Journalism in Daraa province: ‘Assad regime doesn’t have a monopoly on hunting us down’

What’s it like being a citizen journalists working in rebel-held parts of Daraa province these days?

“Kidnappings, assassinations and death threats are the main difficulties we face in our line of work,” Abu Muhammad al-Hourani tells Syria Direct’s Waleed Khaled a-Noufal from the west Daraa town of Inkhil, near the site of where a suicide bomber detonated earlier this week.

Al-Hourani is one of three journalists currently working in the field in Syria’s southernmost province. All asked not to be identified by their real names.

“We are under a lot of pressure from all the forces working on the ground,” says Aboud al-Hourani, a citizen journalist in the east Daraa countryside, who describes being “threatened at gunpoint and arrested” by an opposition faction.

“We can’t please all the factions, and what we do angers them, especially the hardline groups,” says Abu Muhammad al-Hourani, a citizen journalist in southern Daraa.

Citizen journalists in Daraa, as in the rest of Syria, are particularly vulnerable in the “absence of any authority to protect them and support them,” says Abu Ali al-Hourani, a journalist in the west Daraa countryside who says he has received death threats twice from Free Syrian Army factions.

“The media has become the enemy for some groups,” he adds. “Anyone who utters or reports a word they don’t like is subject to threat.”

**

Abu Muhammad al-Hourani, a citizen journalist in the rebel-held central Daraa town of Inkhil, where four people, including the local council president, were assassinated last Friday.

Q: What security risks do you face as a citizen journalist in Daraa?

Kidnappings, assassinations and death threats are the main difficulties we face in our line of work. A lot of the time we don’t know who is behind them, or masked gunmen fire on us or rig our motorcycles to explode and kill us.

We can’t please all the factions, and what we do angers them, especially the hardline groups.

Q: Has this impacted your work or prevented you from reporting certain events?

Many of us are afraid to report the truth if it is connected to military factions, especially hardline groups.

We pay a blood price for the truth. The Assad regime doesn’t have a monopoly on hunting down citizen journalists.

Q: Have you personally been threatened by armed groups or faced an assassination attempt?

To be honest, I always avoid mentioning matters that I think might result in my arrest. I content myself with reporting bombings and the suffering of residents and civilians without getting involved in military factions’ affairs.

I say that after seeing my colleagues arrested by Jabhat a-Nusra and other factions. Recently I witnessed the assassination of an internet café owner I know. His motorcycle exploded in the morning when I was going to have breakfast with his family. We still don’t know who was responsible for the explosion.

Q: How do you keep working after these events in your town, especially amidst the ongoing fighting with Liwa Shuhadaa al-Yarmouk in the west Daraa countryside?

It’s really difficult to move around, especially amidst the fear of revenge operations by extremist cells and suicide bombings. A suicide bomber blew himself up three days ago at a Free Syrian Army checkpoint [near Inkhil].

Personally, I’ve been dreading these operations, even while going to the shops or the bakery to buy what I need. Even walking in the street has become a crime we could pay for with our lives.

**

Aboud al-Hourani, a citizen journalist in the rebel-held east Daraa countryside

Q: What security risks do you face as a citizen journalist in Daraa?

We are under a lot of pressure from all the forces working on the ground. We aim to transmit events transparently to expose the regime’s crimes and violations and get across some small part of what the blockaded Syrian people are suffering under all kinds of bombardment.

Moving around in the area is difficult. We are afraid of assassinations by some factions and of being targeted by the regime and its militias.

Q: Has this impacted your work or prevented you from reporting certain events?

The kidnappings and assassinations have impacted the work of a lot of citizen journalists. Many are afraid for themselves. They are afraid of being assassinated or arrested or held at gunpoint, so they stay silent.

Meanwhile, others defy these threats and report events with transparency, especially what is happening right now in the western countryside with the fighting between the Victory Army and the Southern Front on one side and Islamic State cells on the other.

[Ed.: In recent days, two alleged IS affiliates in Daraa province (Liwa Shuhadaa al-Yarmouk and Harakat a-Muthanna al-Islamiyya) have battled other opposition factions for territory in the western countryside. For Syria Direct’s coverage, see here.]

Q: Have you personally been threatened by armed groups or faced an assassination attempt?

My friends and I were previously threatened at gunpoint, arrested and had our cameras stolen. Honorable members of the FSA stepped in to protect us and put a stop to it.

Q: Which factions arrested you?

Some of these factions belonged to the FSA, and later broke out of the Southern Front to form an independent group. Some of my colleagues have also been arrested by Jabhat a-Nusra, others by Harakat a-Muthanna and Liwa Shuhadaa al-Yarmouk.

Q: How did they treat you? Were you beaten or insulted? What were you charged with?

We were attacked, arrested and had our cameras stolen under the pretext of working with the regime and that the media organization we work with does not align with their ideology. The charges were ultimately treason, collaborating with the mukhabarat and foreign groups, and selling video clips for exorbitant sums.

**

Abu Ali al-Hourani, a journalist in the west Daraa countryside

Q: What security risks do you face as a citizen journalist in Daraa?

Since the Syrian revolution began, the biggest problems facing citizen journalists has been the absence of any authority to protect and support them, like a union or something similar. Because of that, the media has become the enemy of some groups that have proclaimed themselves judges. Anyone who reports a word they don’t like is subject to threat.

Q: Has this impacted your work or prevented you from reporting certain events?

Some citizen journalists quit working or distance themselves from events that are happening. Even some revolutionary media agencies have stopped reporting and gone silent after multiple incidents and threats over the course of the revolution for reporting on some of the crimes and violations that are going on.

Under the circumstances of the fighting that the Houran is witnessing, we’ve remained silent and neutral and only reported incidents and violations connected with the regime.

Q: Have you personally been threatened by armed groups or faced an assassination attempt?

I received death threats twice from FSA factions for filming a video after the assassination of an FSA commander. 

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Mateo Nelson

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

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.