At one o’clock in the afternoon of Saturday January 17th, the Mazaya Center and Radio Fresh offices in Kafranbel were attacked by the Islamist militias of Jabhat al-Nusra. The cause for the attack was the latest issue of Souriatna newspaper (printed at the same offices) which included a message of solidarity with the journalists murdered in the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France. This attack was denounced by the town and al-Nusra Front was made to apologize following popular demonstrations organized by activists Raed Fares and Hadi Abd Allah
The next day, however, several gunmen in Aleppo assaulted the distributors of four main newspapers, Sada al-Sham, Tamaddon, Souriatna and Enab Baladi. The gunmen followed the assault by burning all the issues of the newspapers accused of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo victims. The burning was captured in a video broadcast on the Aleppo Today Facebook page. The page reported that the raid was organised by the so-called “information branch” in coordination with the Ahrar al-Sham militias and included the “seizure of newspapers and magazines offensive to the prophet as well as a ban on distributing the aforementioned publications.”
“We stand with the victims”
The attack on Charlie Hebdo was seen by many Syrian journalists as a perfect publicity opportunity for the Syrian regime, and thus many moved quickly to counter the perception that Syria’s conflict is in any way related to the attack.
“Many Syrians generally sympathised with the victims of the attack out of the principle that opinions must not be faced with guns,” recounted the editor-in-chief of Enab Baladi, one of the four newspapers caught by the latest assault, “Souriatna put “Je suis Charlie” on its cover page and the newspapers published several op-eds denouncing the attack and warning of its consequences on the perception of the events in Syria.”
Souriatna’s statement declared that their solidarity was not with the magazine, which they believe is offensive to many Muslims, but rather with “the journalists themselves, and the victims of the attack.” It continues: “We condemned the assault and the use of force in response to the pen. In the issue that the gunmen burned, we were clear that just like in Syria we believe in free opinions and freedom of expression and that the perpetrators of the Paris terror have done great harm to our cause in Syria.”
The popular solidarity with Charlie Hebdo following the attack was neutered by the magazine’s decision to republish new cartoons deemed offensive to Muslims and the prophet. The newspapers, as part of the Syrian Network for Print Media (SNPM), released a statement denouncing the magazine’s choice to offend Muslims worldwide, while reaffirming their rejection of the Paris attacks.
Who was behind the attack?
Jabhat al-Nusra already claimed responsibility, and apologised, for the assault on Mazaya Center and Radio Fresh in Kafranbel. However, the so-called “information branch”, responsible for the assault on distributors in Aleppo and for burning the newspapers, is less than clear in its allegiance and its parent organization. Absi Smeisem, editor-in-chief of Sada al-Sham newspaper, believes the group is actually a regime force operating secretly in areas controlled by the opposition.
Souriatna believes that Jabhat al-Nusra, along with Ahrar al-Sham are responsible for the attack on its distributors. However, Smeisem points out that Ahrar al-Sham was quick to deny any relationship with the video published by Aleppo Today TV, which places the ball squarely in the page's court to release more information about the source of the video.
A much larger struggle
According to Souriatna, this is not the first time they have been harassed and assaulted by these very same militia under the accusations of being “secularists and supporters of a civil state in Syria. They accuse us of being their enemies, even more, enemies of Islam--an accusation we reject entirely.”
Smeisem also believes that there are totalitarian forces who are incensed by the success of independent media in opposition-controlled regions: “They are particularly wary of the growth of the SNPM and its distribution network, and this was an opportunity for them to turn public opinion against it by using the events of Charlie Hebdo.” Smeisem believes that radical Islamists want to play on people’s religiosity by accusing all critics of insulting the prophet; an accusation that could easily lead to death within the chaotic environment in the area at the moment.
Thus, according to the newspapers concerned, this episode had nothing to do with the proclaimed defense of Islam, and all to do with forcing a radical Islamist agenda and oppressing the nascent civil society movement which the SNPM is part of.
According to Enab Baladi the attack is emblematic of the “deterioration of the freedom of expression once enjoyed in the opposition-controlled areas, especially those managed by Islamist militias.”
The newspapers found a great deal of support and solidarity from other media outlets from Syria and beyond including SuriaLi, Smart radio, al-Modon, al-Arabi al-Jadid and even the French newspaper Libération. The Syrian National Coalition also released a statement condemning the attack. However, condemnation was not universal; in fact, several media outlets close to Islamist forces voiced their approval of the attack and used the same accusations against the newspapers.
Nevertheless, soon after the attack Souriatna, Enab Baladi and the other publications reaffirmed their their commitment to their editorial policies and to continue their work as their chosen response to attempts to silence independent media.