Syrian freelancers endure torture, imprisonment and exile to report the conflict

Syrian freelancers endure torture, imprisonment and exile to report the conflict
Friday, 14 March 2014 Written by Rory Peck Trust

Three years after the uprisings began, Syrian freelancers are in greater need of support than ever before.

In June 2011, the Rory Peck Trust’s Elisabet Cantenys and Sarah Giaziri met with Syrian freelancer Mansour in a small hotel in Beirut. Mansour had contacted the Trust a few weeks earlier asking for help. He’d been one of a handful of Syrian journalists bringing reports out of Dara’a in March 2011 when the very first protests against Bashar al-Assad’s regime began. The group had been supplying international news organisations with information and reports on the ground, but in a matter of days the Syrian authorities had caught up with them.

Mansour was tracked down, threatened and forced into hiding. He eventually fled to Lebanon where he was determined to continue working, but with no money, no equipment and on the radar of the Beirut intelligence services, he was finding life very difficult. He needed help.
 
Mansour was the first Syrian freelancer to contact the Rory Peck Trust after the outbreak of conflict on 15 March 2011.  At that time the world was focused on Libya and, to some extent, the Trust was too. But the conflict in Syria has escalated and now it’s the Syrian freelancers who need us most.  Requests for our help have grown year on year. To date the Trust has given 17 assistance grants to Syrian freelancers in crisis and we're currently working with partners on ways to respond more swiftly to those in most need.
 
61 Syrian journalists and media workers have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the conflict, acccording to Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and at least 70 forced into exile.  At least 15 are thought to be currently missing, but it is impossible to know the exact number. These are alarming figures, but it is the stories of the freelancers themselves that really illustrate the impact of the conflict.

Targeted by regime and extremist rebel groups

Shaza and Mamon, experienced freelance print journalists living and working in the regime heartlands of Damascus and Latakia, were both put under surveillance when the uprisings began in 2011. After enduring constant harassment and detention, Shaza was jailed for 8 months when her interview with an FSA commander was published online. Mamon, an Alawite, and known critic of the Assad regime, was imprisoned and tortured several times. They eventually fled in 2013, Shaza to Lebanon and Mamon to Turkey.
 
The Syrian government has targeted other freelancers because of their work for the international media.  26 year old Rifaie became a journalist when the conflict broke out, and worked for nearly two years from Al Qusair’s media centre providing pictures for local and international news outlets. He was forced to flee after Lebanese fighters from Hezbollah - in support of the Syrian regime - stormed the city in May 2013. Rifaie was an outspoken critic of Hezbollah’s involvement in the conflict and he was warned that fighters were looking for him, threatening execution, because of his work with international media. It took him almost two months to cross the border into Turkey.
 
But increasingly Syrian freelancers are being targeted by extremist opposition groups - such as ISIS - who have taken control of rebel-held areas in the north of the country. Many have been kidnapped, some because of their association with foreign media. The Trust is currently supporting two Syrian freelancers who were recently released by their kidnappers but threatened with death if they did not stop working.
 
Exile is no escape from threats and danger
 
For those freelancers who have fled their homeland, life in exile has proven extremely difficult, even dangerous, especially in neighbouring Lebanon where safety is not guaranteed. Many are forced to move on.
 
Mowaffaq, a young freelance journalist and fixer fled to Lebanon after escaping captivity at the beginning of the conflict. He had been shot, beaten and tortured by security forces after filming a protest in Hajar Aswad in Damascas early on in the conflict, but he found Lebanon too dangerous and travelled to Egypt via Dubai, where he worked successfully as a fixer for news media including the Guardian.  But since President Morsi’s overthrow last year, Egypt has become unsafe for many Syrians who are seen as supporters of the old regime, and Mowaffaq was forced to move again to Turkey, where he is currently living, trying to build new contacts and find work.
 
His story is not uncommon. All of the Syrian freelancers supported by the Trust have found settlement in exile difficult and many have been forced to relocate multiple times.  Some live with their families. Others have had to leave them behind in Syria. Most are determined to stay in the region and keep working.
 
Right now, in Beirut, Mansour needs a new Syrian passport. His current one has expired, and without a passport, life in Lebanon becomes extremely difficult. During the last three years, support from the Trust has helped Mansour find work as a journalist. One day he hopes to return to Syria.
 
(Image from The Revolution Will Be Televised - copyright: Adam Pletts / Aljazeera English)

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If you would like to speak to Syrian freelancers currently supported by the Rory Peck Trust, or get further comment on the situation for freelance journalists in Syria, please contact Molly Clarke, Head of Communications: email: molly@rorypecktrust.org | tel: +44 (0) 20 3219 7861 | mob: +44 (0) 7976 711618.

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