to journalism, to stay in this dangerous profession,” Abu Hamza says, “is what Assad’s regime did at the onset of the revolution.” Balanced journalism was not allowed, he says, and a large part of what he calls the human side of the story was “wiped away.”

Earlier this month, Abu Hamza conducted an interview with Wilaa, a young woman risking punishment at the hands of an Islamic State affiliate in order to get her education. The 20-year-old economics student is from the Yarmouk Basin, in the southwest corner of Syria. When she leaves home to attend university, she describes how she must first pass through checkpoints controlled by the Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed faction.

Q: Could you talk to us about the obstacles faced by you and your fellow journalists in Daraa province? Do you face pressure from the regime or local opposition factions? 

There are people who oppose our work and target us. There is the Islamic State which sends us a number of threats because of our coverage of their battles with rebel factions.

Journalists also struggle with being exploited by media sites or news stations that distort their reporting or pay poorly for material.

Q: Where do you see yourself moving forward?

With everything I’ve said, I don’t see a future in Syria if the war and/or constant conflict continue. The regime has retaken opposition-controlled areas.

Personally, I see no future for us, and no future under the rule of Assad and his regime.

Q: Do you have any message that you want to send to Syria Direct’s readership?

You are in a country that has the freedom to call for the necessary protections of the press in Syria…to demand an end to the killing of the Syrian people, actual accountability, and the removal of Assad from power so that the Syrian people can live in peace.

**

Muath al-Asaad, Quneitra

Muath al-Asaad, 27, was working in computer repair and had a background in editing design at the time of the Syrian uprising in 2011. A few years into the war, he decided to become an opposition journalist.

“I like to make short, journalistic films,” says al-Asaad. "I produced a short documentary entitled ‘No Friends in Refugee Land,’ and I am now working on a film about treating the wounded in southern Syria.”

A make-shift refugee camp in Quneitra province. December 2016. Photo courtesy of Mohamad Abazeed/AFP/Getty Images.

One of al-Asaad’s reports this month looked at harvest season in his home province of Quneitra. Al-Asaad spoke with local farmers and the head of the opposition-run Agriculture Directorate about how tariffs are halting exports of their crops into government-held territories, disrupting the fragile economic balance in the southwestern Syrian province.

Q: Syria is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. The Syrian regime, the Islamic State and rebel factions can pressure or even threaten journalists. What keeps you going despite these risks?

In the beginning we were afraid, but now, after everything we’ve lost, we’re no longer scared.

Q: The nature of your work in Syria’s south requires that you ask hard questions to find the truth. Could you speak about some of the obstacles you face in your work, for example censorship or threats?

I have never been threatened, to tell you the truth, as my work right now is focused on humanitarian issues first and foremost.

It is difficult work, especially considering that the south is a conservative place. There are issues I cannot bring up; however, we try to address issues in a way that allows people to respect and have faith in us.

Q: What are some issues that you can’t bring up?

Women’s issues are challenging, in addition to topics such as unemployment or certain groups’ stances towards the Islamic State, for example. I’m not afraid to cover these things, but people are quite hesitant to speak about them.

Q: Where do you see yourself heading in the future? What do you see yourself doing down the road?

Right now my focus is on producing written and visual works. We’re in the age of the viral video, after all.

Q: Do you have any message you’d like to pass on to Syria Direct’s readership?

Many foreigners consider us an extremist opposition, which we are not. We believe in freedom and community. We also believe that all people in the world should be able to determine their own fate.

 

This report is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of the state of the south in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer on southern Syria here.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.