The state of journalists and media in Syria was enough to spur Ghassan Ibrahim and number of his colleagues to set up a media trade union -- the Syrian Journalists Association. The aim of the syndicate is to have a professional structure that includes Syrians working in media.
It aims to give voice to the revolution and report on current events taking place in the country. In so doing, Ibrahim hopes, it will play its role as a civil institution that provides support to Syrian journalists who are subject to regular violations.
In an interview with Doha Centre for Media Freedom, Ibrahim called on his colleagues in Syria to join the union. Media is, he said "part and parcel of the revolution".
He previously set up a news website in 2006 called the Global Arab Network for Studies, Researches and News.
Why start a union for Syrian journalists?
Syrians lived under dictatorial police state ever since Baath party came to power. The media was completely sidelined as most of the leading newspapers and magazines were censored and their possessions confiscated, denying Syrian people the right to knowledge and information. Journalists were not immune from this general state of being but were regularly targetted. Official Syrian Journalists Syndicate was used to cover up the regime's clampdown on peaceful protests, to legitimise it through inviting leading figures from the regime while keeping silent on the government's blocking independent media's access to events. The Official Syndicate also ignored violations, torture and arrest against journalists, cases of which now count in the hundreds. For these reasons, we have decided to launch our union to fill in the void left by the Official Syndicate which is just another flip of the regime security apparatus.
How many members have joined the union so far and how do you keep in touch?
Membership is free and open to all Syrian journalists as well as Palestinians born in Syria or living there. It is also open to Syrian journalists inside and outside the country. The union is now based in Damascus and boasts of over 130 members who are in regular contact via modern technology. The members monitor daily violations against Syrian journalists from their positions around the world.
Could you tell us about your sources of funding?
We are self-funded since all members contribute to the funding of the union's activities. In spite of our limited resources we were able to form the union and set it to work. Union members also report on the events of the revolution, on a voluntary basis, convey them to the world and follow other Arab and global coverage of events in Syria. Our main goal is to produce high-quality news despite our modest resources.
In what way does the union contribute to reinforcement of the safety and security of Syrian journalists?
We will spare no effort to protect media people in Syria. We are currently publishing statements to the world so that the voice of journalists reaches the international public opinion and exercise pressure on the regime in order to force it to ease its censorship policy.
Could you share with us your experience as someone working in media in Syria?
I graduated from Damascus University in 2000, with a major in economics. After graduation, I worked as en economic researcher and a journalist. I realised very soon that I had to leave the country because the regime left no window of opportunity to the emergent generation on all levels, and especially on the level of media. The regime shifted from a dictatorship under Hafedh Assad to mafia-like system under his son Bashar, ruining the economy and denying the youth prospects of a better future. I left to Britain in 2002 where I continued my studies and work as journalist and specialist in the Arab World. That was what I did then until I decided to set up Global Arab Network for Studies, Researches and News in London in 2006.
Does this mean that you have never been victim to any violations in your work as journalist?
On the contrary, I have been subject to indirect forms of violations. Just because I am Syrian I am exposed on a daily basis to violations that limit my freedom of expression of opinion. I think this is the case with all Syrians, who fall victims to violations committed by the regime just because they happen to be Syrian citizens.
How do you see state and private media in Syria?
There is no media of any kind in Syria and all the media that exists is no more than a media desk at the service of security forces. The media just reiterates what is dictated to them by the security to spread lies and do harm to the opposition and the Syrian citizens. Its aim is to kill people and fuel sectarian strife.
Do you think that your association can be of use to those working for pro-government media institutions?
The Syrians proved that they can successfully carry out their revolution. And since media is part of the revolution, it just made sense that the people working in it would join the uprising. We wanted to convey the true nature of the revolution to world media networks and to call on our colleagues to join in this endeavor. We hope that our union will encourage more journalists to defect from pro-Assad media institutions.
This is my message to those who still deal with the regime “the regime is leaving, so think how you can justify your position”. We adopt a democratic approach that safeguards difference in opinion but we can’t turn a blind eye to the supporters of the regime who cover up its crimes. We are not also going to deal with people who cover up corruption and criminality unless they come back to their senses, recognise their mistakes and join the revolution.
How do you evaluate Arab and International coverage of violations against journalists in Syria?
There is a long history of violations in Syria and state police cracks down on media and strips them of all their rights. Recently the regime stepped up its crackdown on the media because it is the voice and face of the revolution. Unfortunately, media coverage of violations against journalists in the country is not enough, even though they play a key role in the success of the revolution. We urge all parties to support them and cover arbitrary aggressions against them.
Why did you add an Arabic language service to Global Arab Network’s website, which was based in an English-speaking country?
Global Arab Network is a media organisation that covers all aspects of life in the entire Arab world. It is independent and aims to transmit the reality of the Arab world to the Western reader in English while showcasing the role of Arab culture and the importance of constructive dialogue.
When the Arab spring started we want to be part of it. Thus we decided to follow it through an Arabic service on our website. Before, we were not very enthusiastic about the Arabic service because we lost hope in media in Arabic under the complete control of Arab regimes. Now things have changed and media have become free and thus we started engaging with activists and journalists on our website in Arabic. This happens at a time when every Arab citizen has become a reporter who conveys reality accurately, challenging oppression and dictatorship.