When it comes to attacks on journalists, military defeat of the Islamic State ‘is not the end of the story’

Journalists film the evacuation of east Aleppo in December 2016. Photo by George Ourfalian/AFP.

The number of casualties among journalists in Syria dropped for the second year in a row in 2017. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) lists seven killed in Syria this year.

But while the number of journalist killings go down, assaults and censorship continue across the country in areas controlled by the government, rebels, Kurdish groups and others, says Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator at CPJ, which tracks attacks on journalists and media workers inside Syria and other countries.

“It’s very hard to point to a place in Syria right now where you can find a journalist who can be both independent and effective without getting into trouble,” Mansour tells Syria Direct’s Maria Nelson.

Q: Do you believe there is press freedom anywhere in Syria today?

It’s very hard to point to a place in Syria right now where you can find a journalist who can be both independent and effective without getting into trouble. Unfortunately, I don’t see that changing unless there is a political solution to the conflict in which all parties agree on a roadmap and implement it.

From what we saw in Iraq, a lot of the identity politics—the tensions that already exist right now between Syrians of various sects and origins—are likely to continue unless there is an open and free debate and the media is allowed to play a role in managing that debate. NGOs and the media can work together to help pave a way forward for reconciliation that takes into account accountability for human rights abuses and the need for healing in order to establish peace.

This debate can only happen if there is a way forward politically and commitment [by] the parties involved to allow for it. That is something that is hard to imagine happening with all the colliding regional and international interests. However, if there was a process in which this political consensus and road map is built, it has to have a media freedom component, and it has to have a lot of agency in allowing NGOs and media to peacefully bring to the public space sensitive issues, issues of public accountability and transparency.

Q: Prior to 2011, there was no free or open press in Syria. Then, when the revolution happened, we saw this explosion of independent media, citizen journalists and media activists, particularly in opposition areas. Today, as we see more and more parts of the country returning to government control, do you see these areas going back to the status quo ante? Or is there a way to maintain gains made towards a slightly more independent press?

We have an unstable situation, and there is an ongoing military campaign and several local, regional and international parties are yet to arrive to a solution about how to move forward in Syria.

What I can tell you is that we have seen, for example, a drop in the number of killed journalists, but we haven’t seen a drop in assaults against journalists. This year, in every city in Syria, whether controlled by Islamists, Kurds, the regime or its allies, there were cases of harassment and journalists complaining of press censorship and not being able to cover certain topics.

As we have seen in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the more instability there is, the more we can expect journalists to pay a price.

We must also take into consideration that some of those non-state actors in Syria, including the Kurdish authorities and Islamic militias, do not have the accountability and the restraint that comes with being a government. So it is much harder to conduct advocacy and establish an engagement strategy with them.

Q: One of the things that CPJ does is provide resources and assistance for journalists who undergo psychological trauma as a result of their work. How are post-traumatic stress and trauma affecting journalists covering the war in Syria? How big of a problem is this?

Earlier this year, we met with Syrian journalists in exile, in Europe and Lebanon. And we also met with people who cover the Syrian conflict from Iraq. A lot of them told us that trauma is one of the most common problems that they have. And for many of them, it wasn’t a post-traumatic event, it is an ongoing traumatic event.

Journalists film the evacuation of east Aleppo in December 2016. Photo by George Ourfalian/AFP.

The military conflict has been going for several years, and casualties among journalists have made journalists [themselves] a story.

The consensus was that the resources and the help available are not enough, and it’s mainly concentrated in well-established media outlets and international news, and not within local or even regional circles. This leaves a lot of local journalists and photojournalists behind and more vulnerable to the effect of trauma.

Q: One hallmark of international reporting on Syria, particularly as dangers on the ground increased, was that local journalists increasingly took on the burden of on-the-ground reporting for international outlets at great personal risk. I wonder if you could speak to the ethics of how international reporting has been done in Syria? Do you believe that major media outlets have taken enough measures to protect the reporters, stringers and photojournalists they work with inside Syria?

This is one of the things that CPJ has taken on as early as 2014. And what we realized at the time is that there is a need for a dialogue between media outlets, editors and all stakeholders involved in order to satisfy this need.

We sponsored an initiative that laid out some of the basic responsibilities that dozens of international news agencies and news outlets have agreed to provide in any future assignment working with freelancers. That was a starting point.

We saw that some organizations were often sending people into Syria. And that was a dilemma because, on one hand, we believe that there isn’t a story worth dying for. And on the other hand, you have a massive human rights crisis that the international community and international media should be paying attention to.

We also work with freelancers and journalists to help them understand how they can learn about safety so that they can avoid getting into trouble in the first place.

What we usually focus on is not employment issues, but rather we want to ensure that safety is part of the discussion, and that employers and journalists understand the risks and understand there are viable ways to mitigate the risks.

This year, for the second year in a row, we see that the number of journalists killed worldwide is going down. It is difficult to know exactly why. There are a number of factors, including governments using imprisonment to go after journalists instead of killing. There is more awareness about the UN and governmental responsibility to combat impunity in cases of killing journalists. There are also fewer military conflicts over the last five years. The conflicts in the Middle East and Syria have not ended, but at least no new conflicts have broken out since the defeat of the Islamic State.

The important factor here to understand is that Syria was an unprecedented situation. Syria did not have a vibrant or free media for decades, and then the uprising happened. Most of the people who covered it were local, inexperienced activists who built their way into the media landscape without much preparation or resources. That was one of the main reasons that the number of casualties shot really high. With the passage of time, and with people learning from the mistakes of others, we can only assume that they are being more careful.

Q: Do you see anything unique in the case of Syria today regarding challenges to press freedom compared to Iraq and other conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa?

I think we now have time to review and learn from the experience in Syria so far. One of the important things is that while people rejoice over the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, this doesn’t mean that the threats against journalists—including from the Islamic State—are necessarily going down.

The rise of non-state actors will continue to be a problem. Governments and the international community need to establish greater guarantees for the safety of journalists, so that we can avoid a scenario like what happened in Iraq, not just now but also after the invasion of American and coalition forces in 2003.

George Bush’s 2003 announcement in Iraq of ‘mission accomplished,’ diverted the attention of policymakers and media organizations away from developments inside the country for a long time, including the highest ever increase in journalist fatalities over the course of ten years in Iraq.

And right now, governments are celebrating the ‘end of the Islamic State.’ That’s not the end of the story.