Syrian Journalism….the power of bullet

By: Yasmine Nayef Merei

The beginning was still imperceptible for me in the late 2011, with some raised cell phones at every demonstration and shelling of my city. But, it started to crystalize in my mind in 2012, when I was looking for a job after our displacement from Homs to Al Sweida. A friend suggested to me to work in a local private newspaper. I didn’t have any previous experience in writing or publishing, and was aware that that opportunity was just a kind of help for a displaced young woman working on the completion of her master’s thesis in Arabic Language.

I tried for almost six months to write anything about us, the displaced people, to express gratitude to our hosts. However, it was funny and frightening that this simple work was enough to fabricate charges and to start security harassment. The fear of arrest, based on the tales of so many activists, was a motive to run away from Syria without return.

Fear was -and is still- the major obstacle and challenge to anyone who wanted and sought to convey one facet of the truth. The accounts of those who were arrested, and whose fates became unknown, were capable, with their repetition and cruelty, to generate panic. So, resorting to code names and disguising was one of the solutions until leaving Syria to the neighboring countries.

Lebanon…Living with the death virtually

In Lebanon, I joined the “Local Coordination Committees, Coordination Committee of Homs”. And my relation with the news became of a different nature: a completely virtual life behind the computer screen all day; Skype groups receiving dozens of news every other minute; secret groups on Facebook to edit and proofread the news; then the publication pages, and, at the middle and end of the day, two comprehensive reports on the bombardment of Homs and the number of casualties.

Certainly, it was not a professional work, because all were volunteers, and all shared the common desire of conveying the violations going on the ground, from different point of views and, sometimes, with exaggeration in order to draw attention, which made these groups lose a lot of their credibility over time, leading some to refrain from publishing true news in many cases, lest it may be fabricated. Probably, it was quite normal to such things occurring in the unprofessional part of the media movement; the improvisation of the profession, the lack of rules, the disappearance of many specialists in detains and prisons, as well as the emotional tendency in covering the news… All these created an uncontrolled news situation.

However, the hardest work at that stage was the responsibility for following-up the Coordination Committee’s page, and to be alerted to any video with provocative (sectarian) content. I had to watch all the videos, some of which showed persons tortured to death, and ridiculing of religious affiliation, and those were the most popular ones during that period. These videos were able to destruct the awareness and the imagination.  Every day, we swung dozens of times between the videos of the demonstrations that fueled our enthusiasm and hope of a near fall of the Syrian regime, and the videos of brutal death and what they generated, at least inside me, of fear and resentment, which turned into a state of imbalance when thinking about the spectrums of the Syrian people, and then the dare to judge and classify them based on their positions and attitudes of these videos.

This, however, was not the end of the story. Many persons who came out to speak in the name of the revolution on known Arab TV channels, had a negative impression  and pushed me  to stop listening to the news, and to immerse in the whirl of social media sites imposed by the Arab Spring  as  one of the tools that caused it.  It is true that they encouraged the freedom of expression, albeit on personal levels, but engulfed us in the chaos of opinions and made us part of this mess.

Turkey … The shock of liberated areas

After moving to Turkey in 2013, journalism, for me and for many runaway young people, became an opportunity to earn some modest money. It was a challenge for us to come up with a remarkable idea that would be acceptable for the editing managers of the newspapers and magazines. We had to chase ideas and personalities in Gaziantep, which became our only space. I may be unable to evaluate the experience of the so-called “alternative media”, because it has been influenced by many factors, starting from the shape of the press product that can convince the donor without having to modify or claim the objective, and not ending with the difficulty of dealing with the “public” that is dispersed over different areas of Syria under a state of disorder.

One of the most significant and influential situations for me, before starting the experience of Saiedt Souria, happened  when I entered  the liberated areas in the summer of 2013, and met  a leader of Ahrar Al-Sham movement. The confrontation was beyond the expectations of an inexperienced “journalist”, who had in mind an ideal picture of the “liberated areas” and also an ideal picture of the armed leadership there.

On that day, my friend, who brought me there, and I were not detained because of the heated debate between me and those who I met, and my “insolence,” as a “Sunni,” for a movement that I was supposed to be loyal to, according to them, just because our sects happened to be the same.

It was not the power of the sect, just as with the regime it had not been the power of “sovereignty and governance”. It was the sole power of bullet. The panic we lived, while leaving their headquarters, was the same as the one I lived when I crossed the regime’s checkpoints from Al Sweida to the Lebanese border.

This was followed by the experience of working for “Saiedt Souria”. Dealing with the idea of working on a specialized press product, directed at women at home, was more than a challenge, with the current chaos of sovereignty that dominates Syria at present, and people swung between accepting and rejecting the ideas contained in the magazine, based on the level of fanaticism of the group in control.

In many cases, we have been forced to omit an article or more from the issue sent for print, especially in Al-Ghouta, Idlib and Aleppo. Dealing with some issues that are closely related to the Islamic religion (such as inheritance, hijab, guardianship, early marriage …) was a decision that we had to consider thoroughly. I still look at these situations as obvious signs of repression, under a new name; it is religion instead of politics.

Thinking about the possibility of banning an article, on the one hand, and the real impact of the magazine or any other media project, on the other hand, and trying to publish all the articles sent to the magazine, because I was sure that so many people (male and females) made their living out of publishing an article here and another there; all that raised endless daily questions about the feasibility of this type of work, and more important was the inability to answer any of them.

Having said that, I add that the Syrian journalism is going through a promising throe despite its difficulties. Many media projects have made their way to professionalism. If many of us had limited their relationship to the available media in Syria, before the revolution, to solving  crosswords, reading horoscopes in official newspapers, and listening (with much disbelief) to weather forecasts at the end of  news bulletins, it is natural that rebuilding the confidence in journalism requires time and effort. Our attainment of objectivity and neutrality also needs time, as the entire country (and journalism is only a tiny point in the whole landscape) is going through a difficult throe. What is certain is that the return to the starting point will be impossible, and that the pursuit (even by a minority of Syrian journalists) will be towards a greater part of the truth.

These materials are published within the World Press Freedom Day campaign, in cooperation with the Syria Untold.
Yasmine Nayef Merei: Syrian journalist and poet, from the team of SyriaUntold, worked in a number of Syrian media, and won multiple awards.