Since 2011, young Syrians have started working in journalism to document the conflict in their country themselves. Trained after a few years by several independent Syrian media such as Syria Direct and international organizations, they have since become seasoned journalists. For them, being a journalist rhymes with being an activist. A look back at ten years of struggle for press freedom with Manar Rachwani, a Syrian journalist born in the city of Hama in the 1970s.
Although Manar spent some years in Hama, he spent most of his childhood in Jordan in the 1980s. The “Hama massacre” in 1982 left the young boy and his family severely traumatized. Ordered by former president Hafez al-Assad (father of current president Bashar al-Assad) to undermine the Muslim Brotherhood rebellion, thousands of people in the city were murdered at the hands of the security forces and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Rachwani family survived only by a miracle, taking refuge in Jordan the same year. Manar has never seen his homeland since that tragic episode, but has never given up on the idea of returning one day. Proud of his education and multiple degrees in the humanities and social sciences, he became an experienced researcher and journalist. In Jordan, he was a columnist for the daily newspaper al-Arat (“Tomorrow“) between 2004 and 2017.
Far from wanting to stop there, Manar is set to be named editor-in-chief of Syria Direct in 2019, also in Jordan. Syria Direct having been forced into exile by the Syrian government, the news site operated from Amman, the Jordanian capital. “As you know, half of the Syrian population is displaced within the country,” he explains hastily.
“And a quarter of the population has taken refuge in the nearest countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq), while others have decided to leave for Europe. The media are experiencing the same thing.” He himself was forced to flee again when the secret services in Jordan investigated him for his work.
The man found refuge in France in October 2021. “After spending some time in Paris, then in Rennes and a few days in Saint-Malo, I came back to settle at the Journalists’ House in January 2022.” With his white teeth and deep voice, Manar talks to the MDJ about citizen journalism in Syria, its origins and its particularities.
No rebellion without information
“During the March 2011 revolution, I was in Jordan. At first, I knew that citizen journalists existed and worked in Syria, because I saw them in the media like everyone else. Then, during the rebellion, I had the chance to work with some of them when I was an editor. As a general rule, media activists are the primary source for knowing what is happening on the Syrian ground.”
“The official media doesn’t talk about the revolution, but the citizen journalists do. Press freedom in Syria was totally non-existent until 2011, it was impossible to know what was really happening in the country. When the uprising started, the government said it was just a few protests here and there in the country. Thanks to these citizens, we saw quite the opposite.” This provoked the regime’s ire, labelling them as extremists spreading false information and killing the people. The other “government controlled, owned and run” media were then forced to publish propaganda and were forbidden to talk about anything else.
He considers himself lucky, however, to have moved to Jordan to escape the violence, and even luckier to have been able to work as a journalist for Jordanian media. “Most Arab countries do not accept foreigners as journalists for security reasons, and Jordan is one of them. But they needed qualified men and women at the time and had to hire me,” he says with an amused smile. This is why he cannot decently consider himself a citizen-journalist today, because of his training in established newspapers and professional media.
A profession threatened by both the regime and civilians
“Journalists were not so militant at the beginning, some started to speak more openly after weeks of conflict,” Manar explains in his calm voice. “After the shock, many journalists from the official media defected to the government. But with the violence of the terror regime imposed by the government, it was really hard to escape. For some, you can’t call them ‘media’ because their words are so dictated.”
A perfect example of the tense situation, the director of the private sector media Al-Watan is none other than the president’s own cousin, Rami Malkhouf, who is affiliated with the el-Assad regime. “Even journalists on el-Assad’s side are threatened, tortured or killed if they write about something they shouldn’t, or if they criticise the government.”
Many have been massacred with their families. Unfortunately, it is not only the regime that attacks the lives of journalists: terrorist groups remain a major threat to them. A few weeks ago, a media activist was killed with his pregnant wife. The suspects were identified but never prosecuted.
“In addition to these enemies, the polarization of the population makes people put all their emotions into their work and lets the regime divide them into ethnic groups. Our role as journalists is also to shape mindsets by showing the unity of citizens, think about the future and young Syrians are not there yet.”
Citizens-journalists or journalists ?
For him, citizen journalists must be distinguished from other journalists in the world: the first category certainly has experience built up in the field, but does not benefit from years of training in “established newspapers”, they are self-taught. “I am trained as a journalist to follow professional standards and to be independent. The way we write, the way we publish our photos, the way we verify our information, everything is codified. Citizen-journalists in Syria are very emotional in their work because they live the bombings every day,” which leads to some self-interest.
“Why did citizen journalists accept to put their lives in danger? Because they believe in the people and the rebellion, they were already committed,” explains Manar. “That’s why we have to be careful how we collect and verify information.”
Nevertheless, he insists on the importance of the work of these people, as for the Hama massacre in 1982: “nobody had heard about this massacre before the journalists revealed it. Of course, the Syrians were saying that “something happened in Hama” but no one could say for sure what exactly. Western countries thought that 1,000 people were murdered: thanks to these journalists, we now know that at least 25,000 people were killed.”
But after ten years of revolution, is this type of journalism destined to disappear or endure? Manar hesitates, his eyes glazed over, judging the situation too uncertain to decide. Citizen journalism has yet to survive the war, which could last for years. He hopes that this journalism will survive, because the world “needs to have someone on the ground in countries like Syria and other dictatorships and prove that rebellion is happening.”
To professionalize and protect media activists
But war is not the only modality to be taken into account: dictatorship, terrorism, poverty and journalists themselves could make this revolutionary trend disappear. “In Syria, there are two types of media: those based inside Syria and those based in foreign countries, in exile. Everywhere in Syria, the media are controlled by the regime even if they claim to be independent. Those operating outside Syria (for example in Turkey, Jordan or France) are more difficult to be independent. After all, they still need foreign money to keep running.”
“In Syria, polarization is very strong, the war keeps everyone poor and there is no exception for media that live on international funds. In this situation, they cannot be independent and neutral. Being independent is not only in relation to the regime, but also in relation to the donors.”
Finally, other “professional” journalists tend to criticise and underestimate the work of Syrians in order to dissociate themselves from it. “People question the usefulness of citizen journalists, saying that they are just media activists. When a citizen-journalist tries to work for a media outlet, he or she is often frowned upon because he or she has no experience in ‘real’ newsrooms.” This is another gap between these journalists and the population, while their work remains vital in the country.
For Manar, while citizen-journalists need to strengthen their professional skills, “their work for the free media remains underestimated and has become the work of the unemployed. This is not quite true! We cannot reject the work of all these media activists, but we cannot trust it in its entirety either. They put their lives at risk for us and for Syria and we have to give them some trust.”
Maud Baheng Daizey