What’s it like to be a Freelance Journalist in Syria?
We reach Malek Kalabi (not his real name) a little after midnight at his flat in Gaziantep, Turkey, on the Syrian border. The shrapnel lodged in his leg makes working during the day hard, and he looks forward to the evenings when he can take his pain medication.
Since the early days of Syria’s revolution, Malek has worked to publicize the stories of the victims of the Assad regime, but this wasn’t how his career began. In 2011, he was living in Lattakia, a coastal city considered part of Syria’s Alawite homeland, and teaching engineering at a university. When the protests began, Malek says, he and his friends were energized. They were college-educated professionals and they were excited by the prospect of a democratic system, one in which they weren’t forced to follow the ruling Ba’ath Party doctrine. Malek says back then they weren’t even advocating that President Bashar al-Assad be removed; now he looks back and admits that goal “was too simple.”
It didn’t take long for the regime to single out Malek and his friends for being part of an educated class among the opposition, which Malek believes was perceived as a particular threat. A small activist group they founded in order to advocate for government reforms placed them under even more suspicion from the regime. Malek and his friends quickly realized the danger they were in and fled, starting a perilous journey with their destination unknown.
At first, they dispersed to friends’ and relatives’ houses, hiding and relying on their generosity. Malek laughs, remembering an older man who took him in for a while during this period. “All he ate was eggs, milk, and honey. Every day for a month.” But this memory is interspersed with other, darker memories of this time. For a month, he and his friends hid in a forest with nothing to eat and no idea where to go. One day a battle broke out near where he was hiding. “I’d never seen live fire before,” he says, waving his arms and making a “whoosh” sound to describe how close the bullets came to his head. And there was the day that the regime dropped a barrel bomb, and the shrapnel nearly took off his foot. One of his close friends, who’d been with him since the beginning, carried him to the hospital and stayed with him for days while he regained consciousness. When he woke up, the first thing the doctor said to him was, “The revolution is over for you now.”
But it wasn’t. Even though he was bedridden for almost a year, and then restricted to crutches for longer, he has made it his mission to publicize the atrocities of the regime to a wider audience. “Two westerners get killed by ISIS, and the media covers it and the world goes crazy, but Assad has killed half a million innocent civilians and no one says anything,” Malek says in disbelief.
Malek’s path from teacher, to activist, to journalist, isn’t unique in Syria. Many of Syria’s youth during the start of the revolution found themselves abandoning their old lives for activism, as jobs and education nearly halted. When the revolution began and the regime crackdowns got increasingly severe, there was no place for people such as Malek in their old lives. They began a life in hiding, trying in whatever moments they could to let the world know what was happening. The stakes were as high as they could get, and Malek looks off into the distance when he tells us that the friend who carried him to the hospital that night was killed a month later. Even his name isn’t his — another friend penned it for him right before he was “disappeared” by the regime. Malek, who at first disliked his nickname, now won’t give it up in case his friend is still alive and tries to find him someday. Seven others in their group have since been killed.
And things continued to get worse. In 2013, Malek found refuge in a town called Rabi’a in northern Lattakia Province, and was actively publishing while he worked to rehabilitate his leg. One day while he was at the doctor, ISIS, then in its very early days, attacked the town and raided his house, stealing his camera, computer, and other equipment. Worse, another friend was killed in that attack.
During all of this, Malek tried to take his case to international organizations such as Journalists Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). They initially told him they’d help him cover the $40,000 surgery he needs for his foot to repair the damage and enable him to walk without pain, but he has heard nothing back from them since 2014. Syrian activists and journalists often complain of a lack of outside support. Many local media organizations are almost entirely self-funded by the activists themselves who, even in their desperate circumstances, donate whatever they can to keep their groups alive. A lucky few are able to land freelance work for international media organizations, but these are uncommon. The reality for many Syrian activists is that they cover one of the most dangerous places in the world for little to no compensation. They continue their work out of a sense of duty and responsibility to get the truth out.
And this is what Malek says he will continue to do as well. His most recent story covers the sacrifices of Syrian women who choose to marry activists and fighters in the opposition. “They could marry men in regime areas and have a nice life,” he says. But instead they wait, not knowing when, if ever, they’ll be able to cross the immense boundaries standing between them and those they want to marry. Malek, who met his own fiancée in college, says he tried for a long time to convince her father to let them marry. Finally, just a few weeks ago, the arrangements were made and she was ready to cross into Turkey — the night the coup happened. “I almost died!” Malek says with a smile. His connections helped her get through a closed border, and he considers himself to be one of the lucky ones, at least for that night. The wedding is in two weeks, and the remaining living members of his activist group are all coming.
When we ask Malek about whether he’ll continue as a journalist or go back to his old profession if the revolution ends, he doesn’t hesitate. “Journalist,” he says.
“Journalism is the only profession that dictators and tyrants are afraid of.”