ISTANBUL — "Mazen," a radio journalist in northern Syria, used to go on the air with his real name to criticize rebels fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the powerful local al-Qaeda affiliate. The group has been gaining ground in Syria and sowing chaos within opposition as it does, even taking up arms against other rebel factions. Mazen and his colleagues at Radio ANA in Raqqa, a city on the Euphrates that has become a stronghold for extremists, railed against ISIS regularly, often with the kind of critiques activists normally reserve for the Syrian regime.
Local journalists and activists in rebel-held Syria have been bold and aggressive in documenting abuses by government forces, but they often must bite their tongues when it comes to the al-Qaeda-linked extremists, who have cracked down on dissenting voices and among whom many journalists and activists now live. Eventually they came after Mazen as well. He received an order to surrender himself to the local ISIS headquarters; one of his relatives was detained. "They started looking for me, and they had my name at the checkpoints," says Mazen, who asked to remain anonymous. He escaped into southern Turkey in late September.
Four days later, another ANA journalist disappeared. Rami Al-Razzouk, 25, who'd been finishing up an engineering degree when Syria's uprising began, left Raqqa to conduct an interview in a nearby town and dropped out of touch. Mazen and a colleague say they soon learned that Razzouk had been arrested at an ISIS checkpoint. When they sent an intermediary to negotiate his release, the man found Razzouk in ISIS custody, badly battered and stripped down to his underwear. He has yet to be released, and his colleagues say ISIS has charged him with being a spy, an allegation it commonly makes against the journalists it targets.
In the days since Razzouk's alleged abduction, ANA journalists say masked men have raided their Raqqa offices twice. The intruders first took three laptops and a hard drive. Later, they hauled the broadcasting equipment away.
Rami Jarrah, the co-founder of Radio ANA who runs the station from the Turkish border city of Gaziantep, says he's proud of its aggressive stand against extremists. "When this uprising started, one of the main things people were fighting for was more media freedom. These areas were liberated, and now we're fighting a new enemy that is taking media freedom away," he says. "Most of our content is anti-Islamic extremism. We have mentions of them on most of our shows. And most of the people who call in from Raqqa or northern Syria in general want to talk about ISIS and the crimes they are committing. We really refused to remain quiet."
But Jarrah's first reaction to the news of Razzouk's detention mirrored that of Razzouk's family: He wanted to keep silent. He and his colleagues worried that by speaking out, they might "just end up becoming more of a target," and might also put Razzouk in even more danger.
Silence is the usual strategy when local journalists find themselves threatened by ISIS, according to Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa director for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Mansour says he knows of several local journalists in Syria whom ISIS has imprisoned for their coverage, and who have refused to go public with their experience even after their release. ISIS monitors coverage in all media, Mansour adds, even trolling social media feeds, sowing fear among local journalists. "They are afraid to even mention what happens with ISIS," he says. "They think it's easier for their work not to report on them, because they cannot continue working without their approval."
This atmosphere of censorship and self-censorship has caught the attention of U.S. officials, who worry that it's skewing the narrative about extremism inside Syria. "If everyone's too fearful to hold the extremist elements accountable, then the narrative is missing the criminal acts that they perpetrate, and the only things that people [in Syria] hear about are the things that ISIS wants them to hear about — providing services and goods to the citizens, and winning battles. It's a one-sided narrative, and they're in control," says one State Department official closely involved in U.S. efforts to support the Syrian opposition. "Taking on extremist elements head-on is extremely dangerous [for local journalists], because they will be targeted."
Jarrah and Mazen say that after weeks of fruitless attempts at negotiating with ISIS, the ANA staff, along with Razzouk's family, have decided to break their silence. They're now pushing a campaign to bring as much attention to Razzouk's case as possible. They hope it will help pressure ISIS into releasing Razzouk — but admit they also fear it might only bring him more harm. "I'm worried," Mazen says. "But a lot of media activists have been arrested, and each time we're being quiet. I think it's enough. We have to stand together. It's just unfortunate that it had to be Rami."