Syrian media awaken despite clampdown

January 5, 2012

Throughout a nine-month-long uprising, Syrian authorities have exerted ever-tighter control over the media, routinely censoring and detaining reporters, bloggers and photojournalists. But despite the risks, a flurry of new outlets has emerged to tell stories suppressed by President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The magazines and journals — mostly produced abroad and published online — offer an alternative to established newspapers and news channels in Syria, where journalists are careful not to cross “red lines” such as criticizing the president. And, analysts say, these new media outlets represent a huge shift in the country.

“Syrian society, which had long been apathetic and sterile, has awoken through this crisis,” said Peter Harling, a project director in Damascus, the Syrian capital, for the International Crisis Group. “It is proving amazingly creative, producing its own literature, displaying a powerful sense of humor and finding 1,001 ways to report events despite the media clampdown.”

Nazir Jandali’s two-month-old online publication, Syria Wants Freedom, has articles in Arabic about the government’s security presence in cities, the work of human rights monitors from the Arab League, as well as satirical cartoons and discussions of literature. His readers are both inside and outside the country, he says.

“We started this project mainly to establish the free press in our country,” said Jandali, a 28-year-old Syrian living in Saudi Arabia, “and to build awareness in Syria about what is going on during our revolution.”

Like many of those who work in the new publications, Jandali was an activist before he started editing. A network of people who worked as journalists before the uprising submit their work anony­mously and for free inside Syria, e-mailing it to his colleague in Damascus, he said.

Revolutionary tone

Some Syrian journalists contributed anonymously to international publications before the uprising began, but after more than four decades of censorship and repression of political life under Assad and his father, Hafez, their numbers were few.

Now, the outlets have multiplied. Another publication, Hurriyat, or Freedoms, is produced by people who have designated themselves journalists since the protest movement gathered momentum and send stories to an editor abroad.

The Hurriyat editor, who gives his name as Kareem Lailah and says he lives in Europe, is also an activist. The publication includes analysis of the chaotic political opposition and poetic reflections on life since the protests began. “The Revolution was ignited, and the earth aches in it with the free spirits,” reads one of several articles translated into English on one section of the Web site.

The names of the writers are not known — sometimes even by their editors — and the tone of many of the new publications is of revolutionary fervor rather than dispassionate reportage.

Along with the magazines have come new blogs and Web sites that post protest footage and death toll updates. The Syrian government’s restrictions on foreign journalists’ access to the country make it difficult to verify claims made in the new publications, as well as the identities of the reporters and editors. Few foreign journalists were granted visas last year, even after an agreement brokered by the Arab League late last year under which the government was to allow international media into the country.

“We still have some way to go before reaching the professionalism that’s needed,” said Shakeeb al-Jabri, a Syrian activist based in Beirut. “But it’s changed the Syrian landscape.”

This, Jabri added, is an impressive achievement given the environment in which reporters on the ground operate. Syria ranked 173 out of 178 in the Reporters Without Borders group’s most recent index of press freedom, even before the government crackdown on protesters began.

Risks to journalists

Now, journalists documenting the uprising are prime targets of the security forces, said Mohamed Abdel Dayem of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.

“They are snatched from their homes, off the street or place of employment and held incommunicado,” he said. Although the contributors to Syria Wants Freedom and Hurriyat have not been arrested, he said, all kinds of media workers have been detained, including those who worked as reporters before the revolution, bloggers such as the activist Razan Ghazzawi, and people who are not journalists in the traditional sense but have documented protests on mobile phones and uploaded the footage online.

“We have documented 28 cases of this happening,” Abdel Dayem said. “They are held for days or weeks or months, more often than not subjected to abuse, more often than not released without being charged.”

In more sinister cases, media figures have been kidnapped and been beaten or killed. Ali Ferzat, a veteran political cartoonist, was reportedly seized in August by masked men, who beat him and broke his hands. Ferzat Jarban, a dissident who filmed protests and uploaded the footage online, was reportedly arrested in November near the restive city of Homs and found dead the next day, his eyes gouged out.

Secret paper distribution

Because many Syrians have limited or tightly controlled access to the Internet, the editors of Syria Wants Freedom and Hurriyat say that their colleagues inside Syria are secretly printing a few hundred copies of their publications and leaving them around the major cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. A video uploaded by Lailah, the editor of Hurriyat, shows masked men stuffing copies of the publication in mailboxes in Damascus and running away.

It was not possible to independently confirm Lailah’s assertion that the newspaper had been distributed. But Abir Saksouk-Sasso, an architect in neighboring Lebanon who supports the anti-government movement in Syria, said she contacted Lailah after reading his Twitter feed and distributed copies of the newspaper at a sit-in in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

“The Syrian revolution is about the conflict between the discourses,” she said. “The regime has presented one scenario . . . in newspapers, state media and TV,” supporting the view, widely held among Assad supporters, that if Assad falls, the country will be engulfed in civil war and that the unrest is the result of a foreign conspiracy.

“So it is important that the revolutionaries articulate their version of events,” she said.

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