On Freedom of Expression: The Case of Freedom Raise


 Just before the 6th anniversary of the Syrian uprising, a blow was dealt to freedom of expression, solidarity and civil activism. An opposition magazine in rebel-held areas was officially banned. This is the first act of such censorship since the Asad regime’s loss of control of the territories.

SyriaUntold has decided to reflect on the incident and analyze the reactions, in an attempt to reach a better understanding of current Syrian opinion on freedom of expression.

The Incident

In late February 2017, Duma-based Freedom Raise (FR) magazine published an opinion piece in its 86th edition by writer Shawkat Gharzeddin. The piece commented on the excruciating video of a child screaming out to his father to pick him up, after both his legs were torn away by a regime shelling on his village in southern Idlib.

As the video was going viral, the author questioned the foundations of the cultural concepts of God, the state, and fatherhood, claiming that they have all collapsed and failed the child, who still believed in them and called out for their help in vain.

The article, titled after the child’s scream “Pick me up, Dad!” was deemed “blasphemous” by some religious readers and armed groups, including Jaysh Al-Islam, the main military group in control of regime-besieged Eastern Ghutah. This caused many problems for the author, the magazine, and civil organizations in the area.

In its subsequent edition on the 5th of March, the magazine’s editorial board issued a clarification, explaining its stance on the opinion piece and insisting that no insult was intended to any belief, inviting those who opposed the publication of the piece to engage in dialogue and submit their opinions in the form of article contributions to be published by the magazine.

The clarification also stated that the editing manager of the magazine, Osama Nassar, a Duma resident, was against the publication of Gharzeddin’s opinion piece to begin with. The magazine then removed the controversial 87th edition from its website and social media, and halted the distribution of its print version.

Escalation

But events escalated quickly, starting with dozens of demonstrators, some holding rudimentary weapons, gathering in front of the magazine’s office in Duma on the 7th of March. Local police corps refused to intervene and advised staff to leave the building, which they consequently did, facing some protestors. The office building was subsequently stormed and vandalized, including neighboring offices of other civil organizations that shared the same building.

That day the editor-in-chief, Layla Al-Safadi, issued a second apology for any insult or sentiments of violations it might have caused to the religious beliefs of some readers, emphasizing the magazine’s respect for all religious and ideological beliefs, the right to peaceful protests, and freedom of expression. She also stressed that reactions and legal procedures should not target groups or individuals that are not associated with those responsible for the publishing process.

The next day, March 8, the Jaysh Al-Islam-controlled Higher Judiciary Council’s Attorney General in Eastern Ghutah issued an order to shut down the FR offices. Meanwhile, in the north-western province of Idlib, the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing administration — currently under the control of Ahrar Al-Sham — issued a decree forbidding print copies of the magazine from entering Syria by way of Turkey, until a court decision is made regarding the magazine.

Immediately after, on March 10, the ban received the backing of two other judicial bodies in opposition-held Syria, the House of Justice in Hawran, in the south, and the Higher Judiciary Council in Aleppo, in the north.

The current charges against FR are “blasphemy” and “insulting the deity”, neither of which exist in official Syrian laws, where “insulting the president” or “undermining public moral” are instead mechanisms of censorship. However, there was no reference to a date set for the trial.

The Attorney General’s order went beyond the magazine to also shut down the neighboring offices of several other non-Islamist civil organizations that shared the same building with the magazine, namely, the Guardian (Hurras) Network for child protection and its magazine, Kite (Tayyaret Waraq), the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), The Day After, Local Development and Small Projects Support (LDSPS) and the Local Coordination Committees (LCC).

A joined statement by these organizations was issued later that day in response, resolutely rejecting the Attorney General’s decision, and holding the local authorities fully responsible for the safety of their staff in Eastern Ghutah.

With pressures mounting, on March 9, editor-in-chief Al-Safadi announced her resignation and assumed full responsibility as the sole decision-maker regarding the publication of the opinion piece, as did the managing editor Nassar. The latter’s resignation was actually in protest against the original decision of publishing the article. He saw the publication as a violation of the magazine’s editorial policy and, specifically, of its commitment to respecting all faiths and beliefs.

Moreover, the FR editorial board announced the temporary  suspension of the magazine, until the publication policy is revised, a new editorial staff is hired, and the court reaches its verdict on the matter.

This did not spare the editing manager, Nassar, from being called into interrogation by the local security authorities. Nor did it stop random posters from being hung on the streets of Duma, with his name and photo. His wife, activist Maymounah Al-Abbar, and Layla Al-Safadi and Thaer Hijazi, were also featured on these posters. All were accused of blasphemy, calling for their trial and expulsion from Eastern Ghutah.

Mobilization

This caused fear for the safety of these people, as well as that of other activists and employees from the aforementioned civil organizations. Several articles were published by Syrian media outlets in support of RF staff, despite some outlets disagreeing with Gharzeddin’s piece. Few articles were published in support of the opinion article itself.

The outlets condemned the implication of other civil organizations in the decision made by the local authorities. A statement was signed by hundreds of activists, artists, writers and citizens resenting the violation against freedom of expression, and the use of violence or threats of violence against the magazine staff and others.

These fears are not based entirely on the office vandalism, nor on the anonymous posters. Previous incidents of civil activists being threatened or hurt by local armed forces and militias have been occurring for several years now. Most prominent is the famous case of the #Douma4, kidnapped activists who have been missing since December 2013. The main suspect behind their disappearance is Jaysh Al-Islam, who continue to control Duma today.

Eventually, the decision to shut down the offices of the other organizations was repealed under mounting public pressure, and the organizations reopened and restarted their operations. The magazine, however, remains suspended.

On the web, reactions varied. However, very few engaged with the article’s content, with others engaging with the act of publication either as a right to freedom of expression or a challenge and insult to beliefs.

Having said that, most news media outlets covered the story merely as a news event, being the first ban against a print magazine in rebel-held areas. In the past, instances of specific editions of magazines being prevented from entering through the Syrian-Turkish border crossings were reported.

Supporting the Ban

Many supported the ban and those who took action to implement it, using force. These were mainly Islamist armed groups as well as the individuals involved with them.

The common refrain was that the freedom which they had fought for so long, and paid dearly for, was not for lamentations that undermine the faith that has kept those on the frontline and under shelling in their places thus far. This was evident in a sign held among the protestors saying “Extremists upstage us in the name of religion, atheists undermine us in the name of freedom. We will teach the first the essence of religion and draw for the latter the limits of freedom”.      

Some argued that upholding freedom of religion has nothing to do with insulting religious beliefs. In their view, the article was written using the child’s agonizing call, one that should not be hijacked by others to send messages that this child and his father are very likely to disapprove of.

Opposition

In the middle stand those who disapprove of the article’s content or perspective, or consider the decision to publish it a haste full one given the local context.

Nevertheless, they defended the right to freedom of expression, or at least the rule of law, i.e., the need for proper legal procedures to take place solely against those involved in the decision to publish the article, namely the author and editor-in-chief. Consequently, they opposed any collective retribution or violent threat. These included some moderate conservatives, media outlets and even the magazine’s managing editor, Osama Nassar, who lives in besieged Eastern Ghutah.

Leaning a tad bit more towards supporting the magazine, were the many media outlets, NGOs, and activists that verbally expressed their support for the magazine’s freedom of expression, and their displeasure with the decision to ban it. The official apologies and resignations, at least in their view, should render legal action against the magazine and its staff baseless, let alone any threats of violence against those involved.

Similarly to those in the middle ground, they considered the incident as a weak excuse to ban all the unarmed “others” from operating in rebel-held areas. In their opinion, these militias prioritized their need for an ideologically homogeneous society over the needs of the many beneficiaries of those civil organizations in the besieged areas.

As Bassam Al-Ahmad, CEO of Syrians for Truth and Justice, told SyriaUntold, “the publication of this article by FR gave an easy excuse to Jaysh Al-Islam and others to crack down on the civil organizations that are not loyal to them […] The most dangerous aspect of this was the public collective provocation against these organizations without even knowing [the facts]…I think half of them [the protestors] had not even read the article at all.”

The most supportive stance towards the magazine was that of some media outlets, activists and public figures, mainly living and operating outside Syria, that expressed their support not only for the right to freedom of expression in general, but also for the decision to publish the article. They defended the right to question and discuss all concepts, although rarely defending the very content of this article in particular.

However, living mainly outside Syria, they had little more than statements and words with which to offer to support. According to Al-Safadi, the previous editor-in-chief, solidarity was far less than needed or expected.

“The support that was manifested — which was not with me by the way — did not go beyond verbal expressions, nor did it include any serious initiative or tangible call to restore dignity to the victims. It also did not surpass a mere ‘worry’ and fear of horrific actions, such as killing, burning or destruction.

“It would’ve been far more appropriate and respectful if solidarity was on the level of principle and cause, the cause of freedoms and most prominently freedom of expression [rather than on the individual level], without hiding behind excuses such as the quality of the article for example, or searching for the person responsible for this mistake,” Al-Safadi told SyriaUntold.

The incident was almost ignored outside Syrian circles. The head of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Middle East Desk, Alexandra Al-Khazen, clarified the watchdog’s stance in an email correspondence with SyriaUntold, saying that the episode “indirectly underlines the difficulty of being a journalist inside Syria. Journalists, professionals or not, are operating in a country in which they take great risks just to report the news.”

Al-Khazen went on explaining that in addition to “being a potential target on the battlefield, they also have to be extremely careful as they have to adapt to those who control the territory they are in, as well as the society. It [the incident] sheds light on the reality of censorship, and self-censorship for those who prefer to avoid taking additional risks, in the deadliest country for journalists that is Syria.”

As for the future horizons of the case, RSF was not particularly optimistic. “I am not sure now what to expect from a court being under the control of this armed group in Syria. We are following this issue from afar, and we hope the magazine will be able to resume its work soon,” said the head of RSF Middle East Desk.

Also worth mentioning here is the widespread reluctance to even comment on the incident, which was the case of the article’s author himself, when contacted by SyriaUntold. The reason being that the court has yet to reach a decision on the case, even though almost two months have passed since the magazine’s closure. On the ground, the safety of the FR staff living in Ghutah remains a priority and thus some see comments, that do not help defend the magazine’s case in court, as an unnecessary gamble on their safety.

Furthermore, the magazine continues to be banned without a judge’s verdict, undermining the authority of the judiciary at large.

Overall, civil activist networks inside and outside Syria managed to exert pressure on local military authorities, forcing them to reopen the civil organizations’ offices. However, they failed to stop the first official ban against media in rebel-held territories.

It remains a question whether the action against the other organizations was originally meant as “an excuse”, as many have considered it, or as a bargaining ‘buffer zone’ to maintain the ban against Freedom Raise.

[This article is the outcome of a partnership between SyriaUntold and the Syrian Female Journalists Network (SFJN) and part of a joint campaign launched on World Press Freedom Day, May 3].

[Main image: A caricature by Samir Khalili. It was published on Abwab.eu on March 14, 2017 (Fair use/All rights reserved to the author)].