A Young Journalist's Struggle

Getting ahead is difficult if you don’t toe the line.

A Young Journalist's Struggle

Getting ahead is difficult if you don’t toe the line.

Friday, 31 July, 2009
The hardest time of my life was right after my graduation from the department of journalism at Damascus University three years ago.

I was saturated with theory after four years of studying but I felt that it had not prepared me to face the professional world.

I first tried to get work at an official media outlet in Damascus by entering a competition organised every four or five years by state-run publications to hire new staff. I failed because I had the impression that getting a job there meant having personal connections or money to bribe officials. I lacked both.

Meanwhile, I tried to find a job in the growing private media.

After decades of state control of mass communication, the Syrian authorities had opened the door to privately-owned publications, even though they were placed under a swathe of restrictions that prevent them from discussing openly many political and social issues.

I got an offer from a magazine covering social and artistic life but they were only ready to pay me 20 US dollars for writing one report a month. I turned it down because I was not ready to write about singers and fashion.

So, like many other fresh journalism graduates, I resigned myself to having to work in another field.

I briefly painted houses, hoping to save some money to go to one of the Gulf Arab countries where there are more jobs in journalism. But instead I went to work as an accountant at an internet café.

Spending a lot of time on the web gave me the opportunity to get to know the mushrooming Syrian news websites. They were gradually pushing against the state-imposed red lines by writing about human rights and prisoners of conscience and criticising the security services.

Although the authorities blocked some of these websites and arrested journalists, it was difficult for them to suppress all the free voices publishing online.

I started sending articles to some of these websites. They rarely paid me, though sometimes I got between 10 and 25 dollars per article, but the online media opened doors for many fresh graduates like me to write more freely.

The most difficult challenge for me as a journalist was and still is self-censorship. I have a constant fear of getting in trouble with the authorities every time I write about taboo topics like union rights, corruption or civil liberties.

Despite the fact that the constitution guarantees my rights as an individual and a journalist, the state of emergency in effect since 1963, when the Baath party took power, restricts all sorts of liberties in the country.

If you end up in jail, no force on earth can get you out.

Recently, a friend was summoned by a security office for writing articles criticising the malfunctioning of the government. They threatened to put him in jail and close his website if he did not agree to stop.

What we need is a modern new media law that protects us as journalists.

Today when I write, I try to use more muted language and allegorical images to make my articles sound less threatening to the authorities.

One article caused a fuss when I criticised local officials for squandering money on a superficial cultural event instead of looking after the daily needs of people.

When the provincial governor read the story, he boycotted the website I wrote for and accused me of tarnishing Syria’s image.

How can a country develop when critical opinions are not tolerated?

In the course of my work, officials always tried to avoid answering problematic questions, on legal reforms for instance. Even when they agreed to see me, they seemed to just tell lies and often changed the subject to praise their superiors.

At university, most of my courses were theoretical. We studied journalistic ethics, public relations and the history of journalism in the world but I never saw a newsroom or a studio or a TV camera in my years of education.

My classmates and I used to dream of being trained to write news reports and broadcast them. Even when we struggled to put together a college paper, the project was cancelled after two issues.

Now after graduating the challenge was to teach myself how to write as a professional.

Another obstacle I found while studying was the absence of programmes in specialised journalism.

We were also prevented from discussing political topics in class. We were not even allowed to talk about freedom of the press.

So after graduation, I decided to develop my capabilities. I took English courses to be able to read international newspapers and learn their standards. I also took professional training courses.

I had to prove myself, especially after starting to send reports to publications abroad.

Three years after graduation, the road ahead of me as a journalist seems uncertain. I believe in the power of the new online media but I cannot help feeling pessimistic about the future with the authorities continuing to intimidate journalists and close down news websites.
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