Meet The Female Citizen Journalists Reporting From The Most Dangerous Place In The World
The Debrief: Syria has become a no-go for Western reporters, but these woman risk their lives to keep the world informed about what's happening in their country - 'the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist'
The stark orange of James Foley’s jumpsuit haunts of the eyes of the general public, journalists and editors alike. To the Western gaze, his execution, and those of Steven Sotloff and John Cantillie back in 2014, showed us the brutal cost of reporting in Syria. Even before this, the death of Marie Colvin in Homs back in 2012 marked the region as a ‘no go’ area for foreign reporters.
As news outlets ban their own employees from entering and desperately warn freelancers to stay away, it perhaps seems remarkable that there has been any information about the war in Syria at all. As we sit cosily in a country at ‘peace’, the bravery of reporters who choose to risk everything to bring back the truth seems unfathomable.
In January of this year it was confirmed that ISIS had executed a Syrian female citizen journalist in Raqqa for the first time. Her name was Ruqia Hassan. Since the beginning, the first and fastest news about the creeping control of ISIS, American bombs falling from the sky and stories of resisting rebel militias have come from the mouths of citizen journalists. Part of the power of ISIS is their propaganda machine, it is vital that they use strategies of media repression in order to make their ‘state’ appear inviting and strong. As Avin Shexmous, a female reporter from the Afrin region writes to me, ‘to be a journalist in Syria is now a duty upon anyone who can perform it’. Given the stakes, it comes as no surprise that this feels more like a call to arms rather than a job description.
In 2014, the BBC reported that Syria was the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist . To date, the CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) records that 94 media workers have been killed since the 2011 conflict began. But, due to the dual threat of both ISIS and Assad, the reporting of events has increased in significance. Rather than allowing either regime to manipulate history to suit their own needs, groups of citizen journalists are fighting to maintain the history of their country.
The most famous of these networks is Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). Named after the city that has become ISIS stronghold, the group of journalists have to hide within their collective identity to evade capture and execution. As a consequence, much of their work is based online and shared through social media networks. Despite precautions, the group is aware that they will not survive long while reporting. Tragically, as with the case of several of their members, leaving Syria is not even enough to be safe as they were followed and beheaded in Turkey.
In January, the group came to the forefront of the news again when Ruqia Hassan was killed by ISIS for reporting for them. But, in spite of this, some of these female journalists seems to be at best undervalued and, occasionally overlooked as journalists completely. As the Guardian asked, tongue firmly in cheek, ‘can girls even find Syria on the map?’
Speaking to Rula Asad, the co-founder of Syrian Female Journalist Network, it becomes clear that the women sources of news coming out of the country are quite literally being hidden from sight. ‘One of the reporters that we support through our network was executed by ISIS at the same time the headlines were all focussed on the death of Ruqia Hassan, who reported for the famous citizen journalist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, there in Raqqa. However, we did not announce it because her family did not want us saying anything. In my opinion, this is because of the tradition of honour’ she says.
‘The families are facing the threat of extremism and would be punished not only for journalism but also for breaking the taboo of women being involved in the public sphere. Often, daughters do not even tell their families what they have chosen to do’
Through Rula, I was able to connect with Avin who shared similar findings from a report she wrote focussing on the risks women faced . ‘One journalist talked about her arrest by the regime and the suffering she felt and the second was about a married woman and mother who was assaulted and put in prison and had many problems with husband. When she was released , her husband forced her to go to Lebanon just to hide her from people’s sight.’
Rula, alongside a core team of 5 others, has been working to promote the journalism of Syrian women since 2011. In the beginning , she says a lot of citizen journalists were not aware of issues surrounding credibility of sources, advocacy for freedom of expression or human rights so they ran workshops to support the content being created by women on the ground.
Despite the high risks, Rula says she never advises the women to stop working. Archaic thinking has it that women are more of a risk when placed on the frontline but in Syria these women are living and breathing it. You might think that the frontline would be the most dangerous place to be, but collecting information on the ground is just as, if not more dangerous.
Rula recounts that even prior to the revolution there were severe sanctions for journalists and magazines. She tells me that prior to 2010, when she was writing about a drought in Syria and its effects on farmers, the magazine she was working for was threatened with closure by the government if they published her photo essay.
If oppression of journalism was commonplace under Assad, it has become increasingly violent since 2011. Now, Rula says, she advises journalists to not tell anyone what they are doing except a close circle of friends, to attempt to remain unseen and be very cautious about hiding their identity. In the classes hosted by the Syrian Female Journalist Network, they give online security training - teaching the women how to code emails and recommend always deleting sources.
Despite the fact that these female journalists are used to working in often dangerous conditions in Syria, some of the stories offered by Rula about the troubles they encounter seem to be inherently gender-based: women being asked to make the coffee, workplace harassment and a sustained disbelief that women can handle the ‘serious’ frontline work without making a nuisance of themselves.
She also suspects that generally accepted international stereotypes about women’s work have contributed to an incorrect perception of Syrian women in the West. ‘When the foreign press come, they just want to make a picture of a woman crying on the border to say that we are victims, we are refugees and we need help. There are women crying on the borders and we would like their support… But, come on’, she laughs, ‘we are not all the same!’
Despite the media’s fascination with Kurdish female guerrilla fighters, Rula believes that the West continues to perpetuate an image of women as weak . She says ‘the Kurdish female fighters were held up and celebrated as heroes; they received a lot of attention and glory. They are these things but it seemed to be that the Sunni Muslim women who also fought for their freedom in rural Damascus were ignored because the image of the covered woman defending her country and children didn’t fit what the West wanted to see.’
Rule, tells me ‘that in Geneva Syrian women were invited to speak at the Peace and Democracy conference with the United Nations. Sometimes, men get a lot more coverage from the Western media but views are starting to shift to see the value of having women in peaceful negotiations. However, funds for journalism are always hard to come by; our work, of both genders, needs to be a priority not always secondary’.
Translation by Reem Khabbazy
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