What with news media being closed, censored or self-censored and journalists being threatened, hunted down, arrested and sometimes murdered, the media landscape is both Iraq and Syria is now desolate.
Journalists are now forced to cover events from a distance and indirectly in order to protect themselves. The result is partial and poor coverage of regions torn by the jihadist advance.
The confusion surrounding Iraqi journalist Mohanad Al-Aqidi’s reported death was typical. Kidnapped more than two months ago by Islamic State, this former Al-Mowseliya TV presenter was widely reported to have been murdered by the Jihadis in Mosul on 13 October. But this was denied the next day by many local media and his family.
The case highlighted the prevailing media chaos and lack of reliable sources in Mosul and elsewhere. Information is suppressed or inaccessible in the cities that Islamic State has seized or is besieging. The Jihadis impose a climate of censorship and terror in which journalists cannot function normally.
Journalists reduced to silence in Mosul and Salahuddin province
“At least 60 or 70 percent of Mosul’s journalists have abandoned the city and the others are staying at home,” Reporters Without Borders was told by a local source who asked not to be identified. Islamic State has reportedly told journalists to stop working or risk being killed. The Jihadi group executed Iraqi photographer and cameraman Raad Al Azzaoui in Samarra (in Salahuddin province) on 11 October
According to the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO), Islamic State is currently holding nine journalists and has nine others under close observation in Mosul and Salahuddin province because of their past work for Sama Salaheddine TV, Al-Fayhaa TV, Al-Ahed TV or Al-Sharqiya TV, whose offices in Mosul have been closed.
The only media now functioning in Mosul are those operated by Islamic State itself, which has moved into the premises of closed TV stations and is using their equipment and material to produce its propaganda.
Taking its terror ever further, the group has reportedly distributed printed instructions stamped “Islamic State” to its fighters ordering them to kill all journalists who “harm the organization’s image and thereby benefit the Iraqi government” and to confiscate their personal effects.
According to one source who requested anonymity, Islamic State’s leaders have even gone so far as to reward fighters who managed to kidnap foreign journalists.
“We condemn Islamic State’s criminal and fanatical persecution of journalists,” Reporters Without Borders programme director Lucie Morillon said.
“It has resulted in the disappearance of independent media coverage in the areas it controls, which are now information black holes. This media blackout has a disastrous impact on the local population and the international community’s understanding and appreciation of the conflict.”
Covering events from afar
“We know that journalists risk being beheaded by Islamic State’s Jihadis so, for fear of suffering the same fate, we cover fighting from a distance of two kilometres,” Salih Herki, a reporter for the Kurd TV station KNN, told Reporters Without Borders,
Reporters Without Borders has spoken to several journalists who have gone to cover the latest Islamic State operations in northern Syria and Iraq. All say the same thing. They dare not approach the front line or venture directly into the Kurdish city of Kobane in northern Syria, with the result that much of the news coming out of these areas is gathered by local intermediaries.
Baran Misko*, a Syrian journalist with the Aranews agency, said: “It is impossible to cover everything that is happening in Kobane (...) it is much too dangerous for journalists to be at the front line.” He had himself been the target of several murder attempts and had to hide many times, he said, adding that he uses local civilians to gather information.
Yilmaz Bilgin, a Kurdish reporter for Rega TV who is currently in Kobane, said there were fewer than 100 Kurdish and foreign journalists covering the fighting in Kobane and on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey.
“There are not enough journalists in the various regions of Kurdistan to give a complete and accurate picture of the situation,” said KNN TV journalist Hejar Anwer, who has reported from Kobane and from the Makhmour and Gwer regions of Iraqi Kurdistan. “Journalists are not safe in this war,” he added.
Most of the journalists interviewed by Reporters Without Borders emphasized the lack of protective equipment for media personnel in the war zones.
Media battle – another Islamic State front?
Journalists have good reason to fear Islamic State, which has committed the most appalling atrocities against those trying to work without its permission. It pays meticulous attention to its image and wages a media war as well as a military one, reinforcing its influence by creating its own propaganda media and eliminating all others that do not toe the line.
According to the Syria Deeply media group, Islamic State has established 11 non-negotiable rules for journalists who want to cover its activities in the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. They include showing complete loyalty to the “caliph,” Abu Bakral-Baghdadi, publishing nothing without the IS press office’s approval and respecting a ban on photos or video of protected places or events.
Those who fail to observe these rules are hunted down and killed. Abdullah Al-Bushi, a 17-year-old youth, was publicly crucified for three days for filming Islamic State’s headquarters in the Al-Bab district of the Syrian city of Aleppo. IS accused him of apostasy for making and selling videos.
According to the State Department’s Centre for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), Islamic State controls five TV stations in Mosul and two in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
Local and international media reported in July that Islamic State had created a radio station called “Al-Bayan” in Mosul, a Raqqa-based magazine called “Dabiq” with print and online versions, and a satellite TV station called “Dabiq” in Mosul. The same sources said it was also planning to produce an online newspaper called “Khilafa 2” (Caliphate 2).
The main aim of these media is to defend Islamic State’s ideology and interpretation of Islam and Jihad, circulate IS propaganda in order to maximize recruitment, defend its actions and challenge the western vision of the world. An article on James Foley’s beheading was published in the magazine “Dabiq.”
Islamic State’s offensive in Iraq is such that the Iraqi government is responding by trying to tight its own grip on the media. The former Al-Maliki government closed various news media, including Al-Babelyia TV, Al-Sharqiya TV and Al-Rafidin TV, for allegedly fuelling sectarianism or failing to be “neutral” in their coverage.
New Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi’s administration plans to close some TV stations (for having expired licences) and Abadi himself has stressed the need to avoid rumour-mongering and work with the media to combat Islamic State’s pervasive terrorism. Urging the media to be objective, he said, “70 percent of the enemy’s war is psychological.”
Syria in its entirety has been black zone for journalists since the start of the uprising in March 2011, with hundreds of journalists and citizen-journalists arrested, kidnapped or killed by the various parties to the conflict. The government is currently holding around 40 journalists and citizen-journalists.
“We condemn the failure on the part of the authorities to take measures aimed at protecting media personnel in war zones,” Reporters Without Borders deputy programme director Virginie Dangles said.
“Journalists are caught in the crossfire, the victims of Iraqi and Syrian government harassment on the one hand, and crimes of violence by armed groups such as Islamic State on the other.”
A total of two foreign journalists, eight Syrian journalists and one Iraqi journalist have so far been killed by Islamic State. One foreign journalist is currently an IS hostage, nine Iraqi journalists have been kidnapped by IS in Iraq, and around 20 Syrian journalists are missing or being held by IS and other armed groups in Syria.
Iraq is ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index while Syria is ranked 177th.
* For security reasons, some of the journalists quoted preferred to be identified by pseudonyms.