While in Syria every form of humanity seems lost, Syrian journalists find common ground in new ethical rules. In September 2015, 20 Syrian media organisations signed the Ethical Charter for Syrian Media. By the middle of February 2016 this number has increased to 41. The Charter’s effects are visible already: reports by the associated press agencies, newspapers, radio broadcasters and news sites have become more reliable, independent and critical. This is crucial to be able to make any sense of the complex situation in Syria.

Highest mortality for journalists

In 2015, Syria was the deadliest country for journalists: 15 journalists died according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The three journalists who were murdered last year within Turkish borders were also Syrians, trying to inform their fellow countrymen from within their neighbouring country. On 27 December, Naji Jerf was shot in Gaziantep, Turkey. In the street, in broad daylight, in front of a building where Syrian journalists are working in exile. Jerf was making a documentary on citizen journalism in ISIS-territory and was Editor-in-Chief of Hentah magazine – one of the partners who signed the Ethical Charter for Syrian Media in 2015.

Exiles and citizens

‘The murder of Naji has made us very nervous,’ says a Syrian journalist in Gaziantep, ‘are we not safe anywhere?’ The journalist fled to Turkey, like many of his colleagues. In Turkish, Jordanian and Lebanese cities, editors, studios and printers create their journalistic products. Anything that cannot be sent to Syria by e-mail or radiofrequency is smuggled across the border at the risk of losing their lives. But to do that, there has to be news to start with. This is provided by ordinary citizens who are still in Syria. Every day they risk their lives to take photos, record videos and write messages on what is happening in their village or city.

Professional journalism

Syria does not have an independent journalistic tradition. Even before the civil war, critical journalism was practically impossible in Syria. Official journalists were and are bound by the interests of the Syrian regime. The reports by ‘journalists’ of the new local authorities are often just as one-sided. Reporting facts or opinions that are inconvenient is unusual – and dangerous.

The various journalists meet in exile. Free Press Unlimited and its partners have brought them together since 2014 at ‘Round Tables’: both women and men, left-wing and conservative, Kurds and Arabs, and Sunni Muslims as well as Christians and Seculars. To everybody’s surprise, they find each other in their determination to rid their (own!) reports from bias, emotion and a call for violence.

Lifesaving tips

A dialogue is created, people meet and discuss confronting issues. This way, journalists learn to self-reflect. And this all takes place in times of war between the various groups the journalists belong to. ‘The Charter also has immediate benefits’, says the anonymous Syrian journalist in Gaziantep, ‘especially the training we receive. And pass on. As an example, we teach each other to encrypt e-mails. This is essential for the safety of the citizen journalists who send us digital material from Syria.’ These are all small and big steps towards the joint long-term goal: reliable and independent press in Syria.