“But the president of the country you say it set freedoms, is on board with us”
“We’re living in a fake news era, as you know”, said Syria’s Assad to the American journalist, with determined looks as if saying: “your own president said that.”, shifting Michael Isikoff, Yahoo’s reporter’s 2017 interview, to questioning the facts and evidence accusing him of crimes against his people.
I have been monitoring and covering violations against media in the world’s deadliest country for journalists, since 2013, for Reporters Without Borders.
Along with many Syrian individuals and organizations working relentlessly day and night, risking harassment, persecution, prosecution, detention, torture and maybe death. Sacrificing their freedoms, families, property and life. Those freedom of speech defenders did all that only to pave the way in Syria for journalists and media to its work freely and safely. They didn’t start businesses, called for prosperous economy, or advocated security or employment. They only chose to advocate free independent press as it is the only guarantee for all the aforementioned. By defending free speech and media you defend the whole society. Having in mind all the time Jefferson’s quote, among others: “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”
During my continuous 5 years coverage of Syria territories that are under 4 different controlling powers, I witnessed how one joint target among all Assad, ISIS, Kurds, and opposition areas: the media.
What was interesting to me is that though all parties were enemies, with very different ideologies and practices, still all of them used similar strategies to attack media and freedom of the press. It was almost one process, as if they were taught in the same school or reading from the same book: Demonize the media, normalize that it is the enemy, and then act against it.
The antimedia rhetoric paved the way for harassment, oppression and violations against journalists. The atmosphere Assad and ISIS leaders created encouraged their people to target journalists. ISIS has always used the term “enemies” to describe journalists and media, as well as Assad. Both start by accusing media and journalist of being traitors, spies, and agents for the west, including the US, and killed them under torture or slaughtered them for that, including Americans like James Foley, in addition to Austin Tice who is still disappeared in Syria.
At the point when this rhetoric is normalised, other steps would be taken like imposing restrictions on press and media outlets freedoms, passing regulations to censor or control content or media, and most importantly spreading self-censorship among journalists themselves to try to avoid persecution and live safely, or flee to other countries to continue their independent work.
In my June 2016 report on Syrian journalist who fled the country, I reported: “The only source for news in Syria was to be the official stance [Or what the president say]. Any other story was considered “fabrication” and “against the State” by Bashar al-Assad. Bashar took after his father Hafez al-Assad in considering media a threat and journalism a crime and imitated. In a speech at Damascus University delivered on June 20, 2011, Assad publicly declared that independent media and journalists were his enemies. Describing the uprising in Syria as “a crisis”, he declared: “I did not talk about the external component and its role in this crisis. I did not talk about the components that we all know [The media].”
Bashar al-Assad clearly showed his attitude towards independent media and journalists in speeches and interviews published by the official State news agency, SANA-Syrian Arab News Agency, from March 30, 2011 to March 31, 2016. He mentioned the word “media” 80 times and associated it with “war” 10 times. Here are some other expressions he used when talking about the media: “media attack – media battlefield – the bloody media machine – media fabrications – virtual war using the media – media forgeries– hostile media – the media amount to nothing – exaggerating media – labeling media – deceiving media outlets – media propaganda- media game – media forging -media channels are biased media falsification- illusions created by the media – fierce media campaign”
I am panicked to see many exact same words uttered by the president of the land of the free. The land that set the global rules for free independent and professional journalism. It too scary for me to see such rhetoric repeated in the US. Whenever it gets dark in Syria I always console myself that the world’s greatest power is still carrying the torch to light our times. Now, I am too panicked to see any similarity between Assad and Trump’s attitudes.
What always haunts is the idea that while I am on some panel discussing Assad’s and ISIS’s violations against media, an Assad or ISIS supporter asks me: “But the president of the country you say it set freedoms, is on board with us”?!