Articles

SYRIA. The difficult integration of citizens-journalists in the media industry

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

A picture from Alexander Andrews

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

War in Afghanistan : one year under the Taliban regime

Introduction:

Last year, on August 15th, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was fall down on the basis of an international and domestic conspiracy and the Taliban ruled the entire country, they (Taliban) had a golden chance to prove themselves that they can represent this great nation and have the knowledge and art to lead the country towards prosperity and stability, but unfortunately only the war is stopped for a short period of time, it is a temporary positive change in the security situation, but the country has gone in a negative direction in all other areas.

The previous republican government:

The result of the withdrawal of the United States and NATO from Afghanistan was heartbreaking, sad and devastating for many Afghans, although the collapse of the previous republican government led and reason to the return of the Taliban, it was corrupt in different parts, but still it was a united government of America and NATO to fight against Islamist extremist groups in Afghanistan and the region, It celebrated and nurtured democratic values ​​and tried to guarantee these values ​​to Afghans, (Although these values ​​were very difficult to implement so quickly and the country should have a full-fledged liberal democracy).

Certainly, the previous system was more valuable than the current successor.

Islamic Emirate of the Taliban:

The Taliban’s one-year rule, especially their treatment of girls and women, shows that the Taliban intends to turn Afghanistan towards extremism based on a narrow view of Islam، and it seems that they will not able to help the country in economic reconstruction., which had signed at the beginning of the withdrawal of foreign forces, it could not be saved.

Ideological agreement and relations with other extremists groups:

Although the Kabul attack that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was a major achievement for the intelligence and counter-terrorism communities, the presence of al-Zawahiri in the country’s capital and within a few kilometers of the presidential-place (Arg) shows that Taliban still willing to provide hiding places to international terrorist groups, the country with a population of nearly 40 million and the West has been helping them for the past 20 years is condemned to humiliation and deprivation.

Human Rights:

On the verge of completing one year of the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan, the Human Rights Watch Foundation has published a report called “A year full of disasters of the Taliban government”.

It is stated in this report that the terrible actions of the Taliban in the field of human rights and the interaction of this group with the international community have led to their isolation.

In the report of the Human Rights Watch Foundation, it is stated (that the Taliban have violated their promises in the field of human rights since taking over Afghanistan).

According to the report of the Human Rights Watch Foundation, the Taliban have imposed severe restrictions on women and the media and have arbitrarily arrested, tortured and executed opponents.

According to this report, since the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, 90 percent of the people of this country are suffering from food insecurity and millions of children have suffered from malnutrition.

One year after the rule of the Taliban, the greatest losses have been inflicted on the women of Afghanistan, thousands of women have lost their jobs, millions of girls have been prevented from going to school, and restrictions have been imposed on their presence in society, and they have been suppressed in the political arena.

During the republic government among the 249 members of the Afghan House of Representatives (Wolosi Jirga), 69 of them were women, and among the 102 representatives in the Senate, almost half of them were women.

In the previous republic government, nearly 5,000 women worked in the ranks of the Afghan Defense Forces.

Women’s teams in various fields such as football, basketball and martial arts had impressive activities in all provinces, now these activities have come to zero and their participation in sports is prohibited under the shadow of the Taliban regime.

With the arrival of the Taliban it has been implemented, preventing women from working, closing schools to female students above the sixth grade, covering the faces of female TV presenters, and imposing other restrictions on women have severely limited the public space for women in Afghanistan.

Human Disaster:

The international aid organization (World vision) in its report which is published on August threatened that the development achievements of the people of Afghanistan, which have been achieved with many problems, are in serious danger, (World Vision) has said that the situation of children in Afghanistan is more dangerous than ever, that some call it the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

The report states that this is challenging the ability of families to survive, rapidly deteriorating the public health system and ultimately endangering the rights and protections of Afghan children. 

The UN’s Humanitarian Aid Coordinator (OCHA) says that around 25 million people in Afghanistan are currently living in poverty, and the organization has reported that 900,000 jobs will be out of the labor market this year.

Freedom of speech:

The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York has published a report calling for the release of journalists imprisoned by the Taliban and violence against the media. In this report, it is said that a large number of journalists left the country due to violence and harassment, and due to the restrictions and bad economic situation, a number of newspapers, radio stations and television stations have been shut down. It is stated in this report that Afghanistan had 547 media outlets before August 15 of last year, but a year later, 219 media outlets stopped their activities and 76.19% of 11,857 journalists lost their jobs.

The Reporters Without Borders organization has published a report saying that after the rule of the Taliban, Afghanistan has lost 39.59% of its media and 59.87% of journalists, especially female journalists, and three quarters of them are now unemployed. According to this organization, all this happened amid the deep economic crisis and suppression of press freedom.

Reporters Without Borders Secretary General Christophe Delor said: “Journalism was destroyed in Afghanistan last year.”

He stated: “The media and journalists are subjected to unfair regulations that limit the freedom of the media and open the way for repression and harassment.

This organization has noted that women journalists were the most affected and in 11 provinces of Afghanistan, where there were 2,756 female journalists and media workers, now only 656 are working.

The report states that accusations of “immorality or behavior contrary to society’s values” are widely used as a pretext for harassing female journalists and sending them home.

Health system:

 Johanniter International Assistance has said that Afghanistan’s health system has returned to the situation 20 years ago due to the cessation of international development aid and economic isolation.

Holger Wagner the head of Janitor’s international aid program, said that 70% of people’s primary health care expenses were financed by the international community in the past years, and if it is cut off, employees’ salaries will no longer be paid, medicine and equipment will not be provided, and it will not be possible to provide health facilities.

 “This poor first aid supply is now facing an unprecedentedly dramatic humanitarian situation, especially for children – if they survive – their development will be stunted, with fatal consequences for the country’s future society,” adds Wagner.

Brain Drain:

 Thousands of Afghans were forced to leave their country, The majority of these Afghans are professionals, scholars of contemporary sciences and technology, and elites of Afghanistan.

According to experts of the migration; this great wave of manpower will have extremely destructive effects on the future of Afghanistan.

Abbas Kamund, the former spokesperson of the American Embassy in Kabul said that in the past 21 years of American investments in the field of human capacity development in Afghanistan, “the investments were comprehensive, extensive and very huge, maybe there is no exact figure yet, but estimates are that in the fields of military, economic, political, state building and infrastructure, the expenditures of the United States of America, including military expenditures, reached about two trillion dollars.

However, as a result of the withdrawal of international forces led by the United States from Afghanistan on August 15, 2021 and the rise of the Taliban group, thousands of educated, professional and experienced Afghans were forced to leave Afghanistan.

Taliban Foreign Relations:

Taliban has relations with several countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and China. There are many comments about the Taliban’s relationship with the above countries, especially Pakistan, I will not go there, I will only focus on China-Taliban relation.

China is one of the biggest economic powers in the region and has the capacity to help the Taliban through investment, also the Taliban were very hopeful at the beginning to use China’s influence in their international relations. 

China:

A checkpoint near Karkar mine in Baghlan province was under the attack by IS-K forces at night, it’s says; all the fighters of that checkpoint were killed in this attack, but there is a possibility that these dead fighters were Uyghur who were killed by the Taliban because of their commitment to China, the next night Taliban closed the Baghlan-Kundz highway for almost half a day, and no word of that incident was released to the media.

China is worried about Muslim Uyghurs fighters who can cause rebellion in this country through the common border with Afghanistan and Central Asia, therefore it is eager to have a relationship with the Taliban, this relation is based more to watch the Taliban, China want to be make sure that there is no dangerous for them, and they can follow up the Uyghurs fighters, but whether the Taliban have really taken the actions that China wants against the Uyghurs who oppose China, It is a question?

But; in the latest case, the English section of the Voice of America published the opinion of American analysts and said that China and the Taliban are “disappointed” with each other.  American analysts have considered the reason for China’s disappointment with the Taliban to be the failure to suppress Uyghur extremist groups, which the Taliban have not implemented in the past year despite repeated promises, on the contrary, the Taliban wants economic cooperation and international legitimacy from China.

With the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, the concerns of China, a country that the Taliban had counted on, have increased.

There are many reports that the Turkestan Islamic Movement, whose founders are Uyghur extremists, are based in parts of Baghlan province and are closely cooperating with the Taliban.

The Opium

Terrorism and opium have a synergistic relationship and the main source of financing, equipping and the economic structure of violent groups in the region is this lucrative business.

The Taliban had created a large network of opium trafficking in the region, the Taliban’s opium cultivation, refining and trafficking network starts from the big farmers who are known as the local opium mafia in the regions and reaches the high-ranking military commanders and political-religious leaders of this group.

Opium is considered to be one of the economic sources of financing the war in Afghanistan, which is the main arm of the Taliban’s criminal economy and plays an essential role in political instability.

Past year, Taliban commanders and leaders of this group intensified the process of opium smuggling and production and took it from the hands of local traffickers, before the Taliban’s strategy was that the military commanders cooperated with the help of local traffickers who were not members of the Taliban group, but after the occupation of Afghanistan, the middle-ranking commanders of the Taliban also limited the hands of non-Taliban traffickers and took over the circulation of opium from cultivation to trafficking, a large part of them who were engaged in war are now engaged in the cultivation and trafficking of drugs, which is very profitable.

The New York Times has reported that Molavi Yaqoub, the Minister of Defense of Taliban during his trip to Doha asked the Americans to release Bashir Noorzai, a well-known smuggler and financial supporter of the Taliban.

IS-K

 Amir Khan Motaqi, Taliban’s foreign minister, said at the Tashkent meeting earlier this month that 1,800 IS-K fighters were released from Bagram and Pulcherkhi prisons when the Taliban captured Kabul.

On Thursday, 11 August the news website of the ISIS group (Amaq) claimed responsibility for the killing of Maulvi Rahimullah Haqqani, one of the senior members of the Haqqani network, by publishing a newsletter.

In this newsletter, it is said that the suicide attacker of this group bypassed all the security fortifications, reached Rahimullah Haqqani’s school and detonated his suicide vest.

ISIS has claimed that including this senior member of the Taliban group, several others were also killed in this attack.

Rahimullah Haqqani, a member of the Haqqani network, was active in Pakistan before the Taliban took over Afghanistan and ran a religious school in Peshawar, after the collapse of the Afghan government, he moved his school to Kabul.

Many members of the Taliban, including the commanders and leaders of this group, are students of Sheikh Rahimullah Haqqani School, which was active in Peshawar for the past 20 years.

This shows that the Taliban has failed to control IS-K attacks that have been carried out several times in the past one year, However, control of such attacks requires a network and advanced information tools, which Taliban do not have both.

In the early days of Taliban rule over Afghanistan, IS-K carried out the deadliest terrorist attack in Kabul airport during the evacuation process, in which more than 200 people, including American forces, were killed and wounded, In another IS-K attack on a mosque in Kunduz, more than 50 Shia worshipers were killed and wounded, a week after the attack on Kunduz, the bloodiest terrorist attack took place in Kandahar, as a result of which about 40 people were killed and more than 70 people were injured, after that, IS-K planned and executed other bloody attacks in Mazar-i-Sharif and west of Kabul, On the 7th and 8th of Muharram, this group killed more than 90 people in Kabul.

Conclusion:

The findings of a new survey about the situation in Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban show that 92 percent of the interviewees are completely dissatisfied with the actions of the Taliban and only 8 percent of the people asked for the continuation of the Taliban’s actions.

This survey was conducted by the Afghanistan Institute of Strategic Research and Studies in 20 provinces of the country, and the questions were answered by 2000 interviewees who were between 18 and 40 years old. 64 percent of the interviewees are men and 36 percent are women.

If the Taliban still can’t wake up from the sleep of neglect and think that they can govern by what they are thinking, then this is a very difficult task. The above shortcomings should be rationally thought about. There is still time to move together with the 20th century.  And the fundamental rights of the people of Afghanistan can be restored. If they want to be recognized by the world, then it is very important that legitimacy should be taken from the nation first. International legitimacy will come automatically, even now from the world and from the opponents at home.  To really open the doors of dialogue and commit to building a system that is representative of all political and ethnic currents and human rights of Afghans can be given.

Warning to the international community:

 Famous American Senator Lindsey Graham said on Tuesday, August 16 (Zamri 25) that there is a possibility of another attack from Afghanistan on America and America’s allies, the source of which would be Afghanistan.

 Mr. Graham added in a statement that America has not ended any war but has started another war because President Biden made a hasty decision.

Graham explained, the conditions in Afghanistan are terrible and all the work that was done in the last 20 years has been displaced because now the training camps that were in that country before September 11th are being rebuilt.

* Availability of American weapons worth billions of dollars with the Taliban:

 The American Ministry of Defense or the Pentagon has said in recent statements that weapons and ammunition worth about 7 billion dollars have been left in this country while leaving Afghanistan.  The source says that these weapons and ammunition also include cars, tanks and airplanes.  American officials say that more than 300,000 guns and other handguns have been left from the former government to the current government. Considering that this is a fragile situation, it is necessary to help the people of Afghanistan on the one hand through human sympathy and on the other hand to take necessary steps to prevent any danger facing the world.  Forty years, nations are tired of fighting and no longer want to present the war as a solution. America and the world can convince the Taliban to guarantee the basic rights of the people of Afghanistan through the countries that support the Taliban and on the basis of soft pressure.  It should be done through legitimate and democratic means.

On the basis of soft pressure, the Taliban have been convinced that the basic rights of the people of Afghanistan are guaranteed and that the coming to power is done through legitimate and democratic means.

Written by Noorwali Khpalwak 21/08/2022, Paris

Exile and Journalism in a Global Pandemic: Voices from the MDJ

After a three month-long state-mandated lockdown, a historian interviewed the staff members and exiled media professionals who respectively work and live at the Maison des Journalistes regarding the impact of the covid19 pandemic on their lives. While the personnel talked about their current preoccupations vis-à-vis asylum applications and press freedom in professional terms, the asylum-seeking journalists shared their own experiences of exile and journalism from a much more intimate perspective.

The association Maison des Journalistes (“House of Journalists” – from now on MDJ) promotes three connected missions: 1) welcoming and supporting asylum-seeking media professionals in France by providing them with free accommodation in Paris; 2) fostering a healthy, free, and diverse digital public sphere encouraging exiled journalists’ professional activity; 3) spreading awareness of press freedom violation in the world among the youth through public events in schools, universities, and prisons.

I started an internship at the MDJ on June 8, 2020. Only one week before my arrival, the personnel had come back to the office for the first time since March 13, 2020. During the previous long months of state-mandated lockdown, the working operations had changed: remote working had become the rule and the members of the staff could not assist journalists through in-person meetings.

The fourteen exiled journalists the MDJ welcomes and provide with living accommodations and legal support were slowly rediscovering the liberty of leaving their rooms, returning to French language or journalism classes, and walk through Paris without restrictions. [Editor’s Note: Journalists could freely move within the residence, though they were recommended to practice social distancing and spend most of their time in their rooms]

My internship, thus, began in a very particular moment of the association’s life. The personnel were in the process of adapting all activities to the sanitary norms required by the covid19 pandemic.

I am an historian and as such I am interested in change over time, in the search for evidence, and in the analysis of continuities and discontinuities around a specific event or question. As I gradually settled in the MDJ, I started asking myself whether since the outbreak of the pandemic the people who work and live at the MDJ have experienced profound changes in the way they interpret and interact with what surrounds them or not. More specifically, do the MDJ’s staff and journalists think differently of the MDJ as both association and residence as well as of the broad notions of journalism and exile? If so, why?

To find answers to my questions, in the period from June 22 to July 6 I interviewed three of the seven staff members and five of the fourteen exiled journalists who respectively work and live at the MDJ. While I asked the same questions to all interviewees, in the end each conversation was different in terms of intensity, duration, location, level of formality, language (English, French), means of communication (written, oral) and collection of data (note taking, sound recording). I evaluated that, as my priority was to put my interlocutor at ease, I needed to adapt the interview format to each person’s rhythm and personality.

No matter their position or background, all interviewees said that, on a logistical level, the lockdown brought about challenges that still endure. The waiting time for an asylum procedure has significantly increased because the French Office for Refugee and Stateless People’s buildings closed during the lockdown and are currently facing a backlog; exiled journalists’ search for jobs and affordable accommodations has become more difficult as a result of the current economic crisis, which affects the association’s funding too; the MDJ and its partners had to postpone or cancel all public meetings, conferences, and debates for safety reasons. The Summer break too contributes to such a climate of wait, suspension, and uncertainty, as in France schools, universities, and most public offices usually either close or reduce their operations in July and August.

In interviews, the staff members highlighted the new challenges they face professionally, while exiled journalists lingered instead on how they experienced the health crisis and its effect on their life from a much more intimate perspective.

On the one hand, the Director Darline Cothière, the Partnership & Fundraiser Officer Camille Peyssard-Miqueau, and the Social Inclusion Officer Antonin Tort are all concerned with the financial crisis and its negative effect on the funding of the MDJ.

As the MDJ’s principal sponsors – mostly French medias – suffer a deterioration of their finances, one of the main preoccupations of the association is to develop new partnerships and initiatives that will contribute to the economic support of the MDJ.

Resident journalists did not place the financial crisis at the core of their concerns. The lockdown disrupted their quotidian lives. What they experienced as a major change in their lives is their habits in France and in the MDJ residence.  Each journalist had to deal with new inquietudes and loss of references.

The Director Darline Cothière interpreted exilees’ individual condition in terms of either resilience or fragility, depending on each person’s aptitudes and life trajectories.

Individually, the lockdown has made all of us weaker: each person as a result of their own capacities and life trajectory. Now, exiled journalists are characterized by resilience. […] For them, the health crisis has not been a repression, rather one more difficult experience to handle. Some journalists, nevertheless, lived this challenge with much concern and anxiety, which is legitimate. Why? They already face wait and live a transition period from their past life to their future life. Uncertainty plays an important role in their anxiety and frustration: uncertainty about their refugee status, the pandemic like us all, but also welfare benefits, family reunification, and the search for jobs.

The journalists found themselves locked in the residence for months. They confronted each other’s anxieties, frustrations, and expectations regarding the MDJ’s response to the health crisis.

As a Kurdish exiled photographer from Iraq, Karzan obtained his political refugee status in France in 2019.

A few journalists felt abandoned during that period. According to the Director, such a reaction is natural and made of the MDJ a microcosm of society:

There was a group effect. All the individual frustrations contributed to creating a climate of generalized concern. Those who were not afraid too became anxious. The MDJ, just like society, developed a movement of collective revindication and questioned the institutions’ legitimacy. Such a crisis uncovered that some journalists had a certain view of the MDJ that did not correspond to its real missions. […] During the lockdown, the journalists shared the same place and talked about their own frustrations and expectations. In these confrontations, fake information on the MDJ started circulating like fake news! This episode gave us the opportunity to identify a communication problem between the personnel and the journalists, and thus to elaborate new solutions: to inform journalists on the powers and missions of the MDJ, to organize workshops and regular meetings. The lockdown was but an opportunity to identify a problem and strengthen communication.

Representation of exile by the Mexican exiled cartoonist Boligán.

The first thing that struck me about exiled journalists’ responses to my questions was that they kept telling me about their life before the exile or connected their present condition with previous experiences they had in their home country.

When talking about his understanding of the lockdown as a distortion of the intertwining of space and time, Mohammed explained:

My understanding of time and space comes from my experience. Not my experience of the past lockdown, but of the besiegement of Douma, my city. You know when they say that the eye needs to look at a distant object as to be stimulated and feel comfortable. I didn’t see a distant object for 7 years in Syria. The sight in Syria is exhausting for the eye. Kidnapping, bombing, arresting, jihad allowed only a close sight. For 7 years they tried all weapons you can imagine on us, and after 7 years when this same space was still a target of attacks the time was still not running. When I left Syria in 2018 I felt like it was 2012, there had been no passing of time. I left Syria and arrived in Turkey. In Turkey, I saw for the first time people paying by touch. For me it was the first time in 8 years to see more than 800 people gathering in a place. In the train station in Turkey, there were 500 people arriving and leaving, and I realized that the world is so much connected for the first time. The lockdown is somehow connected to that experience of besiegement. It’s very different too: the whole world was in lockdown at the same time. The only aspect of the current crisis to hurt me has been the inequality of the virus: the virus affects some people much more than others. Just like the war in Syria. This idea of space/time of mine comes from the besiegement of my city.

Mamadou had a similar attitude:

I experienced Ebola in Guinea Conakry, my country. Ebola was not contained in my country because of the bad quality of health services. However, a vaccine has been found and there have been reliable treatments in addition to the vaccine. Moreover, it was an epidemic, not a pandemic. This is the main difference compared to the coronavirus.

Drawing on fakenews and Covid19 by the French cartoonist Plantu. Exhibition organized by the City of Paris in occasion of "Un été particulier".

The second thing that struck me is that all the journalists expressed an ardor for journalism that far exceeded professional fulfillment.  For them, journalism is not just a profession, it is a life mission. Mamadou explained why he chose not to publish articles during the lockdown and what has concerned him the most since the outbreak of the pandemic:

A journalist is by definition someone who adapts to a new situation. With the health crisis I realized that journalists had the great responsibility of keeping the readership informed on what was going on in the world. Many journalists decided to report the brute data on the thousands of daily positive cases and deaths, and by doing so they contributed to giving articles a certain quality and thus to actively contributing to such a climate of anxiety. I did not write much because I saw that the news with the brute data on deaths added sadness and anxiety. Moreover, I realized that the fake news circulated a lot: there was a proliferation of fake information in countries like mine where the leadership does not give journalists the permission to get access to the information on the pandemic. This situation challenged journalists all over the world, not just in Guinea Conakry. It was one of the most important challenges faced by press freedom. Journalists could not freely go on the field to verify the quality of sources; they could not act as first-hand witnesses. I thus decided to engage myself in spreading awareness of the quality of the news rather than in the writing of articles.

Other journalists as well evoked fake news, lack of transparency, and journalists’ responsibilities in the current health crisis. Mohammed said:

During the lockdown fake news and tabloid news circulated more than before. For example, a friend of mine sent me a video of a supposedly coronavirus-infected person leaking a handrail in the metro. But of course there was no proof that this person did that during the pandemic, or that he was actually sick. In Syria, this kind of issues literally kills people. Do you know what happens if someone says that tomorrow there is no sugar or toilet paper in the stores in my city in Syria?

Maiirbek (Kazakh investigative reporter on Chinese concentration camps):

Because of the pandemic situation, I interacted less frequently with sources in China and Kazakhstan.

And an Egyptian video journalist who asked me to remain anonymous confessed to me:

I have been much worried for my family because there is no transparence and press freedom in Egypt, and you cannot know how the situation develops. I always contact my relatives and tell them to stay at home, while in Egypt the medias say that everything is fine. In Africa, in Egypt the situation is very critical because there are no developed hospitals. I am still much concerned. The situation gets worse, and the epidemic propagates.

Bilal is a Turkish caricaturist in exile as a result of his criticism of President Erdogan’s policy.

On the other hand, the five exiled journalists I interviewed were more willing to share their personal perspectives on the pandemic and its impact on the present and the future.

Mohammed (Syrian photojournalist at EPA.eu) described his perception of the lockdown in terms of space and time.

What makes speed is the intertwining of time and space. When space is static for a long period, time stops: speed decreases to almost zero.

“Lockdown: you lock your spirit in the down”, Mohammed told me.

What happened during the lockdown is that the stopping of time brought about weaknesses and an overall sense of depression at the MDJ:

During the lockdown, the 2h/day I spent with the other journalists were very sick, because of the difficult time. Journalists wouldn’t go to the gym, school, etc. and had a very negative attitude. By now, I am more aware about the limits and fragilities of anyone (including me). Another problem is that many people who had been in conflict areas have an attitude that relativizes the pandemic, like “we suffered a lot in our life, we don’t care about coronavirus”. When I talk to my friends in Syria, they don’t care. They say: “we will die, finally”.

Beyond the overall feelings of hopelessness, exiled journalists perceived and reacted to the lockdown in different ways. For example, both Adam (Chadian free-lance journalist) and Mamadou (free-lance journalist from Guinea Conakry) told me that, when the French government established the lockdown, the fourteen journalists abruptly distanced themselves, each isolating in their room. “This big family brutally distanced itself”, Mamadou said.

Yet, isolation had different meanings for the two. Adam faced unbearable boredom and learned to be patient.

Mamadou, conversely, told me that he and other journalists experienced a deep lack of self-confidence as from one day to the other their advisors (professional, legal, academic) were not available to support them. As his university professors could not instruct him in person on his thesis, Mamadou was forced to work on his own. This gave him the opportunity to gain self-confidence and a renewed sense of responsibility:

We used to see people, have open doors. I loved to stop by the personnel’s offices and say “hello” every morning. We found ourselves without any service, which gave us new responsibilities. […] Among journalists, before the lockdown, we didn’t need each other. The lockdown solidified solidarity. We helped each other with our new responsibilities, for example I helped a fellow journalist write e-mails in French. […] I feel like I am more independent than before because I work on my own and don’t need the approval or advice of my professors. I learned that I can be alone and work confidently.

Both Adam and Mamadou felt “united from a distance”, in Adam’s words, but in such a distance each found different teachings.

Mohammed’s experience of the lockdown was still different and corresponded to what the Director of the MDJ calls the “resilience” of political refugees:

Being in exile, which I really don’t wish you to try, but imagine, in exile, everything is painful, and all suffering means nothing to me. It’s like a knife stabbed in your heart, you don’t care if a bee comes to bite you. You’ll have this poker face without any feeling, all your thought will be on your country. Exile is like a knife that prevents any needle to stab in you. It’s just a poker feeling, a poker face in the heart. If you drink coffee and you drink tea after, you won’t feel the taste of tea because the taste of coffee is too strong. For me the pandemic is a needle, because the government is on your side, people are on your side, there is a common enemy to fight. But I am always discriminated: I am accused to be affiliated with ISIS, I can’t speak French but people only speak in French to me, even the refugees here discriminate the refugees and only respect the French. In Arabic exile has a very bad meaning. It comes from the verb “push someone to leave”, the idea is of “forced displacement”. If you say it in Arabic you should cry.

Whereas the staff members talked to me only in professional terms, these answers suggest that exiled journalists did not distinguish between their professional and personal understandings of both the pandemic and the lockdown.

During the lockdown, Mamadou got upset about police controls on the mobility of people. The French state mandated that people could leave their home only for 1h/day within 1 km from their home and hold a signed self-certification that reported the exact time and reasons for the leaving. Exiles, Mamadou told me, are afraid of being asked for documents by the police each time they leave their shelter. The usual worry about being inspected, during the lockdown, became a constant fear for him. The police could ask anybody for documentation at any time, not in response to a particular instance. Such a climate of surveillance was a source of wide-spread anxiety among political refugees like Mamadou.

The following passage by Mohammed best exemplifies how exiled journalists made recurrent references to life before exile and journalism as a life mission. In midst of the lockdown, in mid-April, his press agency appointed him to take a picture of the 8 pm collective clapping, a daily ritual for people in France to show their gratitude for hospital workers from their window. That day, Mohammed was invested by similar feelings to those he experienced as a photojournalist in Syria:

Taking a picture is not just about the frame, the angle or perspective. I should care about the lightness and the time (and time and lightness are also connected). Once I had to take a picture of the 8pm clapping that included the Eiffel Tour. This reminded me of my time in Syria, when I took pictures during the suspension of the curfew, when I waited for safety moments to take pictures and go out from my shelters. Sometimes I just had one minute or just 40 seconds. I didn’t know where the bomb would come from, or my safety. I didn’t know how to take pictures, and from what angle, and with what lightness, because the rest of the day I was all the time in the shelter. I needed to build my time in the very short safety time. I was in the shelter, I received Whatsapp messages on what was going on, and then I would go out and take a picture of a bird, and then I would start hearing the noise of bombs and run to my shelter. So what happened during the lockdown was that I was assigned to take pictures of people who were clapping at 8pm, and I wanted to put the Eiffel Tower in the background. The clapping lasted only a few minutes, if not seconds. I had to go and take a picture. I found a woman on a balcony and I had the feeling that she would clap. I was afraid of taking pictures because I felt the pressure of the deadline. In one minute, I was able to take more than 300 takes, of which 5 good shots. It reminded me of when I was in Syria. I was back to the MDJ feeling just like when I went back to my shelter in Syria.

The exiled journalists that I interviewed do not envisage exile and journalism differently than they did before the outbreak of the pandemic and the lockdown. Rather, the crisis gave them the possibility to better understand their own identity of exiles as well as to confirm the importance of their action as journalists.

Picture by Mohammed of 8pm clapping with the Eiffel Tower in the background. April 2020. Courtesy of EPA-EFE/MOHAMMED BADRA.

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