Syrian journalists who braved snipers and shelling to cover the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad are now on the run from jihadists who have kidnapped and killed their colleagues.
Reporters say the kidnapping, torture and murder of journalists and media workers by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in rebel-held parts of northern Syria mirror the oppression they faced under Assad’s police state.
The danger has sent several journalists fleeing across the border into Turkey, making it difficult to report on the fighting in much of Syria or to verify alleged atrocities, such as the weeks-long aerial bombardment of the country’s second city Aleppo last month.
“They started by kidnapping foreign journalists who came to cover the revolution,” said a Syrian journalist in Turkey who asked to be referred to as “Abid” because he is wanted by ISIL, which has sentenced him to death.
“The next step was that they started kidnapping Syrian journalists. And finally we got to where we are now, where they have started killing journalists directly.”
Syria is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, with more than 60 reporters killed since the start of the revolt in 2011 and another 30 gone missing, half of them foreigners, according to the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says more than 120 journalists, netizens and citizen journalists have been killed and more than 40 arrested.
ISIL “has become the single greatest threat to journalists in Syria, responsible for kidnappings and murders even in neighbouring Iraq,” says Sherif Mansour of the CPJ.
The exact number of reporters kidnapped by ISIL is not known, as the jihadist group rarely claims kidnappings and many media outlets do not publicise abductions for fear it could undermine efforts to negotiate with captors.
But nearly every Syrian journalist has friends or colleagues who have gone missing, and local reporters say it has become virtually impossible to work in areas where ISIL is present.
Ahmad Brimo was working as a journalist for several local outlets in Aleppo when ISIL militants abducted him from his house in mid-November, accusing him of being an American spy and jailing him in the basement of their headquarters in the divided city.
“I was only physically tortured three or four times, but the psychological torture continued the whole time,” he said, comparing the experience to the three occasions on which he was jailed by Assad’s regime.
“I could hear the other prisoners being tortured all the time.”
He was freed earlier this month when more moderate rebels captured the prison, and now he too resides in neighbouring Turkey.
In part because of ISIL’s abuses, a number of powerful rebel groups have allied against it in recent weeks, opening up a new front in the civil war, which has claimed an estimated 130,000 lives since the start of peaceful protests against Assad in March 2011.
‘In the interest of the regime’
Inspired by Al-Qaeda, ISIL has long relied on its own media operation to communicate with its followers while viewing all other outlets as “infidels” bent on tarnishing its reputation and occasionally claiming attacks against them.
“Just as the regime prohibited any cameras that weren’t under its control, ISIL only allows its own cameras,” Abid said.
“I write about everything they do on Facebook — that they kidnapped so-and-so, they beat up so-and-so… That was the main reason for my being condemned to death.”
Local journalists, many of who also work for international news outlets, say the threats and kidnappings have prevented them from reporting on attacks by government forces, reinforcing a view common among ISIL critics that the jihadists are collaborating with the regime.
“The first day they started dropping barrel bombs on Aleppo, a group of journalists went to photograph it and (ISIL) arrested one of them,” Abid said, referring to the use of explosives-filled barrels dropped from regime aircraft, a tactic widely condemned by human rights groups.
“They’re preventing the media from covering events, and that is in the interest of the regime.”
Despite the dangers, most journalists say they are determined to return to Syria.
“Before I am a journalist I am a son of this country and of the revolution, so it’s my obligation (to return),” said Ammar Dendesh, an army defector turned correspondent for Orient TV who moved to southern Turkey after a drive-by shooting by unknown gunmen.
Orient, a well-known opposition channel, has had six journalists and media workers kidnapped in as many months.
“I have to work for my country from inside,” Dendesh said. “I did so under the regime and I wasn’t afraid, and it’s the same now.”