In honor of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, members of the National Press Club’s Press Freedom Team have interviewed journalists in exile from around the world. We will feature their stories every day this week to shed light on press freedom issues worldwide.
Ten years ago, when he had to leave his country, family, and friends behind him to start a new life, Mohammed Bassiki did not know it would be the birth of his new career as a leading investigative journalist and founder of one of the leading investigative journalism hubs in the region.
Bassiki not only pursued his career as an independent journalist after leaving Syria in 2013, he also created Syrian Investigative Reporting for Accountability Journalism — a platform designed to support independent investigative journalists reporting from/about Syria.
The National Press Club spoke with Bassiki about his career, journalism inside Syria, how journalists are managing to survive within authoritarian regimes, and the story of founding SIRAJ.
How did your career in journalism start?
Bassiki: I started my career in one of the most important economic magazines in Damascus. I was still a journalism student at that point, and I managed to balance both. At that point, the traditional career progress for me was supposed to [be to] spend decades in this magazine until I am promoted to be in a leading position. But I was shocked at that time with the number of restrictions that I had to face and the poor situation of the freedom of press, and I was always looking for ways to get around those restrictions. Then it was the Arab Spring, when everything changed.
What was the first incident that made you understand the situation of the freedom of press in Syria?
Bassiki: Actually, it was a minor incident that was almost natural in Syria back then, but it was an eye-opener to me. During my first days as a journalist, one of my friends kept talking about a certain book he read and helped him in understanding many things regarding the rule of journalism. So automatically, I headed to one of the biggest bookstores in Damascus, and I asked the manager there about the book.
When the man heard the name of the book and the author, he was frightened and stood up. He froze for a couple of minutes staring at me, took me to another closed room, and started whispering to me: “You are young and look naïve. This book is prohibited and just mentioning the name will put you in risk and may cause a lot of troubles. Be cautious; you have a bright future ahead.”
Then he handed me a romance novel and told me: “Take this and write a review about it, this won’t get you in trouble.” At this point, I understood that this must end.
What is the main tool that authoritarian regimes use to control the public sphere and to stifle freedom of press?
Bassiki: No authoritarian regimes have the means and the manpower to fully control the public sphere, but the main and most effective tool that is used in such regimes is to embed the sense of censorship inside the mind of the people to create what is called self-censorship: where the people themselves control their imaginations, hopes, dreams, and expectations. [It] is becoming more cruel and aggressive than the censorship that is implemented by the regime, as the regime is always “stupid” and can be easily manipulated, self-censorship is much smarter, more efficient, and therefore much more dangerous.
During your stay in Syria, what were the mechanisms that you, and your colleagues, were using to keep doing your job?
Bassiki: Our major technique was to direct any critique toward certain bodies, agencies, or officials inside the regime while showing the head of the regime as the “father” or the reformer who will interfere to end injustice or fight corruption. But the risk is that in the absence of regulations and laws to protect journalists, everything is possible and those pieces can backlash at any moment, especially after the Arab Spring.
How do you differentiate between activism and journalism?
Bassiki: We were activists. We were activists fighting for a free, transparent, safe, and secure environment for journalists. Those were part of the main demands raised by demonstrations. We were aware that we are journalists not activists nor politicians, but trying to create a safe and free environment is at the heart of our jobs.
You left Syria in 2013, headed to Turkey before moving again to France in 2016, where you are still living now. When you first moved out of Syria, how did you manage to secure enough funding to live and to pursue your career as a journalist?
Bassiki: When I decided to leave Syria, I was conscious about all the obstacles that I’d face, all the risks that will face my little kid, and my bigger family inside Syria. But I was willing to pay this price just to know what does it mean to be free, to be able to represent the real and honest voices of the Syrian people. My main asset was my credibility and belief in my capabilities, so it did not take me a lot of time to be able to work again.
How did you feel when your first piece was published without any kind of censorship for the first time after leaving Syria?
Bassiki: This was one of the best feelings I witnessed in my life. There are no words that can describe it — a feeling that no one will relate except a journalist. I felt alive, and promised myself I would never give up this feeling and would never go back. It’s dangerous and risky, but my security or even life is not cheaper than the lives of those sacrificing in Syria for a better future.
What is SIRAJ, and how was it founded?
Bassiki: SIRAJ is the Syrian Investigative Reporting for Accountability Journalism. It’s an initiative that was founded in 2016 by a group of investigative journalists to support Syrian investigative journalists through providing means and tools that enable them to do their work in the best way, in an efficient and secure way.
Moreover, we give them guidance to develop their stories and help them to pitch their stories to different outlets and donors. Our main target is to empower those journalists, raise the awareness of the different Syrian issues, and keep the story alive. In addition to helping in producing those stories, we help in fact-checking stories that are related to Syria.
How do you manage to get in touch with the Syrian journalists, and how do you manage to keep them safe and secure?
Bassiki: We announce that we are looking for stories through our social media platforms and through our partners inside Syria and outside Syria. We help them in developing the stories and finding the right angles. We rely on technology in securing our journalists. Technology is becoming very critical, like encrypted emails and social media platforms.
We refuse dozens of stories almost every week — either because it’s weak, not clear, needs verification, or too dangerous. We always do risk assessment for every story, where we assess the risk of working on the story on a scale from 0 to 10. If the story gets more than 6, we immediately reject the story. And even if it’s not that risky, we always do editorial meetings to give journalists tips on how to keep the reporters safe. And sometimes we have to do some interviews from Paris or some other cities where it’s much safer to approach sources from outside of Syria.
But we always provide feedback to the journalists to help them propose better stories in the future. Also, the mental health of our journalists — and our mental health — is an issue we always take seriously. We always provide PTSD assessments and periodical training that can help journalists take care of their mental health.
SIRAJ was founded in 2016. Since that point, Syria is not the lead story anymore. How do you manage to keep the Syrian war alive in the news?
Bassiki: Actually, this is one of the most important challenges that we are facing right now. There’s some sort of saturation in the global journalistic scene when it comes to Syria-related stories. Our main strategy is working on cross-border stories. During the past year, we are working on linking the domestic Syrian affairs to global issues to show the whole world how the Syrian file is not a local file — it’s affecting the whole world, not only through refugees, but drug dealing, human trafficking, organ trade, arms dealing, and many other files.
Do you think that one day SIRAJ can be working from inside Syria, in an official capacity without any fear?
Bassiki: This is our hope and dream. Surprisingly, I have to say that freedom of press is living its best days in Syria — not because of the environment but because of self-awareness. The independent journalists in Syria right now know that there’s a way to deliver their voice. They know that they can make a difference and that the global public opinion is really interested in knowing what is happening in Syria. Our colleagues now know that they really can make a difference, and this is a snowball: Whenever it starts rolling, we’ll be able to change the reality at some point.