The first thing one notices when approaching the Syrian state TV building is a poster of a young woman draped across the entire facade. Liquid green eyes peek out from under a dark black scarf – her gaze is focused somewhere in the future.
But Yara Abbas never saw that future. The prominent Syrian journalist featured in the poster was gunned down by a sniper before she could celebrate her 27th birthday.
Abbas was one of more than 150 reporters killed in the Syrian conflict between April and November last year, according to the Union of Syrian Journalists.
The Associated Press reports that 30 more – half of them foreign reporters, half of them Syrian – have been kidnapped or gone missing.
The number is unprecedented – more than in Iraq during the 2000s or Lebanon during the 1980s. Newsrooms are rethinking sending crews to Syria. Many say the conflict is too dangerous to cover.
There aren’t many foreign journalists working in Damascus right now. All the ones I meet are Russian, which is hardly a surprise, seeing that Moscow has consistently stood by its ally, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Everywhere we go, doors open the minute we say we’re from Russia and we’re ushered through with the same refrain, “Welcome, welcome Abu (father) Putin.”
Inside the state TV building, one of the news editors pulls up a chair and wants to talk to me about what it’s like being a journalist here.
But she won’t talk on camera. She’s afraid. She shows me a website with a long list of names and pictures of Syrian journalists. Under each is written the word “wanted”. This is a site put together by rebels fighting against Assad’s regime and those they perceive to be working for the regime – a charge these journalists deny. European satellites, nonetheless, refuse to broadcast their programmes.
The woman’s name pops up on the screen. Alongside it are more names with a cross through them – these are journalists who’ve already been killed.
“I’m too afraid to tell even my family I’m on the list,” she admits, convinced they will insist she resign from her job. Instead, she drives home a different route each night.
A video editor told me last week he came home to the words “you dog of the regime” written across his front door.
When they want you, they know where to find you.
“The idea is to intimidate us and stop us working here,” he tells me. “They already phoned me once. They promised me a better salary. They said they wanted me because I know how to manipulate pictures. But I won’t do their manipulation for them.”
But journalists on both sides face the same charge. Reporters Without Borders states that the regime uses its state media in a propaganda and disinformation war. On the opposite side, however, the new media that has emerged is also accused of being a puppet of the “revolution”.
That night a car bomb explodes in front of Abbas’ poster at the main entrance to the building. A second detonates not far from the hotel where foreign inspectors overseeing the destruction of Damascus’ chemical weapons stockpile, are staying. Our hotel is in the middle.
There are no fatalities (this time), but TV footage shows charred cars, a massive blaze and blood on the pavement.
A few days later I’m interviewing the sister of an editor-in-chief of a popular newspaper who was gunned down in his home. “We thought he was safe,” she sobbed, “unlike my three other brothers who are fighting in the army.”
But no one is safe today in Syria.
And yet journalists continue working because they need a job, or like the local producer and driver I work with, they believe in what they’re doing. Both men are stalwart supporters of Assad – one is Christian; one is from the Alawites, a minority sect of Shiite Muslims – and tell me they feel “honoured” to serve their country by working with their “Russian friends”.
Syria is clearly two countries – or perhaps several. Most of Damascus is in Assad’s hands. We visit the frontline and talk with Syrian soldiers, the Palestinians who fight alongside them and ordinary people who are fed up with what they call the interference of the West.
But there’s another Syria that I don’t visit on this trip – the Syria of those opposed to Assad’s regime.
Neither Syria is particularly journalist friendly. At the start of the uprising nearly three years ago, Assad’s army was blamed for targeting media workers. Now the same accusation is being leveled at Jihadi armed groups in rebel-held areas.
To make matters worse, most people living in the country are afraid to talk to journalists. An elderly man who owns a guesthouse phones me to say that after our interview was aired, someone phoned him threatening, “We know you, we know your location, we are coming to kill you.”
He asks me to do nothing, except stay well away from him. This is something more and more journalists are choosing to do – a fatal move as Syria descends into further bloodshed.
IMAGE: Wikimedia / public domain