?I am a female journalist… Do I like my pen name

By: Jouri Mohammed, (pen name, journalist, resident of Damascus)

Five continuous hours of power outage, the power of my laptop battery as well as that of the standby battery run out of charge.  I have not finished my due journalistic material yet.  The technological solutions end here and I resort to my primitive tools: pen and paper.

So many journalists are done with the use of this method to write down their materials.  Still, writing on paper is better than whirring about, when the electric current is back on, writing down the ideas on the laptop and forgetting some of them while scurrying along to charge standby batteries, load the washing machine with a batch of laundry, iron my clothes and vacuum the apartment, all in one hour! You cannot be an “ordinary” journalist under extraordinary circumstances.

Among people

The best way to write your report or article is to carry your laptop on your back and go to the nearest coffee shop where there is internet and a lot of people. Of course, this is not the best option, but it is a good one for those who do not work for institutions that provide electricity and internet to their staff.  I have to travel for about two hours to reach the Capital city center.  Before the war, this journey took less than an hour.  It is not only a matter of the time spent waiting at military checkpoints; at each checkpoint you have to stay calm and alerted as a soldier may  ask you to step out of the van or the cab and arrests you.  I am not surprised that Syria ranks high on the list of countries considered the worst for journalists and their freedom.

I shall not forget those moments of fear, anxiety, and trepidation I had suffered, along with my family, when I received a phone call in March last year. The number on my telephone screen did not seem strange or suspicious. It was an ordinary number, just like any other number, and I usually answer unknown numbers without hesitation. I have been a journalist for ten years and have dealt with a large number of people, whose numbers I cannot save.  The voice of the caller was very calm. He asked me if I was the very same journalist he was looking for; and I answered “yes.”  He then introduced himself as a security agent reporting to a branch of the Political Security, and said that there was a warrant summoning me to “pay a visit” to a security branch.  I did not sleep a wink that night; but morning came, at last.  I deleted all the messages in my accounts and unfriended a large number of my personal contacts.  I took my old mobile phone and went to that security branch alone.  I brought no one because I, alone, have to bear the cost of her intransigence and persistence in this profession that my mother describes as “the accursed.”  We, journalists, have no union or syndicate to cover our backs, except on paper.  The ministry does not know most of us barring on the occasions when it is time for one of us to pay his/her financial dues; and it limits itself to sending us “notes” about our writings, which may lead to “stopping your activity should you do it again.”

The reception was not bad compared with what I had heard regarding the experiences of my friends.  I was “summoned up,” not dragged in, nor arrested, which was a good point!  I was interrogated by a warrant officer, a man at the end of his thirties.  The first half hour goes slowly: I dictate the answers and he records them down in longhand. At the end of the interrogation, which lasted for nearly two hours, the interrogator confronted me with a bunch of printed papers showing a “like” of mine on a post by someone discussing the Syrian parliamentary elections.  I did not deny the charge. The post was not subversive, neither in terms of content, nor in terms of the blogger.  Someone has reported against me and the “like” was a mere excuse.  At the end of the “questioning,” the officer in charge of the department summoned me to his office and ordered me a cup of coffee.  He said that the enemies of the homeland were many, and that we, women journalists, might put “likes” without realizing the danger the “like” poses to our own security and the security of the country; especially as “we” are followed by a large number of ordinary people who will follow us as well. The officer did not, as he said, doubt my patriotism at all, but as a girl I might thoughtlessly get carried away unheeding of “the consequences.  He asked me to be more careful with my friends and where I post my “likes,” adding that here were a lot of pages that display dresses, clothes, and cooking and those would be more useful to me, and would cause “less headache for me and my family.  He finished by saying that they would keep an eye on me for my own interest.

I am not here

Since the beginning of my career in journalism, I have aspired to be an investigative journalist who unveils corruption and delivers peace for all… a big flowery dream for it is rare to come across an editor or head of department who will encourage you to achieve this dream. If you are a pretty girl, the art and artists’ page will be your place; if you happen to be ranked acceptable in terms of beauty, the kitchen and entertainment page will be your home.  Otherwise, you might be appointed to cover the activities of cultural centers.

Few Syrian women journalists were able to force themselves into the field of investigative journalism, until we stood in the field to cover the news.  It is true that there are a lot of trespasses in this milieu, but we have placed our feet on the first step of the ladder.

For me, the use of a pen name feels like wearing stolen clothes, no one calls me by that name except in correspondence with the editor-in chief who is thousands of kilometers away.  I have not heard the name’s ring and it brings me only a sense of alienation.

Ever since women have joined the field of writing, be it the writing of novels or journalism, they have resorted to pen names, the majority of which have been male ones. The pen name I chose is a feminine one with a nice scent.  Should I use the pen name, use my real name, and incur the “security” consequences, or should I keep silent?

Let the pen name be my name, and I shall repeat it to myself and for myself. I live in the most volatile spot on earth.  Everyone is looking for an eye or for a foothold, to stand up and to say to the world: “I am here and this is what I see.”

My voice

It is not easy to talk transparently and professionally about the problems faced by the Syrians throughout seven years, especially amid the rumors and biased coverage that takes the side of a conflicting party at the expense of the others.  Thus, it was difficult for me to raise a number of issues, especially those regarding the trespasses of the fighters here or there. If you criticize the actions of those fighting on the side of the Syrian government and the regime, you are marked as “selling” your pen to “the hostile opposition,” and your purpose is classified as a one trying to undermine the prestige of the state and its apparatuses that protect the country.  If you write about the transgressions of the opposition elements and organs, then you are labeled a Shabiha and a regime supporter, who keeps a blind eye to the massacres and misfortunes caused by the regime to the Syrians.

I am a Syrian journalist who lives in her country and wants to be a voice of a large number of people, who have been forced, since the beginning of the war, to stay silent.  The truth be said, they are not silent; they just happen to be a group whose voice no one wants to hear.

I hold neither an optimistic nor a gloomy picture of the future of Syrian women journalists; many of them have written good investigations and reports.  All I know is that we are capable of building our own future by ourselves.

This article is published as part of the campaign launched on World Press Freedom Day, 2017, in cooperation with Syria Untold.