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On the frontline: citizen journalism in Syria

As the Syrian civil war moves into its fourth year, citizen journalists have filled the gap left by professionals denied access to or evacuated from the most dangerous country in the world for working journalists. But they are painfully aware of the growing uninterest of the international media in the unending conflict.

Girl buried in house by bomb Documenting horror: a girl is buried in her home by aerial shelling. Image / Hadath Media Center. All rights reserved.The familiar and feared sound of falling barrel bombs filled with explosives and sharp metal fragments breaks the dawn silence and awakens Aleppo. Then comes the sound of explosions, then the screams.

Malek Blacktoviche rips his camera from the table beside the bed, dresses quickly and hurries out into the street in the direction of the explosions: “I run as fast as I can towards the place where the bombs struck. I capture photos and film the devastation and the deaths. But sometimes you cannot continue filming, if there are wounded who need my help. Then I have to put away the camera and try to help as many people as I can.”

Malek is one of the many residents of Syria's cities, towns and villages who have become “citizen journalists” since the beginning of the civil war—individuals without journalistic experience who, often during a crisis, document what is happening around them. Often the work is done with the help of social media and simple cameras.

“Before, I worked as a web developer for an IT company in Aleppo. But I lived without freedom of expression in a one-party state. So when the revolution came in 2011, I felt, like many others with me, that this was the moment we had waited for. It is my duty to document the revolution,” he said.

The vital role of citizen journalists became widely recognised during the Arab Spring, as they began to record the demonstrations taken place in the Arab world. In Syria, the regime, which moved quickly to try to block social media, restricted international journalists' access to the country.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Syria is by far the most dangerous country for working journalists. Syrian citizen journalists have often becomes the only sources of information from within the war zones—but at their own risk: almost 80% of the journalists killed in Syria have been citizen journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Intensified attacks

Before the uprising, Tha'er Addinashqi was a student at the university in Damascus. Now he works for the Shaam News Network (SNN): “We risk our lives every day when we document the civil war. But we also face attacks directly aimed against the media centres or journalists. The regime has carried out such attacks since the beginning of the revolution but the Islamist groups have recently intensified similar targeted attacks against journalists. I am wanted by the Syrian security police.”

Tha'er's father was arrested at his home and tortured in prison for over three months—he refused to reveal where his son was hiding. In early 2012, Malek was arrested while taking part in a demonstration. In prison, he too was tortured by the Syrian security police. After a week, he managed to collect the vast amount of money the police demanded in exchange for his release. Shortly afterwards he again became involved in the resistance against the government.

Opposition street demonstration Capturing the action on the street: a pro-opposition rally. Image / Hadath Media Center. All rights reserved.Noha Hussein previously worked as a journalist for a news agency loyal to the government. Now she lives in exile under an assumed identity to maintain her safety: “When the conflict intensified, I couldn't bear to spread the regime's perspectives on the events. There were a lot of us at the agency who gave our opinion about the situation in Syria. Many were arrested. We tried to report the reality to the international media using pseudonyms but it was very dangerous. After a while I was left with two alternatives: either I stayed in Syria and had to take the risks of being killed or I left the country and become one of the millions of Syrians who have fled to neighbouring countries.”

In Istanbul, the exiled journalists Alisar Hasan and Feras Fayyad have started the radio station Sout Raya to give the Syrian people news about the conflict. The couple blend easily into the youthful population around the city centre. Feras was arrested and imprisoned for five months in 2011 because of the critical tone of his documentaries: “I was systematically beaten in prison, he recalls. As soon as I was free, me and Alisar escaped from Syria, first to Jordan and then to Istanbul. Here we began to build the radio station Sout Raya to distribute reports to the people inside Syria and cover the conflict.”

For the last few weeks the station's transmitters in Syria have been down and Sout Raya is now depending on internet streaming. The transmitters were stolen by Islamist rebel forces, requiring Feras to travel back into Syria to instal new ones. “Many ordinary families in Syria have no access to the internet but only access to radio,” Alisar explained. “These are the families we want to reach with our broadcasts. The people need to know what is happening.”

Massacre

In 1982 Syrian government forces under Hafez al Assad—father of the current ruler, Bashar—carried out a massacre in the city of Hama, in which 10,000 to 40,000 civilians were killed. It was one of the bloodiest attacks by any Middle Eastern government against its people in modern history and any reference to it is officially forbidden. Despite the ban, Syrian citizens are well aware of what took place in Hama. They are also painfully aware of how very few images record it.

For many of the current citizen journalists, their struggle arises from the feeling that they—now, for the first time—have the power to document what is happening. But Tha'er at SNN bears witness to the increasingly difficult conditions they face: “We have a great need of technical support from outside Syria. We require no money for our pictures. But when we risk our lives to send pictures to international news agencies, they have to give us the protection and the equipment they would have given to their own journalists.”

Citizen journalist masked against gas A day in the life: Malek Blacktoviche readies for work. Image / Yosuf Mousa. All rights reserved.Back at his apartment, Malek has started his laptop and, via an unstable internet connection, patiently uploads the images from the day on various social media sites. Like Tha'er, he stresses that Syria’s citizen journalists are working with insufficient resources: “We need protective gear, cameras and long-range camera lenses, so that we don't need to be in the middle of the attacks when we capture the incidents. We need satellite transmitters because the internet is blocked in rebel-controlled areas.”

But for him the greatest need is engagement by the international media, which can publish the images and reports: “Honestly, the biggest obstacle for journalists in Syria right now is the growing feeling that no one nowadays cares about what is happening here. I want you to know that it won't be the bullets from rifles that will silence us citizen journalists. But when you no longer care to look at our photos from the war—then we have been defeated.”


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