Uprooted East Ghouta journalists struggle to find work in rebel-held northwest

AMMAN: The displaced photojournalist’s camera still hangs around his neck as he tours Syria’s rebel-held northwest on the back of his motorbike each day, searching for a story to tell.

But despite his best efforts, East Ghouta native Abdullah Hammam—whose photography has been featured by international news outlets and organizations such as Agence France-Presse (AFP) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC)—says he has not made a penny from his work since he and his family were evacuated to the Idlib countryside more than two months ago.

With no current income, Hammam’s limited savings are quickly drying up, and alternative jobs are scarce in a province teeming with displaced Syrians. If nothing changes, “it seems the only solution is to leave for Turkey,” he tells Syria Direct.

The 30-year-old freelancer is one of hundreds of Syrian citizens who picked up pens and cameras to report events on the ground in the then-opposition-held East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus after a government siege took root there more than five years ago, severing direct access by local and international media.

A journalist films as evacuees depart East Ghouta on April 3. Photo by Louai Beshara/AFP.

As the siege dragged on, those citizen journalists—most of whom had no previous experience in the field—together became the outside world’s link to East Ghouta. At great personal risk, they documented everything from near-daily bombing raids and rebel infighting to widespread malnutrition and deadly chemical weapon attacks. And in an embattled pocket where jobs were in short supply, citizen journalism provided a much-needed livelihood.

Today, however, following the Syrian government's recapture of East Ghouta in April, most of the formerly encircled pocket’s citizen journalists have been displaced hundreds of miles to the north, where they are struggling to start from scratch and make a living in an unfamiliar landscape already brimming with reporters eager for the next scoop.

‘Lost’

“I don’t even know where to begin,” says Muayad a-Shami, a freelance journalist from East Ghouta’s agricultural central sector who was evacuated to northern Hama this past March. “I’m lost.”

A-Shami—who previously worked with the pro-opposition outlet Smart News—says he is finding it especially difficult to find media-related work in the north without the network of sources and connections essential to success in the journalism field.

The Ghouta native had built an extensive network back home, establishing contacts with local residents, officials and institutions that allowed him to rapidly gather and verify information.“It was all available to me in Ghouta,” he says. “I’m from there.”

When the 23-year-old was displaced in March, however, his network “collapsed,” he says, and could take months to rebuild in the northwest.

In the meantime, navigating and understanding security permissions in the opposition-held region—which competing rebel factions have carved into various spheres of influence—poses its own obstacles. So too do fluctuating requirements imposed by the local and international news outlets that have come to rely on networks of freelancers inside Syria.

Those outlets often fail to provide provide proper training or protective gear, a recent Syria Direct investigation found. And, without employment contracts and related protections, freelancers can be left jobless in the wake of shifting frontlines and territorial control.  

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Syrians flee with their belongings from Douma city in East Ghouta on March 7. Photo courtesy of Abdullah Hammam/AFP/Getty Images.

When safety requirements fluctuate—even toward greater protection—the result can be a double-edged sword for freelancers like photojournalist Hammam.

After completing and submitting a recent photo project on humanitarian conditions in northern Syria, Hammam was surprised when one international news agency rejected the photos—and not because they weren’t pleased by the content.

“They rejected them under the pretense that they don’t use photos from photographers working without protective gear,” he says. Hammam asked that the name of the agency in question not be made public.

This condition was not enforced in Ghouta, Hammam claims, despite the ever-present dangers of life in the pocket, especially for the area’s journalists—more than 50 of whom were killed by pro-government forces and opposition factions since 2011, according to the Turkey-based Syrian Journalists Association, a union aiming to defend journalistic freedoms in Syria.  

“The [protective] kit was required in Ghouta,” says Hammam, “but I couldn't get it easily due to the price and the siege.” But with the world’s interest focused on the battered suburbs, his photos were still published.

‘Part of who I am’

Although media workers from across Syria have poured into the rebel-held northwest in recent months and years, Suad Khabiya, internal relations manager for the Syrian Journalists Association (SJA), says evacuations from East Ghouta have brought one of the largest single influxes of journalists.

East Ghouta was once home to the largest concentration of media activists in Syria, says Khabiya, the result of the important role of citizen journalism during the longest pro-government siege in the country.

“Necessity was the driving force for this group of media activists,” she tells Syria Direct.

The SJA is now working to help East Ghouta’s journalists integrate into the media landscape of northern Syria through support including legal services and limited financial grants offered on an individual basis and according to specific needs.

The Media Workers Association of East Ghouta—which includes more than 200 members—is also coordinating with opposition authorities to arrange for the continued use of journalist ID cards developed during the siege, “in order to facilitate work” in the north, association president Abu al-Yisar Baraa tells Syria Direct from Idlib.    

The Media Workers Association of East Ghouta holds its first meeting in northern Syria on May 27. Photo courtesy of Media Workers Association of East Ghouta.

But even with external support, East Ghouta’s journalists say they face the additional challenge of competition from other reporters who are native to the area or who have more comprehensive experience.

Muhammad Ayman, a correspondent for Turkey-based Syria TV, felt the impact of that competition as soon as he arrived to Idlib. “My work hasn’t stopped entirely,” he says, “but it’s been put on the sidelines [within the channel], and doesn’t cover my daily expenses.”

The 24-year-old has produced only two journalistic video reports since arriving, he says, a far cry from his previous role overseeing Syria TV’s special coverage of events in Ghouta just months ago.

“To be honest, they no longer need [my work],” he says. “They already have correspondents in Idlib.”

Meanwhile, work opportunities for all Idlib journalists—locals and displaced newcomers alike—are drying up as pro-opposition media outlets shutter their doors and funding for media organizations declines as global interest in the Syrian conflict wanes.

Freelancer a-Shami says he has found only a limited number of vacancies at local agencies and TV channels in the north, to which he applied. “But even when there is a vacancy, someone local will be the priority,” he says.

“Competency and experience isn’t enough to compete” without a competitive network of contacts on the ground, he explains.

So now, after years of reporting at the heart of a siege, Ayman says he has been forced to sell some of his equipment—so far, a tripod and a lens—in order to support himself and his family. “This is how I’m surviving until I find work,” he says.

But Ayman has not given up on journalism, he adds, a field he turned to in light of the “regime’s tyranny, and the absence of Arab and international media.”

“Even if no one supports me and no one employs me, I’ll continue to practice journalism,” he says.

Photojournalist Hammam feels the same way. “I won’t give up my media work, even if there’s no pay,” the Douma native says, “and I don’t think that would even be possible.”

“It’s become part of who I am.”

With additional reporting by Maria Ayman. 

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.