Syrian journalists discuss ‘the price of telling the truth’

In Syria, says Walid al-Agha, a 27-year-old freelance journalist from rebel-held south Damascus, “journalism is called ‘the troublesome profession.’”

The plight of the independent journalist in Syria looks something like this: A paranoid life on the move, one that could end anywhere, anytime, while wanted by both the regime and rebels, particularly Jabhat a-Nusra and the Islamic State.

For the last five years, Al-Agha tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed Al-Haj Ali that he has lived as a wanted man: first by the regime, then an FSA brigade and now by Jabhat a-Nusra and the Islamic State.

“I am constantly being threatened,” he says. “This is the price of telling the truth.”

Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index ranks Syria as number 177 out of 180 countries.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, a UK-based, independent violations monitor, documented the killing of 558 journalists and media activists by all sides since March 2011. Over the same period, a total of 1,080 media workers were detained and abducted, according to the network’s report published this past Monday for World Press Freedom day.

“As journalists, our lives are difficult,” says Sarmad Al-Jilane, a 23-year-old founding member of the Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently media campaign, which reports from inside IS-held territories. “We’re forced into secrecy, constantly moving around to protect ourselves,” he tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani.

Al-Jilane was arrested by Assad regime agents for his media activities one year into the revolution. Later freed from prison by advancing rebel forces, he went back to work but soon found himself threatened by Nusra and other factions. After the Islamic State took over Raqqa province, and the journalist heard they were looking for him, he fled the country. 

On Monday, Al-Jilane was in Stockholm to receive Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Prize on behalf of RBSS.

“I would like to dedicate the award that I received to my colleagues who have given their lives to report the truth.”

Sarmad Al-Jilane, 23, originally from Deir e-Zor but currently in Europe, is a founding member of two media campaigns: Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently and Sound & Picture.

Q: How did you get your start in journalism? Why did you choose this field?

My journalistic work started with the Syrian revolution in 2011. I sent news and videos from the demonstrations and events on the ground, as they happened, to the media channels that were present at the time as well as to Facebook pages.

Before the revolution, I was a petroleum engineering student. I chose journalism to make the voices of the people inside Syria heard. In light of the media blackout and the regime media’s deceit, the revolution needed people to report the reality.

 Sarmad Al-Jilane (center) receives a Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Prize in Stockholm on Monday on behalf of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. Photo courtesy of Sarmad Al Jilane.

Q: What happened to you over the next few years, and why did you ultimately leave Syria?

I was arrested by the regime [in 2012]. After Deir e-Zor and A-Raqqa were taken by the rebels [and I was freed], I moved to A-Raqqa and kept reporting what was happening on the ground.

After that, I was arrested by Jabhat a-Nusra because of my work, which some of the factions didn’t like.

After IS took control they wanted to arrest me. It was impossible to stay, so I left Syria.

Q: How are you living your life now and what difficulties are you facing, especially because RBSS reports information from inside IS-held areas?

As journalists, our lives are difficult. We’re constantly moving around to protect ourselves. Our work reporting news from IS territory leaves us constantly under threat. I could be killed at any time.

We’ve lost many of our friends in RBSS, which has caused me to live in complete secrecy, fearing for my life and the lives of my family members.

People working in IS areas are doing so under impossible circumstances. IS cuts off the internet and all means of communication. Any person who they come to suspect of working with or contacting the media is immediately executed. It’s the most dangerous accusation.

Security is another difficulty, since the area is being bombed by the [US-led] coalition and the regime.

I would like to dedicate the award that I received to my colleagues who have given their lives to report the truth, to the voices of the oppressed inside Syria and to all those who have died at the hands of IS and the regime and who believe in the idea of a free, united Syria.

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Walid al-Agha, 27, currently in the rebel-held south Damascus neighborhood of Babila, is a freelance journalist, member of the pro-opposition Revolution Spring media collective and director of the Babila Local Coordination Committee.

Q: Why did you get into this field? Did you know the risks you could potentially face?

I was a journalism student at Damascus University before the revolution broke out. I didn’t finish studying because I was busy with the revolution at the beginning, and later because I was wanted by the regime security agencies.

Early on, I was busy mobilizing for the revolution, organizing the demonstrations. After the revolution was completely militarized, I turned to media activism because it is the field I studied, my specialization.

As for the risk, just participating in the revolution was a risk. For the media, the risks are even greater, as are the consequences that a journalist or media activist might face. This is the price of telling the truth. This is especially true without any organization to provide journalists with adequate protection. It’s known that journalism is called “the troublesome profession.”

Q: Have you had any trouble because of your work in journalism?

At the beginning, I was pursued by the regime’s security agencies. My name has been on a wanted list for several years. On top of that, I have been threatened on multiple occasions by [rebel] military factions. I can’t be in areas of south Damascus controlled by IS or Nusra. I am constantly being threatened.

Before IS and Nusra, I had problems with an FSA faction, the Fourth Division, which later disbanded. The problem was with one of its commanders in particular because I published news about his faction’s acts of intimidation alongside a video.

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.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.