Inside Syria’s war: The extreme dangers faced by local reporters

“THE PSEUDONYM HELPS me to feel safe,” said Ali, a citizen journalist who works under a false name in Syria’s government-held regions. “I always pretend to be completely loyal to Bashar al-Assad’s regime while at the same time I am documenting the abuses perpetrated by his government against the activists and civilians.

Due to scary situation in Syria mostly journalists are working having pseudonyms especially in the government-held areas and those controlled by IS.

Still so many journalists are working and even they are not scared to present the truth while trying to minimise the risks to themselves as much as possible. They receive some support and training from Western institutions, from time to time. But most work with local or Middle Eastern media agencies.

Mounaf Abd Almajeed, 26, who works for Fresh Radio, a radio station in Idlib, northwest Syria told “If your aim is to report the truth, you cannot work in areas under government control, because it doesn’t want the truth to come out. You can work in the opposition-controlled areas, but you have to keep hidden from the government forces’ aircraft, and the Russian aircraft, and the IS organisation’s intelligence apparatus.”

He also added that “The government accuses us of terrorism, and the majority of the armed opposition factions do not look upon us favourably, because they confuse intelligence work with journalism and we always have to convince these factions that we are journalists, and not agents of the intelligence organisations of the US or Saudi Arabia or Qatar and so on.”

In Syria there are some armed opposition factions are extreme Islamists, some of them are moderate Islamists and some of them belong to civilian or secular groups, and there is a state of cold – and sometimes hot – war among them.

Abd Almajeed thinks that even if a journalist can gain the trust of a particular faction, the battle is not yet won, because he must now convince the other factions that he has not picked a side or become an agent.

He tried to minimise the risks risks of the work by wearing a helmet and bullet-proof jacket when going to areas where clashes are taking place. He rarely works at night for fear of being kidnapped, and he doesn’t ever go to areas held by IS or the government.

In his view these precautions have helped him to avoid many injuries, especially around seven months ago, when he was covering one of the battles between government and opposition forces around Aleppo, in northern Syria. When the trench that he was hiding in was targeted in an air raid, which he believes was conducted by Russian aircraft, four journalists were killed, but Mounaf was only slightly injured.

According to him Western media NGOs could do more to help by offering the required support to journalists inside opposition areas, but rather have confined their support to Syrian press organisations outside the country.

But Ahmed Jalal, 35, editor of the local magazine Al-Manatarah, does not agree. He thinks that the diminished support is due to concern for the safety of their employees, and Syrians working with them, after the country became so dangerous for journalists.

Jalal also said “In the early stages of the revolution we did not have a great responsibility to convey the truth to the international community because the door was open to journalists from all over the world, and many of them came in and reported the truth to their communities. But after a year or two of the revolution everything changed because Bashar al-Assad succeeded in getting his propaganda message across to the West that he was fighting terrorists and that the alternative to him was chaos and terrorism.”

He also believes that IS’s pursuit of journalists, and execution of some of them, forced Western agencies to withdraw their correspondents, and then the opposition factions’ media made repeated mistakes until the world began to view the Syrian conflict as a “sectarian war between the Alawites and the Shi’a on the one hand and the Sunnis on the other, or as a fundamentalist Islamic revolution that crossed borders, and not a people’s revolution”.

Journalists in Syria are working under a pseudonym and wearing bullet-proof jackets because nobody recognises the immunity of journalists, and nobody respects the international laws and conventions governing their work.

Jalal also said “We are in a jungle … all we can do is persevere, coping with the fear and the grief. However much we try to minimise the risks; hardly a week goes by without our losing a friend or colleague, who has died covering some battle or other, or in the bombing of civilians by government forces or their allies, or in an execution by Da’esh [IS].”

“Hardly a day goes by without our seeing the dead body of a child torn apart by Bashar al-Assad’s aircraft.” In the opposition-held areas, ordinary citizens do not look upon journalists favourably and every time we go to take a photograph we encounter people who refuse and say ‘You media people take photos and rake in the money and we get bombed by Bashar al-Assad’s planes because of you taking pictures,” the editor said.

Jalal wishes the armed opposition factions would invite Western media organisations into their areas and provide them with protection. And if that is impossible, then he asks “powerful news agencies like Reuters, Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press, and powerful networks like the BBC and CNN” to put trust in local journalists or citizen journalists in these areas.

Ahmad was of the view “We have now got good journalists inside the opposition-held areas who have received training from Western institutions such as the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and Reporters Without Borders and the CFI [run by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs], and we now have training centres in these areas; all that we lack is the trust of the powerful Western agencies and the networks in us.”