The perils of journalism in Islamic State dominated areas

By Mathias Findalen Bickersteth, IMS Assistant Programme Manager & Researcher

In addition to the recent brutal executions of the two American journalists, Steven Sotloff and James Foley by Islamic State (Isis), at least six local journalists in Syria and five in Iraq have been killed since the beginning of the year.

Is reporting from areas dominated by Islamic State simply too dangerous and should local journalists simply abandon the areas knowing that major news stories will not be relayed to the outside world if they do?

Lina Chawaf, editor-in-chief of the IMS-supported independent Syrian radio, Radio Rozana and Osama Al-Habahbeh, Programme Manager for IMS’ work in Iraq met last week with a group of journalists, academics and civil society representatives to try and address some of the questions the ruthless acts of Islamic State are raising.

“Our staff inside Syria protect themselves by writing under a pseudonym,” said Lina Chawaf. Her radio station, Radio Rozana broadcasts from Paris, but employs around 30 citizen journalists within Islamic State-controlled areas in Syria. Pseudonyms and reporting only in writing are some of the basic methods to avoid being targeted by Islamic State, she said.

“Sound recordings are too risky since their voices can be recognised.”

Lina Chawaf and her colleagues at Radio Rozana are acutely aware of the fact that they are operating in one of the most dangerous areas in the world. The citizen journalists employed by the radio have gone through extensive safety training courses, but it’s impossible to ensure their complete safety, she said. Illustrating that with tragic clarity is the recent killing of one of Rozana’s journalists in Idlib, possibly perpetrated by Islamic State.

The escalating conflicts in Iraq and Syria have led to a growing demand for independent media in the area. Radio Rozana is currently experiencing increasing interest in its shows and has seen tremendous growth in listeners over the last year. The increase in attention tells Lina Chawaf that the work her employees are doing is too important to give up on despite the obvious perils involved.

Where Rozana provides a faint glimmer of hope in Syria’s devastating conflict and endless human tragedy, the independent, professional media in the Islamic State-dominated areas in Iraq has failed, said Osama Al-Habahbeh, IMS’ Programme Manager for Iraq.

“The Iraqi journalists are forced to take sides in the conflict. They risk losing their lives if they don’t.”

It is still possible to report from the areas in Iraq dominated by Islamic State, he said. But one needs to be aware that a large part of the local media in cities like Mosul has been taken over by Islamic State. Citizens and foreign journalists alike cannot trust the local media.

The rapid and brutal fashion with which Islamic State has overtaken large parts of Iraq has been a fairly scary development over the last couple of months. As the jihadist group continues to consolidate their grip on the territories they are now in control of, they might also attempt to take over control of telecommunication technology and the airwaves in those areas. If they are successful, they would be able to control all access to and content in the electronic and broadcast media, said Osama Al-Habahbeh. “A truly frightening scenario.”

“Islamic State is not a small movement operating from old military convoys,” said Osama Al-Habahbeh, showing a picture of the English-language Islamic State magazine, Dabiq. A glossy, professional-looking magazine, it is used as a mobilisation tool calling on lawyers, doctors and engineers from Muslim communities all over the world to come and join the rebuilding of the IS-proclaimed caliphate. The magazine title Dabiq is a reference to a small town near Aleppo of the same name. Here, according to Islamic mythology, Muslims and the West would clash before the apocalypse.

However frightening the prospect of practicing journalism in Islamic State-dominated areas might seem, it’s not the only problem for the media in Syria and Iraq. A group of independent journalists recently fled to Iraqi Kurdistan from Baghdad because they fear a crackdown from the central government, which is ramping up its pressure on the independent media, said Osama Al-Habahbeh.

In Syria also, Islamic State is far from the only concern. “We risk forgetting the everyday life of Syrians, if our sole focus is on the brutality of IS,” said Lina Chawaf.

“Since the escalation of the conflict with Islamic State, the Syrian population feels like the international society has forgotten about them. Forgotten about the still-ongoing relentless attacks by the Assad-regime.”

So, should local journalists abandon Islamic State-dominated areas and look for more peaceful jobs outside one of world’s worst conflicts? “My staff would never give up reporting from these areas,” said Lina Chawaf. “Like journalists elsewhere in the world, they are devoted, passionate people who feel they have a duty to report. They insist on staying.”

And as long as they do, Syrians inside the country will continue to get crucial updates on the conflict as it unfolds. Syrians outside the country—alongside the rest of the world—will know the brutal details of a war they won’t have to experience firsthand.