Copies of independent Syrian newspaper Enab Baladi ("Local Grapes") lie among rubble (picture courtesy of Enab Baladi)
Rami Al Razzouk was traveling between Raqqa and Tabaqa in northeastern Syria when he was kidnapped at a checkpoint by ISIS. The al Qaeda offshoot seized him as he was on his way to conduct an interview as part of his work as a journalist on ANA Radio. After he was taken, ISIS used his key to raid the premises of the Raqqa-based radio station later that same day. Two weeks after that, they broke in again and confiscated all of the station's equipment and data. Apparently there isn't much space for a free press in the Islamic caliphate that ISIS are trying to create.
Outraged, the ANA New Media Association—the network behind the station—has decided to go head to head with the extremist group's "deliberate strategy to crush press freedom and impose censorship upon the Syrian people." As ISIS continues to oppress the fledgling media landscape in the north and east of Syria, ANA has pledged to whip up a storm of protest every time a journalist or activist is targeted by the jihadis. This is a pretty brave step considering ISIS has beheaded so many of their enemies that they recently got confused and beheaded one of their allies.
On Monday, the network launched a campaign backed by 21 Syrian media organizations and 50 international organizations, encouraging the continued growth of Syria's burgeoning free press. Astatement from the campaign read, “We demand the immediate release of all detained journalists and citizen journalists held by the regime, ISIS or any other group. Additionally, we call on international media and those organizations in support of press freedom to join this initiative and to take relevant action for the safety of journalists and freedom of speech in Syria.”
I spoke to Rami Jarrah, the co-director of ANA, about the extent of the problem facing Syria's budding journalists. “I think there are about zero media activists left in Raqqa now,” he told me. “Across the whole of the north there have been around 60 documented media activist abductions by ISIS, with the crackdown worsening in the last two months.”
Jarrah estimates that throughout the conflict 200 activists and media workers have been abductedby the Syrian regime. Reporters Without Borders, the journalist advocacy organisation, puts the number at 60, but this doesn’t account for those whose families are too fearful of reprisals to talk.
Raqqa itself is now under the control of more Islamist groups. All remaining Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces in the city pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN), which in turn led to a number of JaN's more hardline members defecting to ISIS. Between them, they have enforced their views on the population, with women encouraged to wear full niqabs. Dissent is treated harshly.
ANA New Media was established in early 2012 with the aim of increasing citizen journalism within Syria. They broadcast on internet radio for nearly a year before deciding the best way to reach people inside the conflict-stricken country was to switch to FM frequencies: “About three and a half months ago we began our first FM broadcast in Raqqa,” said Jarrah. Raqqa has been in rebel control since February this year but over the last few months has fallen almost completely under the control of ISIS.
ANA sought permission to operate from the local Shari’a committee, and had to promise not to broadcast music or political programming. They agreed to the terms, but only so that they could get the necessary equipment into the city. Upon arrival, they set up the station in a secret location and began broadcasting a range of history (“what really happened”), news, public service information (“where to get bread and gas”), and humor shows (“making fun of the Muslim Brotherhood”). They also broadcast the details of civil society protests.
The station's mandate is anti-extremism and anti-sectarianism, something that, unsurprisingly, didn’t go down well with ISIS, who are sectarian extremists. “The programming is mainly about providing information to people inside about the political process, because they don’t really understand," Jarrah explained. They did this for three months, before Rami went missing.
Broadcasting was dangerous for those working on the station. The journalists took huge risks by broadcasting material which criticised the extremist mindset of the groups governing Raqqa. Several days before Rami disappeared, the activist "Marzin"—who hosted the majority of shows on the station—was targeted by ISIS and fled to Turkey. Rami, who was taken on the first of October, hasn’t been seen since. ANA have received reports that he is still alive but has been badly beaten by his captors.
“I know Rami well and I know how he would feel about this and he would want us to do something,” said Jarrah. “I don’t think we should be quiet any more. Each time we are quiet we don’t get what we want.” Standing up to extremists might prove dangerous—even fatal—but failing to act is proving so anyway.
For Jarrah, this is about more than freedom of the press; it's also about reclaiming the Syrian revolution from a group that he sees as hijacking what he and others were fighting for. “Those who attempt to silence us will be challenged and those who attempt to hijack our thoughts and minds will be isolated," he vowed. "From now on we will be pragmatic with whoever we are faced with, whether ISIS or JaN or Assad. To them our message is clear: 'Our revolution was one for Freedom, Dignity, and Equality; those are three qualities we will not negotiate for.'" He hopes the unpopularity of ISIS will find a voice. “If everyone speaks then ISIS is going to have a problem with public support. Generally people don’t like ISIS, but no one speaks out against them; they're afraid to stand up to them,” he said.
To counter the increasing risks, they hope to offer relatively high salaries, training, and security to the citizen journalists who will take on the task of informing the population. Jarrah and his organization are ploughing ahead with their plans to set up FM radio stations in Deir ez Zour, Idlib, Aleppo, and the suburbs of Damascus. They're even planning to start again in Raqqa once the other areas are operational. It remains to be seen whether they'll survive the attentions of ISIS and other groups whose vision of Syria's future doesn't involve a free press.