We’ve talked before on this show about the importance of a free press, but this week’s episode brings a whole new meaning to the term. In 2014, Abdalaziz Alhamza and his friends started social media accounts to document the atrocities being committed by ISIS in their city of Raqqa. They called themselves Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) and their work quickly grew into a website and a social movement that garnered international attention.
RBSS brought the work of citizen journalists to a global audience and helped provide a counter to increasingly sophisticated ISIS propaganda. Their work was chronicled in the 2017 documentary City of Ghosts. Aziz visited Penn State for a screening of the film sponsored by Penn State’s Center for Global Studies, which is lead by friend of our podcast Sophia McClennen.
ISIS was removed from Syra last year, but that does not mean life in Raqqa has improved. Aziz and his colleagues are now working to report on the Asad regime and militias who are trying to take power from it. They are also working to empower citizen journalists in other countries and help defend the free press at a time when “fake news” has become a rallying cry for authoritarian leaders around the world.
City of Ghosts documentary
[5:50] What has happened in Raqqa since the end of the film?
Aziz: A campaign began to defeat ISIS. However, this brought with it a lot of violence. Nearly 80% of the city has been destroyed. Most of the people have been displaced. The media stoped paying attention once ISIS was pushed out of the city. This is why we kept out campaign going to continue to share information about the city. There are still a lot of things happening in the city. For example, people are still being killed every day. They are still finding bombs in the city. Also, they are finding mass graves at different parts of the city.
[7:29] How have the conditions there changed the work that you’re doing?
Aziz: We do have more freedom now, but we still can’t do our work legally because we’re considered terrorists by some. If we can survive ISIS, then we can survive working around other groups. We have started an online program to teach people how to become activists and how to start their own movements.
[9:10] What was your motivation for starting this movement?
Aziz: Before the revolution, I wasn’t involved with politics at all. When everything started, I had that thing inside that motivated me to get up and do something. We started by filming protests. When ISIS started taking control they prevented media from covering what was happening in the city. At this point, we felt we had a duty to do something since we were all from Raqqa. None of us had any journalist education at all. We got some training, but now we actually work to train others to be journalists.
[11:20] How do you manage still covering Raqqa while also trying to expand your coverage beyond the city?
Aziz: Cellphones are the magic. We can do most of our work remotely. They are both tools for communication as well as tools for learning stuff.
[12:46] What do you share with those you’re training to become activists themselves?
Aziz: We have gone through many mistakes getting to this point that we try to help others avoid. We teach them how to handle a brutal regime or movement such as ISIS. For example, I went to Columbia to help activists there. They didn’t know what encryption was or the idea that the government could track their actions and communication without encryption. Some of the mistakes we’ve made have cost us the lives of friends, so we don’t want anyone to go through those mistakes like we did.
[14:30] Do you feel the work you did have an impact to ISIS ultimately being defeated in Raqqa?
Aziz: The war with ISIS was not like a regular war with militaries. It was a war fought online. Therefore, they worked hard to shut us down. They threaten us and killed family members. To get this reaction from ISIS showed us that we were doing something meaningful. They are still talking about us. To ISIS, we are the bad boys. ISIS didn’t want any other alternative media sources like us for the people to learn from. They just didn’t expect a group of teenagers being around and doing this stuff.
[16:27] How did you combat ISIS as they improved their propaganda efforts?
Aziz: They spent way too much money on the media. For example, they spent millions on one media office in one city. Media was how they recruited fighters so they put a lot of money into it.
[18:25] Did you ever question if you were the right guys to do this?
Aziz: Yes, at the beginning. However, this changed once our friends started to be killed. Since that, no one is second guessing this movement.
[21:50] How do you feel when you hear the term “fake news”?
Aziz: It has become a huge problem even here in the United States. One network will say one thing while another will say the opposite. People get lost within all of these platforms and don’t know who to follow. We try to simply things and always provide evidence. I don’t think there is a way to kill fake news, but provide evidence is a good way to combat it.
[23:00] Do you videos that you use come from members of your group or do you get them from citizens?
Aziz: They are mostly from our members, but we do get some stuff from other citizens. Even taking a photo is very dangerous. It is punishable by death. One of the first things ISIS did was try to scare people. They would have public executions in the middle of town. Because of this, people were afraid to gather information about them such as taking photos or videos.
[27:00] You have lost friends and family members through this effort. What is it like receiving that information?
Aziz: It was scary when I would wake up and have to check my phone. I would wake up and pray to God that nothing bad had happened. I would feel powerless, but that didn’t last long because I knew there was something we should do about it. We knew that ISIS was killing us because they wanted us to stop our work. So we couldn’t stop and give them what they wanted.
[29:00] What does democracy mean to you?
Aziz: It means people being able to express themselves without being afraid. For those who are used to it, they don’t understand that people are dying around the world to try to get democracy.