‘No faction upholds journalists’ freedom of expression in this town’

Caught between two competing rebel factions, several journalists in one rebel-held town 18km south of Damascus have exchanged their independence for access to services and aid, an independent journalist in Kiswa tells Syria Direct.

Kiswa is a divided town: Regime forces control the northern half and have surrounded the town’s entire south since April 2014. More than 40,000 civilians, including internally displaced Syrians from Homs, West Ghouta and southern Damascus, live in the south of the town.

Two factions rule Kiswa’s south. The Islamic Union of Ajnad a-Sham is an alliance encompassing several local Islamist brigades that receives external funding, likely from Saudi Arabia. The second is Liwa al-Haqq, a smaller local outfit that only receives “internal support from the residents [of the area],” Abu Muhammad, a spokesman for Liwa al-Haqq, told Syria Direct late last year.

Since taking over, the two rebel groups have carved up their side of town like a cake, commandeering distribution of food, humanitarian aid and medical assistance, residents of Kiswa told Syria Direct in a report last November.

The heavy hand of the rebels in Kiswa is crushing the revolutionary spirit of journalists, Yousef Sham, a citizen journalist who says he broke from the local media office in order to remain independent, tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nasser.

“Now, the goal of citizen journalists’ Facebook pages is merely to praise and glorify the factions.”

Q: How did you first get involved in journalism?

Before the revolution, I worked in a fast food restaurant. I unintentionally moved to journalism via my mobile phone camera and social media.

I can’t say that I am a journalist in every sense of the word since I never got a degree in this field. However, what drove me to take this path was that people with journalism experience, along with the educated, left Syria. We needed to get out the real details of what was happening and what our people were experiencing on the ground. This was particularly true after the regime’s official channels and news sites began distorting current events.

Since the beginning of the revolution, a group of young people and I started photographing demonstrations and posting them on social media, working completely independently. We then created a media office on Facebook. 

Q: Was there any point when you were able to publish freely without fear? What has changed between then and now?

When I was at the media office,the people in charge made mistakes, but those mistakes were minor compared to the wrongs that are being purposefully committed now. So much so that it is not possible to keep quiet about them.

There was more freedom before the factions took over the area. Now, the goal of citizen journalists’ Facebook pages is merely to praise and glorify the factions, rather than communicating the real suffering of the people. We set out to deliver the truth to the people, not to distort and misrepresent it, as our factions want us to do. No one else dares to publish about any suffering before going back to the faction and getting their opinion so that the journalist does not risk being punished and detained or abused by the military powers.

There were independent journalists who did not accept the factions’ policies. They were in a difficult situation because they were not affiliated with any faction and did not receive any support (material, medical or humanitarian). Most of them have either fled the country or were martyred in the town.

The only independent media office in the town does not dare to write credibly and transparently about what is happening, despite the fact that it is not affiliated with any faction per se. That is why I resigned and began working as an independent journalist, publishing news on my personal Facebook page without being a part of any local council or media office.

Q: What mistakes, as you see it, did the media office make at the time you were working for them?

Before my resignation, the topic of publishing critique stirred up fear among the office’s officials. Our publications were limited to just local Kiswa news and highlighting residents’ suffering—the “pulse of the street.”

We weren’t able to publish news about what was happening here with total transparency, particularly when it came to the local factions’ actions in the town. Since the beginning we didn’t publish critical pieces merely because the media office’s officials were afraid of the military hegemony of the [rebel] factions in Kiswa.

Now, publishing any criticism of the factions is officially prohibited [by the media office] under the threat of prosecution. Yet it isn’t affiliated with any particular faction. The media office is limited to reporting just general news and events that happen daily in Kiswa and on the civilians’ humanitarian situation.

Q: Talk more about resigning from the media office.

While I was a member of the media office, I was publishing my criticism and opinions on my personal Facebook page. The rebel factions were following my writing and my page and examining the media office at the time. They went to the officials of the media office to complain about me.

So, the main reason that I left the media office was so I wouldn’t cause problems or be the reason other members of the organization were interrogated.

Q: What kind of pieces do you publish on your Facebook page now?

I report about news and events in Kiswa and express my opinion with complete transparency without getting permission from anyone or submitting to any military power. My Facebook page is basically a sarcastic critique using simple language to communicate.

Q: What dangers have you faced as a result of openly expressing your critical opinions?

I have received threats of detention on a daily basis as well as messages on Facebook.

At first I received threats from the different factions. However they soon escalated into physical attacks—this happened twice. One time, they issued a warrant for my arrest, but intermediaries from some independent rebel factions intervened on my behalf before the warrant was carried out and the issue was dropped.

I don’t follow any [rebel] faction—no faction upholds journalists’ freedom of expression in this town.

Q: How has working as an independent journalist affected you?

When the opposition factions took over the area, each faction got its own media office and all of the journalists in those offices worked for the factions to praise them and improve their reputations—or better yet, to “suck up” to them. They earn a monthly salary as well as food, medical assistance and aid for themselves and their families provided by the rebels. The brigades monopolize the aid provided to civilians and distribute it to their own people and followers. They do not distribute it fairly.

As an independent person who is not affiliated with any faction, I am deprived of all the local aid (food, medical, humanitarian) that is supposed to be provided to me as a civilian. I pay for my own medical care such as medicine or examinations, whereas those who are affiliated with a faction get their medicine from the medical center affiliated with that faction. If his treatment is not available, the faction gives him money to buy it elsewhere. In my country, the theory goes, “Either you pledge allegiance or you are nothing.” In my opinion, Syria is bringing back the structure of the regime. Nothing has changed except that the leader of the local mukhabarat has been replaced by the leader of a rebel faction.

Q: What would you like to say to journalists who have pledged allegiance to the factions?

We came out to communicate the people’s suffering and their oppression. I believe that you have abandoned your cause and become pawns controlled by hidden hands. Do not be a slave to a faction or a leader. Have your duties reallybeen reduced to making your leaders look good even if they are at fault? By God, we did not rise up for this.

The mission of the media used to be communicating the truth and the people’s suffering. The mobile phone camera was the best witness. Photography was for communicating the truth and the painful reality that the people live. As the lens of the camera filmed, the heart of the photographer cried. His mind stopped thinking as he filmed the suffering of the people so that he could show it to the world to see.

Now, nothing is like before. Even the camera lens has changed and the heart of the photographer is not like it was. He no longer cries when he films the suffering. Now his mind only thinks of the number of likes and views and the amount of money that he will make. The photos and videos of martyrs, injured people, destruction and children are no longer anything more than a means to make a living. God help you, is this why we came out for the revolution?

Q: Has your opinion of the revolution changed between when it broke out and now?

My opinion of the revolution hasn’t changed, rather my opinion of those who are leading it have. I don’t see that they have the spirit of the revolution still. I don’t see the same collective sacrifice that I saw at the beginning of the revolution.

Q: What do you think about what is currently going on in Syria? Where is the revolution going? Has it lost its substance or meaning?

Now, the Syrian revolution isn’t about waging a war against the regime, but rather is a war with the entire world. Some actively participate in shedding our blood while others just sit back and watch. In my opinion, there isn’t any difference between the two. The first kills us with their weapons and the second kills us with their silence.

Given the disinterest of the international community with the revolution and the disunity among Syrians in the country, the revolution is certainly headed down an ambiguous road.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Samuel Kieke

Samuel Kieke was a 2014-2015 CASA I fellow in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from the University of Texas at Austin in Arabic Language and Literature, Middle Eastern Studies, and International Relations and Global Studies.