AMMAN — “Despite the sacrifice of journalists and the large number of those who have given their lives to report the truth, the ceiling of freedom is still very low inside Syria,” Ibrahim Hussein, the director of the Syrian Center for Press Freedoms (SCPF) at the Syrian Journalists Association, told Syria Direct.
Syrian media has witnessed significant transformations through ten years of revolution and war. However, Syrian journalists remain heavily influenced by political actors on all sides, and press freedom has barely improved.
While Syria ranked 174th (out of 180) on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s World Press Freedom Index, a slight increase from its ranking in 2014 (177th out of 180), it remains among the worst countries for press freedom. Ten years into the conflict, Syrian journalists still face high levels of violence and funding challenges that threaten to silence the voice of credible, independent outlets.
The birth of new free media
At the outbreak of the revolution in March 2011, Alaa Fatrawi turned to journalism, motivated by the need to “convey the facts about what was happening on the ground” and seeing a lack of professionals able and willing to cover the conflict. This activist from the city of Kafr Nabl, in the southern countryside of Idlib, continued reporting on the war for ten years until he resettled to Germany recently.
For decades, state and security apparatuses had cast their shadow on Syrian media, which was kept under tight control. But the revolution fuelled the birth of new, revolutionary media.
“Dozens of radio stations and hundreds of websites appeared within months,” Ayman Abdel Nour, the editor-in-chief of leading news site All4Syria, told Syria Direct. “Citizens started establishing their own kind of media outlets; some opened very local agencies. Citizens were making the news,” Rula Asad, the Executive Director of the Syrian Female Journalists Network, told Syria Direct.
Outlets also emerged in local languages – such as Arta FM (broadcasting in Arabic, Syriac and Kurdish), Radio Alkul (Kurdish) and Nûdem, Syria’s first Kurdish-language newspaper – reflecting the social and political changes taking place across the country. By November 2019, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) had identified 162 operating Syrian media institutions and outlets, of which 119 were launched after 2011.
Mixing feverish activism and journalism against a backdrop of unprecedented freedom, ordinary citizens documented the revolution and the atrocities around them. The myriad videos and photos uploaded by bystanders and citizen journalists on social media has led Syria to be considered by some the best-documented war in history.
The number of women journalists increased. “Women have access to places where male journalists cannot go,” Asad highlighted. “This affected the content produced, increasing coverage of issues related to women’s rights.”
It was the time of a brief “golden age,” Enrico de Angelis, a researcher specializing in Syrian independent journalism, told Syria Direct. “It seemed that independent media outlets could establish a transitory media system until the fall of the regime, and eventually replace the regime’s media system.”
Journalism under attack, disinformation on the rise
The golden age came to an end with the exodus of most professional news outlets, following the intensification of violence against journalists. Between 300 and 700 journalists were killed in airstrikes or executed over the past ten years. The SCPF documented 1,363 violations against press freedom between 2011 and February 2021, including 461 murders and 346 cases of arrest, detention or kidnapping.
In addition to the regime, the emergence of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria posed new threats to reporters. The SCPF documented 73 violations overall against foreign journalists between 2011 and the end of February 2021.
In response, international news outlets limited their staff’s presence in the field, relying increasingly on freelancers, local fixers, and information communicated by the growing network of ‘citizen journalists’ inside Syria. Consequently, “the violations committed against foreign media professionals in the past few years greatly decreased due to the decrease in their arrivals to Syria,” according to Hussein.
However, the void left by this exodus was not without downsides. “The targeting of journalists and their subsequent emigration left a void filled by activists and citizen journalists, who conveyed the news in a way that diverged from the rules of the profession,” Afaf Jaqamour, a freelance journalist from Idlib, told Syria Direct.
In this context, Asad highlighted that citizen journalism “contributed to the increase in false news. There was an exaggeration in the news reported, as many journalists sought to draw attention to themselves or their region.” Some professional journalists perceived a conflict of norms with untrained citizen journalists.
This challenged the professionalism of the new media. A 2017 survey of articles published in 10 Syrian outlets between March and May 2017 found that, on average, each article relied on two sources only, a majority of which were not precisely identified with information on the source’s background.
The same report reveals that 58% of articles surveyed focused on ‘local dimensions’ of the reported event, and 30% on international ones, while only 12% looked at its national dimensions. This paints the picture of fragmented media. “Journalists are not able to move freely across the conflict lines, which prevents them from covering any issue comprehensively,” Jaqamour said.
In addition, after decades of journalism under state control, the revolutionary media tended to “convey the point of view of one side of the conflict. The media is either affiliated with certain parties or with a province or small city and follows the agenda of its financiers,” Abdel Nour regretted.
Challenges remain for female journalists
The ongoing high level of violence still hinders journalists’ ability to cover the conflict, with a disproportionate impact on female journalists.
“Few women made it to the frontline, not because they don’t want to report on the frontline but because women are pushed not to,” Asad said. “Some militias refuse to take the women there, and the media industry itself refuses to take this responsibility, fearing that women will be exposed to gender-based violence.”
Female journalists in Syria face an environment marked by gender bias. In northwest Syria, controlled by the Islamist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), conservative social and legal norms further hinder female journalists’ work, impacting the issues they can report on and their mobility.
“Women face challenges with transportation,” Shadia al-Taata, a female journalist from the southern countryside of Idlib, told Syria Direct. “I must use a private car in order to go around, or there must always be a mahram [a close male relative] accompanying me because, under this administration, women are not expected to move around with someone who is not related to them.”
In addition to this restrictive work environment, female journalists in Idlib (numbering around sixty) also face harassment for covering opposition areas. One example is journalist Merna al-Hasan, targeted by an online smear campaign in March 2020 by regime supporters.
Still, the role of women in Syrian media has generally improved, according to Yara Badr, who leads the SCM. “Today, Syria is witnessing victims’ associations led by women, and struggles led by women of all ages in order to achieve justice and dignity for them and their loved ones, and this reality is reflected in the media.”
The fate of Syrian media
Of the several hundred media outlets that existed during the post-revolution“golden age,” only a few dozens remain, de Angelis estimated, many of which are concentrated in diaspora hubs in Turkey and Germany.
This media in exile is struggling. “The problem is really, first of all, funding,” Abdel Nour said. “We relied on donations from Syrian businessmen in the Arab Gulf states and Turkey when it was experiencing an economic boom, but with the onset of the economic crisis in 2017, our budget reached zero,” Abdel Nour regretted, recalling that private media, including his, had to rely increasingly on volunteers and part-timers.
In parallel, “interest in the Syrian conflict decreased [since 2016], while interest around refugees increased,” Asad said. “The news around Syria became about crossing borders or refugees, no longer on Syria itself, and the funding priorities [of international donors] changed.”
These funding challenges particularly affected female journalists. “Women are less likely than men to get work contracts and more likely to work freelance. At the same time, there is growing competition because there are fewer and fewer media outlets. Men win this competition because they are expected to be more available,” Asad regretted.
Furthermore, “the de facto authorities in various areas are aware of the importance of the media and its role in shaping public opinion, so they always try to limit the freedom of media discourse and impose tight control on media work,” Badr added.
In regime-held areas, censorship is still strong. In March 2018, the regime created specialized cyber-crime courts to crack down on online publications. Even pro-regime journalists are increasingly affected. Last January, eight people, including a Syrian state TV presenter, were arrested allegedly as part of a campaign to combat fake news on social media.
“Ten years have passed and Syrian media in regime-controlled areas has not undergone any significant change in terms of contents or discourse,” Samir Abdulraouf (a pseudonym), a journalist living in Damascus, told Syria Direct. “It boils down to two things: a single narrative and denial [about the regime’s responsibility].”
In the last opposition bastion of Idlib in northwest Syria, journalists also face censorship by HTS. Journalists must obtain press cards issued by the HTS-affiliated Salvation Government, which can exert a degree of pressure through this system. HTS has also jailed several dissenting journalists.
“After ten years, there is greater freedom than before, even in Idlib, but restrictions remain,” al-Taata, who hails from the region, explained. “There are no organizations protecting journalists. We are afraid of the de facto authorities due to the lack of laws or institutions to protect us,” Jaqamour regretted.
The Kurdish-controlled northeastern provinces of Syria remain those with the least red tape, but even there freedom is restricted. The Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) controlling northeast Syria has already arrested at least three journalists in 2021.
Despite these challenges, and grim prospects for Syrian journalists in Syria and exile, positive transformations have been recorded in the Syrian media landscape over the decade; the blossoming of hundreds of new outlets, the emergence of dissenting media, and the increased participation of women and ordinary citizens allowing for more diverse coverage.
Most importantly, “journalists in Syria have conveyed the country’s bombing, destruction and humanitarian issues to the world,” Fatrawi said. “They have managed to change the world’s view on Syria.”
This article was produced in cooperation with Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.