Syrian journalists working in areas under the control of Islamic State (IS) militants have described the harsh conditions faced by local reporters forced to operate under the rule of the extremist Islamist group.
In a December interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, two Syrian journalists -- one from Aleppo and one from Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria -- testified to the difficulties faced by reporters in Islamic State-held Syria.
Syrian journalist Aqeel Hussein, a former correspondent at the Syrian satellite channel Orient, and one of the founders of the pro-rebel Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which continues to report on the conflict in Aleppo Province, said that before the Islamic State group emerged in April 2013, journalists had enjoyed considerable freedom.
“I am not exaggerating when I say that the freedom we enjoyed during those months was constrained only by our individual consciences; we were able to go anywhere, to gather any information, and to write about anything and criticize without any objections or restraint,” Hussein told Radio Free Iraq.
However, the emergence of the Islamic State group in Syria in April and May 2013 destroyed those freedoms.
“The emergence of [Islamic State] changed everything in Aleppo and its countryside,” Hussein recalled.
The Islamic State group was expelled from Aleppo in early January 2014, with local activists saying that militants fled the city after clashes with Syrian rebel factions. After the expulsion of the Islamic State group, 300 journalists, activists, and rebels were freed from a makeshift prison in Aleppo.
However, even with Islamic State gone, the militant group’s legacy was apparent, Hussein said.
“When [Islamic State] left those areas, matters improved greatly, but the remnants of their way of thinking were still there, and there were cases of abuse, but not of the kind or extent of the [Islamic State] practices,” Hussein told Radio Free Iraq, noting that the biggest problem journalists faced was psychological pressure arising from changes in the balance of power, as Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad made advances into Aleppo and clashed with rebels.
Abu Quds, a media activist based in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zor, which is under Islamic State control, told Radio Free Iraq that the militant group did not prohibit journalistic work but insisted on strict control over what was reported.
Abu Quds is one of the founders of the Furat News Agency, the first agency to obtain an operating permit from Islamic State group militants in Deir al-Zor. The permit allowed Abu Quds and his fellow workers to report alongside Islamic State militants fighting on the front lines. However, there was no journalistic freedom. Rather, an Islamic State group media office in the city operated as an Information Ministry and controlled the Furat News Agency’s output, Abu Quds said.
“Every clip we filmed and every story we reported had to be submitted to that office for approval. This required that during filming you had to take care not to show the geographic location or the leaders' faces,” Abu Quds said.
Abu Quds and his fellow reporters in the Furat News Agency also faced being thrown into jail if they violated the Islamic State group’s strict rules on reporting.
“The actions that would land a journalist in prison were: showing the organization (ISIL) in a bad light, although they tell us to write about their negative aspects but without verbally abusing us. Any violation of their instructions would result in questioning, interrogation, and referral to their courts,” Abu Quds told Radio Free Iraq.
Syria is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists. The majority of the estimated 22 journalists held hostage by the Islamic State group are Syrians, according to Reporters Without Borders.
In Iraq, Islamic State militants have also targeted local journalists. The group beheaded four journalists in Iraq in November, according to reports. The four are thought to be among the 12 journalists abducted by Islamic State earlier that month.
Islamic State militants have also targeted Western and other foreign journalists, abducting and executing them. The extremist group has beheaded two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as two Western aid workers, the Briton David Haines and an American, Abdul-Rahman Kassig.
Another British journalist, John Cantlie, remains an Islamic State hostage.
Earlier this month, two Kurdish journalists were also reportedly captured by Islamic State militants on the Syria-Iraq border.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk