Journalists Are Under Attack in Many Arab States, but Those in Syria Are Trapped in a Minefield

Vulnerable to arrests, torture and even death at the hands of the Assad regime and militias, Syrian journalists 'never know the rules we need to follow'

Zvi Bar'el
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Members of Syria's opposition National Liberation Front take part in a military training in the northern countryside of Idlib province, on July 1, 2020.
Members of Syria's opposition National Liberation Front take part in a military training in the northern countryside of Idlib province, on July 1, 2020.Credit: AFP
Zvi Bar'el

The appearance of Syrian journalists on route M4 south of Idlib in northern Syria has become routine. Journalists and photographers come to the road to document the joint Turkish and Russian patrols, tasked with safeguarding the security zone in the district where tens of thousands of militia combatants are concentrated.

This route usually provides some action, as women from the nearby villages go there to demonstrate against the foreign forces’ presence and hurl stones at them.

About three weeks ago, after the security convoy completed its mission, the journalists and women began to disperse. But then militants of the Sham Liberation Army, formerly affiliated with al-Qaida, showed up and attacked the journalists, smashing photography equipment and beating photographers, accusing them of taking pictures of women. This time, fortunately, nobody was killed, but this negligible incident testifies to the danger journalists are facing in Syria.

The Doha Center for Media Freedom, based in Qatar’s capital, lists 110 foreign and local journalists who were killed in the war in Syria. The Syrian Journalists Association reports that 153 journalists were killed during that period. In May, The Syrian Network for Human Rights released a report saying that 707 civilian journalists had been killed since March 2011, 78 percent of them by Syrian security forces. At the same time 1,169 journalists had been arrested or abducted.

The discrepancy between these figures stems from the lack of an accepted, universal definition for journalism and journalists. In Arab states, that definition is supposed to be more precise than in the West; a journalist is anyone registered with one of the official journalists associations and holds a government permit to work in the field. But in reality, when cellphones and computers allow every civilian to report the news, the official definition now excludes the tens of thousands of content providers who have never been professional journalists or recognized as such.

In Syria, the situation of journalists is much more complicated than in other Arab states, due to the war that has divided the country into provinces held either by the regime or by dozens of militias. As a result, anyone doing any reporting – whether or not they’re a licensed journalist – is subject to a hodgepodge of rules and regulations depending on the town, the district and sometimes the neighborhood in which they are working.

“A journalist never knows what rules they must keep, nobody updates them on the new regulations issued by the government or the militia ruling their area, and they can be arrested at any moment, imprisoned or disappeared – if not worse,” an anonymous Syrian journalist told the Syrian website Enab Baladi.

Another journalist, working in the Idlib area, said: “We have no protection because we have no recognized journalists association.”

The official Syrian Journalists Association, based in Damascus, is incapable of operating in regions under the militias’ control. Even in areas ruled by the regime, it can’t help journalists carrying an official permit. In many cases, even known journalists have been arrested for daring to report on corruption or on lapses by ministries, ministers or senior officials.

About three years ago, Rida Albasha, a Syria correspondent for the Al Mayadeen television channel, had his license revoked for reporting on the sale of the Aleppo Afrin road to an anonymous businessman for a billion dollars a year. The Beirut-based Al Mayadeen, founded by journalist and former Al Jazeera executive Ghassan bin Jiddo, is considered pro-regime and closely affiliated with Hezbollah. But even these strong ties didn’t help the reporter get his license back, even three years after the incident.

Other journalists tell of being interrogated and tortured in makeshift militia prisons, or in prisons run by the “temporary government” that runs Idlib but does not maintain control over all of the region’s militias. “You can be arrested by a temporary government policeman, interrogated for two weeks at a time, stand trial in an unrecognized court and sent to prison for two or three months. When you get out and continue working as a journalist, you think you know what the temporary government’s red lines are. But in a few days, a militiaman can come to your home and arrest you again, this time because you offended the militia’s honor,” a journalist told the Lebanese website Raseef22.

Syrian law forbids arresting and interrogating journalists for offenses related to their work without a journalists association representative present. The constitution promises freedom of press. But in reality, any policeman can arrest a journalist for breaching national security, for assisting terror, for harming the economy or for reporting false information. Civilians acting as journalists cannot even receive legal assistance from the journalists association, as they are not registered with it and are not recognized as journalists, despite the fact that most of the reports from the ground come from civilians posting their reports to social media.

Arresting and interrogating journalists for “false reporting” has become commonplace in Syria, and in other states as well. Hundreds of bloggers, journalists and innocent site visitors were summoned for questioning throughout the Arab states. But while in most of these countries they get at least a semblance of some legal process and have the right to appear in court with a lawyer, their situation in Syria is perhaps the worst.

A man using an cell phone while walking past buildings destroyed by prior bombardment in the town of Ariha in Syria's rebel-held northwestern Idlib province, June 27, 2020
A man using an cell phone while walking past buildings destroyed by prior bombardment in the town of Ariha in Syria's rebel-held northwestern Idlib province, June 27, 2020Credit: AFP

A window of opportunity for silencing

While in Syria, there’s no need to use the coronavirus to arrest rivals or regime critics, it provided Arab regimes with a convenient excuse to carry out almost unlimited arrests of any journalist or internet user who doubts the government’s reports, or quotes unofficial or unapproved sources. In mid-June, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation in Egypt published a strict warning to journalists to rely only on government sources regarding the war in Libya, Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam project (a source of tension between the states), the Egyptian army’s activity in Sinai and, of course, anything to do with the coronavirus outbreak.

The ban, applied to all official media outlets and to social media, says “Distributing or broadcasting a news report affecting the unity of the fabric of our nation and our security will result in the use of any legal means against the criminal.” The interpretation of “fabric of the nation,” “unity” and “security” is given solely to the courts.

The Supreme Council is headed by the veteran journalist Makram Mohamed Ahmed, once one of the brave journalists who didn’t fear expressing their opinions and criticizing the regime. But his warning comes a little late; according to recent figures, Egypt has already arrested dozens of journalists since the pandemic outbreak for “false reports” about the virus’ spread, medicine shortages or health ministry failures.

Another pressing issue plaguing every Arab media outlet is the absence of science journalists and news departments that explain the coronavirus’ sources, its effects, the way it spreads and how to treat it to the public. A comprehensive study released by the Egyptian magazine Arab Media and Society, published by the American University in Cairo, states that the Egyptian media doesn’t publish science columns regularly, science reporters are hard to come by and most scientific information is translated from foreign publications without an in-depth explanation or relevant context.

The study says most reporting about the coronavirus focused on the number of casualties and on basic ways to protect oneself from the virus. When the World Health Organization defined the coronavirus as a pandemic that requires emergency measures, there were no journalists in Egypt to explain the meaning of this announcement. So these issues raised no public interest.

A worker prepares an order at a cafe after authorities relaxed the coronavirus lockdown, Cairo, Egypt June 27, 2020.
A worker prepares an order at a cafe after authorities relaxed the coronavirus lockdown, Cairo, Egypt June 27, 2020.Credit: AFP

This is also true of other medical matters, like chronic diseases, cancer or obesity, on which the media has released superficial, general reports in inarticulate language and poor translation from foreign publications. While the study was conducted on media in Egyptian, its findings apply to that of most Arab states. This practice not only limits understanding of major scientific developments, but stymies the curiosity, study and general knowledge that is critical in times of crisis such as the coronavirus outbreak.

One outcome is the public’s reliance on word of mouth, rumors and folk remedies, as well as on the fake news clogging social media pages. “We have no time and means to study the coronavirus thoroughly,” said an Egyptian journalist covering the coronavirus crisis for the Egyptian newspaper Al Shorouk. “None of us are chemical or biological experts. We can’t criticize and sort the information we receive from doctors or government experts, who also sound quite confused.”

But even when a journalist obtains critical information and listens to experts who don’t accept the government’s position, they hesitate to release it for fear of being arrested and charged with spreading fake news. Media researchers like Dr. Majdi Said, the former editor of the Nature magazine’s Arab edition, say there is a lack of awareness among Arab journalists regarding the importance of specializing in a particular field in general and in science in particular. Editors and publishers, they say, do not see science coverage as a topic that will shift public opinion or attract advertisers. They suggest adjusting media programs in schools and universities to the new media era, which is now a field left open to anyone with an opinion.

But it seems that until these recommendations are implemented, the regimes will continue to dictate scientific knowledge to the media, which will try to find their way in a minefield threatening their freedom, and sometimes even their lives.

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