‘A measure of freedom’: What can journalists get away with in rebel-held northern Syria?  

Ahmed Assi teaches aspiring journalists in the hardline rebel stronghold of Idlib province. Six years ago, he was working in the Syrian state media as a newspaper reporter in the same region.

A graduate of Damascus University in strategic planning, Assi 36, trained as a young professional in a culture of censorship and intimidation. Syria is the world’s fourth-lowest ranked nation for global press freedom in 2017.

The start of the war in 2011 gave rise to two opposing medias. On one side, a strictly regulated state-run apparatus puts out carefully crafted messaging in line with the Assad regime’s political agenda. On the other, citizen journalists of the freewheeling opposition were starting websites and radio stations, magazines and Facebook pages, Assi tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar. 

The proliferation of reporting gave voice to a Syrian opposition. It did not, however, guarantee the protection of press freedoms in any corner of Syria.

Now, six years into the war, a cast of Salafist characters controls rebel-held Idlib province. Most notable is Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), an opposition coalition that includes Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fatah a-Sham as a leading member. While HTS may represent itself as feverishly anti-Assad, their approach to media does not differ much from that of the Syrian state media.

What happens in rebel-held Idlib province when a journalist criticizes a faction?

“The journalist would likely face a certain degree of pressure and be held accountable.”

Q: Do you believe that freedom of the press exists in Idlib, especially with a group like HTS largely in control of the province?

I would say that there’s a measure of freedom. A journalist or an activist can work on topics that aren’t related to the factions, and specifically not topics that have to do with matters of security.

We can’t just single out HTS for violating press freedoms because they’re not the only faction that controls Idlib province. For instance, you have Jaish al-Fatah in control of Jisr a-Shughour. You’ve also got Ahrar a-Sham and other groups in parts of Idlib. What you’re seeing is not just one faction in control, which means that we can’t say for sure that it’s any one group that is violating press freedom in Idlib.

Q: But can a local journalist report on HTS—or any other rebel faction in Idlib province, for that matter—without fear for their safety? Is it ever permissible to criticize the opposition?

Sometimes, if a journalist were to criticize one of the factions—even if the faction only partially controls the area where the journalist is residing—then the journalist would likely face a certain degree of pressure and be held accountable. But this is not done in the same way or to the same extent that the Syrian security forces carry it out.

 Idlib on Sunday. Photo courtesy of the Idlib Media Center.

Q: What exactly do you mean by “pressure?”

It depends on the nature of the criticism. Some factions actually encourage criticism for the sake of appearing transparent and tolerant of free expression. But in some security-related situations, freedom of the press is not taken into consideration.

In general, journalists can do their work even if it is critical of the factions. In one form or another, there is a degree of press freedom, even if it isn’t the exact level of freedom to which we aspire in the field of journalism.

Q: Is neutrality gone in Syria?

As journalists, we know that it is impossible to be completely neutral. There are some journalists who stand by the revolution and others who adopt the position of the regime. Even in opposition areas, there are some journalists who call for neutrality when covering rebel groups, but those same people do not exercise neutrality when the news is related to the regime. 

Q: You were a student of media and journalism before the war. How do journalistic values of pre-war Syria compare with what is being practiced today in rebel-held Idlib province?

Before the revolution, the state of journalism was particularly poor, and opportunities in the field were limited to a very specific subset of Syrian society. The fact that I got into media was pure luck.

The regime’s security branch exercises complete intellectual control over the media. All of the news is censored, and their journalism focused exclusively on covering provincial activities and local organizations.

Structurally, state media is strong. But this is only because their work and their employees are subordinate to the regime, like all other state institutions. I left those regime outlets in 2011 because I knew how their reporting is just an attempt to lend legitimacy to the regime’s actions. They lie and forge facts to advance their agenda. There is no consideration for professionalism or neutrality when it comes to their reporting.

With the revolution, that all changed—most notably with the introduction of social media sites that served as platforms for people to deliver their message to the masses. There is, however, a drawback to all of this. Namely, you don’t have to be a professional to be on social media. At first, the quality of the citizen journalism was certainly lacking, or at least varied greatly. There have been, however, more freedoms for the press, more opportunities to get into journalism and media has begun to play a much bigger role, especially in news coverage.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Hasan al-Rhmoun

Hassan is from Outer Damascus. He previously studied to be a teacher in Syria but couldn’t complete his education due to the war. He moved to Jordan in 2012.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.