Syrian Civil Society in Douma Navigates a Tough Crackdown

Image shared by a number of Syrian activists on social media. The play-on-words shows, on the right, the logo of Rising for Freedom in Arabic and, on the left, ‘they forced us out of our freedom’ showing a man with a ‘Jaysh Al Islam’ flag chasing a media activist. Rising for Freedom was founded in 2012. Source: Moustafa Jacoub, Facebook.

Earlier this month, five well-known civil society organizations in the city of Douma and the region of Eastern Ghouta came under pressure from Jaysh Al-Islam, the largest rebel faction in the area. Global Voices first covered these events on March 10.

The crackdown followed an article published in the magazine “Rising for Freedom” (RFM) (طلعنا عالحرية), a local newspaper with a strong following among the Assad regime's opponents, both inside Syria and in refugee camps in neighboring countries.

Titled “Carry Me, Dad,” the article offended critics, who demanded reprisals for what they say is a blasphemous text. When protesters gathered outside RFM's offices, law enforcement officers warned the staff that they shouldn't expect police protection, in light of the fact that the magazine “doesn't stop people from protesting in the streets.” The reporters were advised to abandon their building.

Consequently, the magazine announced that it is suspending all activities inside Syria until further notice. Shortly afterwards, senior editors Mimona Al-Ammar and Oussama Nassar resigned, in an effort to de-escalate the situation.

A flyer in Ghouta incites hatred against writers for “Rising for Freedom” magazine. It reads: “The writers of Raise for Freedom magazine in Eastern Ghouta explicitly promote heresy on their own land. Together to dislodge these people, [we must] send them to trial, and shut down their offices.” Credit: Yassin Al Haj Saleh

But tensions only mounted, as the authorities soon pressured several other civil society groups to cease all activities, despite the fact that these organizations had no ties to RFM. The hammer came down on another four groups: Violations Documentation Center, The Day After: Supporting a Democratic Transition in Syria, Local Development and Small-Projects Support, and the Hurras Network for Child Protection.

Since the crackdown, many activists have appealed on social media to Jaysh Al-Islam, asking that activists and journalists be permitted to resume their operations.

At the time of this writing, it seemed that most of the affected civic groups will be allowed to go back to work:

Despite these promising indications, however, a source told Global Voices that RFM is still encountering obstacles to getting back to work, and individuals from all the organizations are reportedly facing continued harassment.

In a Facebook video shared on March 10, Ibrahim Al-Assil, the president of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, tried to explain “what happened and what is happening in Douma.” Al-Assil also told viewers why this crackdown is significant, and reviewed what they can do to combat the pressure on free speech and civil society.

Al-Assil started by recounting what is happening in Douma: When the employees at the various civil society organizations left their offices, which are located in the same building, “they saw protesters with knives and guns preparing to enter the building. Shortly after, the protesters finally entered the building, breaking things, ripping off panels and signs, and writing threats on the walls and doors.”

But it didn't stop there:

On the same day, the president of Al-Da’we Al-Islah Al-Ijtima’i [Invitation to Public Reform] sued the magazine and the Network of the Childhood Guardians on the basis of kufr [disbelief in God].

Al-Assil pointed out that the way the authorities dealt with the situation was reckless, to say the least:

What does it mean? Why? Who? How? The Hurras Network for Child Protection has no relation to Rising for Freedom Magazine — not on the managerial level, not on the funding level, not on the work level, none absolutely. [It's] a completely different organization. In the same day, the editors of the magazine felt that the accusation was too great and felt they should take a courageous step. They apologized, removed the article, stopped circulation of the edition, and pulled back the already printed editions where they were circulated in Syria. They declared the article to be the opinion of the author and said they would never commit such an error again.

He also wished to focus on the Hurras Network for Child Protection, because 18,000 children depend on their services.

The Hurras Network in 2016 alone offered educational services and personal support to 18,000 children in Douma. Currently, all of them, all these services offered by the organizations in the form of media, education, community, economical, juristic, legal etc. — it's all come to a halt. And the affected are the people of Douma, Ghouta, and Syrians in general. The affected are not the organizations themselves, who had missions. It’s their missions that are affected — the ones they have been working to accomplish, in spite of all the hardships they face.

Al-Assil also highlighted the harassment being faced by individual activists, such as having their faces and names printed on papers and falsely accused of “spreading disbelief”:

It’s starting to take an even more dangerous turn with the distribution in Douma of embarrassing pamphlets that have names and pictures of people like Mimona Al-Ammar, Oussama Nassar and Thaer Hijazi. […] Rising for Freedom magazine is five years old in Douma. It was born with the Syrian Revolution, and one of the first to come out of the revolution and some of the best that it has accomplished from a media perspective. […] Oussama and Mimona are some of the most amazing people to be found anywhere in any revolution around the world. Oussama began his activism in 2002 from the issue of the youth of Darraya. He was arrested in 2003. He and Mimona were arrested on the first day of the Syrian Revolution. […] [Oussama] is one of those people who only after we lose do we start appreciating them and crying over them and saying ‘how has our revolution gone’. Mimona Al-Ammar is the symbol of the Syrian woman. A symbol of courage, a symbol of sacrifice, a symbol of persistence, a symbol of charity. This small family that refused to leave and moved from Daraya to Douma to continue its work to serve the community and offer services to children. They contributed to many different works and many different protests. You don’t know them? Go write their name and see what they were up to. 

He ended the video with a call for mobilization, joining many calling on Jaysh Al-Islam to allow the civil organizations to resume their work. We can now say that they were partly successful, but the fate of Rising for Freedom magazine remains uncertain.

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