A vibrant press in the unlikeliest of places

Looking at Syria, the picture is clear: Bashar al-Assad is winning this war.Russian air power has smashed any ...

Posted: Dec 14, 2017 4:37 PM
Updated: Dec 14, 2017 4:37 PM

Looking at Syria, the picture is clear: Bashar al-Assad is winning this war.

Russian air power has smashed any remaining semblance of a moderate opposition. The Islamic State is retreating. And the Assad government has emerged as the leading force.

But what this assessment doesn't tell us is the cost of that victory -- the hundreds of thousands killed, the millions displaced, the lives destroyed and the cities reduced to rubble.

Journalists tell that story.

To find a silver lining in a conflict as devastating as the Syrian civil war is next to impossible. But if there is one, it is this: the Assad regime tried to silence the press, but what it instead produced was one of the largest journalistic revolutions of the modern Middle East.

An independent Syrian press was an oxymoron, a pipe dream, before the war. The state and its powerful allies controlled the media. The government eliminated any hint of dissent -- deliberately and decisively -- throughout the four-decade rule of the Assad family dynasty.

When protesters first started toppling generations-old regimes in nearby Egypt and Tunisia in early 2011, the Assad government ramped up its targeting of journalists, including expelling much of the foreign press from the country.

But in kicking out the foreign media, Assad caused a surge in Syrian journalism. From Homs to Hama, Daraa to Damascus, everyday activists took to the streets to document the countless incidents of state-sponsored violence -- often with nothing more than a smartphone.

As an onslaught of missiles and rocket fire leveled hospitals and entire residential blocks in Aleppo city, Syria's citizen-journalists risked life and limb to document the bombardment from the front lines. When warplanes dropped chemical gas on the sleeping men, women and children of Khan Sheikhoun, Syrian journalists ensured that such egregious war crimes did not go undocumented.

In both instances, Syrian journalists were the first to report these stories, providing an invaluable and near-instantaneous local insight to inform Western media and an international audience.

Where Western reporters could no longer travel, Syrian citizen-journalists had access -- from the front lines of the siege and bombardment in the Damascus suburbs to the horrific executions within the Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate. These upstart Syrian journalists lacked experience in investigative, objective reporting, but they had access to unparalleled contacts, connections and on-the-ground perspectives.

So Western media outlets provided their best-trained war reporters and an international publishing platform to bring that story to the world. From neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, Western reporters have leveraged 21st century technologies and social media platforms -- including WhatsApp, Facebook and Skype -- to partner with Syrian citizen-journalists from the far reaches of rural displacement camps in Syria's north to deep within government-controlled territory in the south.

The world has the covert reporting of citizen-journalist teams such as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) to thank for documenting the Islamic State's most unspeakable atrocities -- its mass shootings, beheadings and sex slavery. Despite the near-constant threat of assassination attempts, organizations like RBSS continue to operate in the most dangerous environments to expose the truth.

"Media is stronger than the sword," says Abu Ibrahim a-Raqqawi, a founding member of RBSS. His mission, he says, is to give dignity to the dead, a voice to the oppressed and to show the world that a place like Raqqa is "a city of peace and not the capital of terror."

The coverage of the conflict has hardly been perfect. A large portion of the news coming out of Syria is hyper-politicized, twisted to serve a certain side's agenda -- government and opposition alike. But even amid the propaganda and misinformation, this conflict has produced scores of journalists who understand that reporting the truth -- even when it does not support your opinion -- is the only way.

For nearly seven years, these Syrian reporters have had the audacity to tell the truth with a camera. And for nearly seven years, they have been under direct attack, as Assad supporters and hardline opposition actors have systematically killed, captured and disappeared journalists, earning Syria the title as one of the world's deadliest countries for journalists since the start of the war.

But, now, as the Assad government reasserts control over a shattered Syria, the question is, what comes next for these reporters?

There is little evidence Assad will tolerate a free and independent press. His regime is trying to reimpose the old order of exclusively centralized state media. Independent news coverage of recently recaptured government territory -- Aleppo, Homs and the Damascus suburbs -- has already dropped off.

But this war unleashed a revolution in Syrian journalism. Inside the country and among the diaspora at large, there exists a new Syrian press corps committed to telling the truth as best they can capture it.

For the sake of these reporters, it is the responsibility of the international community to not look away from Syria. To continue training Syrian journalists and promoting its nascent independent press corps is to ensure, even in some small measure, accountability. The war may be entering its late stages, but the need for critical, unbiased coverage of Syria is just as urgent.

Keep the spotlight on Syria, and keep the cameras rolling.

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