Not even loyalist journalists safe in Assad’s Syria
Rabea Kalawandy, a war correspondent and social media influencer, was arrested on July 8 in Aleppo. This might seem sadly unremarkable in a country where the regime has systemically targeted journalists throughout the conflict. But what is unusual about this case is that Kalawandy is a pro-regime journalist arrested by the Syrian government itself.
And he is not the only one to have fallen foul of the Assad government. Being a loyalist is no longer enough to avoid persecution and even arrest. In order to understand why, one needs to appreciate how the regime uses the press.
Since the Ba’ath Party took power in 1963, the press in Syria has largely consisted of official newspapers and TV channels and radio stations controlled by the Ministry of Information. These are closely monitored by the intelligence services. But, following the start of the uprising in March 2011, when large numbers of “citizen journalists” began publishing reports of the daily anti-Assad protests, the regime was forced to rethink its strategy. The official news platforms were deeply unpopular — even among those loyal to the regime — and could neither suppress nor counter the demonstrators or media activists supporting them. So the regime adopted the same tactics, employing its own citizen journalists to create alternative media platforms through which to disseminate its narrative.
However, today, as living standards continue to deteriorate even as the conflict winds down, many “approved” journalists and media influencers have turned their attention toward issues such as the appalling civic conditions in cities and towns, and corruption — topics that the regime does not want aired. Over the past year, an increasing number of loyalist citizen journalists have been harassed and even arrested by Syrian intelligence. The reasons vary, but essentially boil down to the curious charge of being “out of order.”
The most high-profile case is that of Wissam Al-Tair, editor of Damascus Now, a Facebook page with more than 2.7 million followers. It is one of the most influential pro-government media outlets. The prominent influencer was arrested in mid-December. The reason for this is unclear, but the widespread belief is that it was because of his posts about harsh conditions endured by army conscripts and the fuel crisis in the country. Al-Tair’s whereabouts remain unknown.
Likewise, Mohammed Harsho, editor of the Hashtag Syria website, was detained for 24 hours in April for posting an article on government plans to increase the price of gasoline. Raeif Salameh, a journalist with the Ba’ath Party’s media unit, was also arrested around the same time for allegedly running a Facebook page critical of the Ministry of Health.
Many ‘approved’ journalists have turned their attention toward issues such as the appalling civic conditions in cities and towns
For others, intimidation has been enough to scare them off. Among these is Ali Hassoun, editor-in-chief of the weekly Al Ayam. He announced his retirement in May, a few days after the newspaper was forced to close. In his last editorial, entitled “A Warrior Takes a Break,” he cited the increasing pressure faced by journalists in what he called “the harshest (period) in the history of the Syrian press, due to increased restrictions on the freedom of the press.”
The criteria for singling out pro-regime journalists for persecution and even prosecution appear to be the crossing of prescribed “red lines” and having a large audience, readership or following. But what do these incidents tell us about what the regime is trying to achieve through its new strategy toward the press?
Firstly, it is a reminder to journalists, social media influencers and, indeed, the wider population that the regime’s tolerance of criticism has not changed. Next, the regime wants to control what goes out on social media by accessing — by force, if need be — the most influential accounts. The official Facebook pages of both Kalawandy and Damascus Now resumed operation after their account holders were arrested. However, the reactivated sites made no reference to their fate or to the new operators (which, in all likelihood, is one of the intelligence agencies). Other social media accounts have been closed down, and their operators forced to quit or made to disappear.
Lastly, the regime is determined to retake total control over the flow of information in the country, or at least in areas it controls. As in the time before the start of the conflict, this will most likely be achieved via official channels and semi-private media platforms owned by people directly affiliated with the government, such as Bashar Assad’s cousins Rami Makhlouf, Majd Bahjat Suleiman, Mohammed Saber Hamsho and Aktham Douba. That control is further bolstered by a new law passed in March last year that establishes a special court to deal with “information and communication crimes.” Among other things, the law allows for the prosecution of journalists who disseminate information deemed contrary to the regime’s interests.
So far, the number of loyalist journalists who have been arrested remains relatively small. However, the targeting of high-profile figures and the involvement of the dreaded intelligence agencies in their arrests have been enough to ensure that the regime’s message of “back to business as usual” is received loud and clear.
- Haid Haid is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is also a consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.
Copyright: Syndication Bureau