The Bell Tolls for Free Press.. Again

The journalistic arena in Syria, has witnessed big changes during this war; much barriers have disappeared since the war broke out in 2011, especially as the competition has grown so wide in reporting and offering political analysis. Yet, criticism of some institutions or figures is still not welcomed by part of the audience and authorities apparently.

Journalist Rida Albasha  –AlMayadeen reporter- has started a big wave that has been the talk of the town for weeks now. He has published on Facebook a series of posts on a phenomenon that has tormented Syrians for years now, but no one has dared speak about this frankly for many reasons, it is the phenomenon of “looting”, or in other words, robbery.

Since the early days of the conflict something known as the Popular Committees (also called Lijan militias; Arabic:?? al-Lijan al-Sha’biyah,) was formed, their main task was to protect residential areas and neighborhoods taking some of the burden off the shoulders of the Syrian army in protecting civilians. But, over time there were many complaints about their activity, some of them have used their positions at checkpoints and some sensitive areas to profit from the people, some of them have gone further by giving themselves the right to rob houses and neighborhoods they were assigned to secure. Al-Akbar newspaper (Lebanese) has published articles about this issue many times, along with other social media activists but it never reached what Albasha did. The word “some” is essential here as this degenerate act represents only those who committed it not everyone on checkpoints or frontlines defending people.

This phenomenon of “looting” is no secret to anybody. When an area is deserted some of those militias have allowed themselves to rob houses, shops, factories and anything they could sell in the black market. Everyone in Syria knows about entire markets that sell stolen goods, it will not take you any time or effort to find your way into one of those markets where you could buy a MacBook for $100 or a bit more for instance, a sink, or even a pair of socks. Many stories were told about residents of Homs for example who left for Tartous during the clashes in their city and they found some of their belongings being sold in black markets of Tartous. But what it is more humiliating is that many incidents were reported about towns or neighborhoods that were liberated from terrorist groups but their residents were not immediately allowed into their houses because some of those militias (not the Syrian army) who were hypothetically protecting those areas needed time to empty those houses first. At the same time, there are many honorable men and soldiers who would never allow anyone to move a spoon from its place when entering a deserted house.

Rida Albasha (Left) & Khaled Iskef (Right)

The bomb that Albasha threw had a massive effect because he has mentioned specific names that have exceeded all limits in Aleppo during the past few months. Entire neighborhoods were looted, doors, curtains, electronic gadgets, EVERYTHING their hands could reach. This has been ongoing for years now, but no one spoke about it like Albasha because some thought that “this is not the right time” to make any fuss about groups fighting along the Syrian Army against terrorists and radicals all around the country, or because it would give the opposing propaganda media a precious bite to promote itself even more.

Pointing out directly at individuals or giving names is not something very common in Syrian media, it takes a lot of courage to make such a step. As Albasha released his statements, public opinion was a divided. He was attacked by some people and journalists, and on the other side he was hailed as a champion and described as being “voice of the poor”.  Together with Kahled Iskef,  Albasha has been the target of a fierce attack campaign for speaking out frankly. However, it turns out that support of the reality they have tackled is much bigger that the opposition. After that post, Albasha was interviewed by one of Syria’s biggest radio stations, AlMadina FM, a short part of that interview was posted on Facebook and it went viral, after that he received threats for his stand and there was a huge public call on social media to protect him, the hashtags “We Are All Rida Albasha”, “Solidarity with Rida Albasha”  and “Stop looting”  are now trending in Syria.

After the massive attack against him Albasha wrote several statements on his Facebook page, explaining that his statements and interview were never meant to be about the Syrian Army as he considers the army as the primary victim of those immoral acts of robbery. Those groups escort the army in all its operations and as the act of robbery (AKA Looting) continues, people are starting to lose trust in the ability of the army to protect them from those thieves as Albasha writes. Those who attacked Albasha suggest that those statements have given the opposition media a pretext to devalue and underestimate the role of the Syrian Army and to show it as the party robbing the people instead of protecting them.

Rida Albasha in a report for Almayadeen

Argument over this issue continues as Albasha is now in Iran “in a mission” as he has declared on Facebook. Some people suggest that he has left the country for security reasons because his life was under threat from those he scandalized. Albasha is well known for his nationalism and work especially covering the ongoing Aleppo battle, and he works for the most prominent media agency in the Arab world now, Almayadeen, so saying that by doing this he is looking for attention or fame is too lame. He is on the frontlines with the Syrian Army, so it would be also lame to indicate by any means that he is attempting to stain the army’s reputation or honor.

With such stories coming up to the surface every day, we keep asking the same question, when will there be a time when journalism can have its full space in this world without being under threat. It wasn’t long time since Nahed Hattar was assassinated for speaking out his mind, this was not the first incident of its kind in the Arab world, and clearly will not be the last as the bell tolls every day for free press and other forms of freedom in this world.

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