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How One Syrian Radio Station Took on Al Qaeda

CAIRO -- In a supposedly "liberated" area of Syria, a group of opposition journalists is still being forced to operate in secret. They learned to sneak into their offices in the northern city of Raqqa after midnight, and conceal their activities from their landlord. But it's not Bashar al-Assad's regime that they're worried about.

The citizen journalists of the ANA New Media Association were hiding from al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists, who have become a powerful force in the area. Their precautions were not enough: On Oct. 1, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) kidnapped one of ANA's employees at a checkpoint and subsequently raided their office. They returned on Oct. 15, breaking into the office to seize the equipment the journalists had used to broadcast a radio program to the area's residents.

The crackdown is just the latest example of the growing tension within the anti-Assad cause between Islamist radicals and more mainstream rebel groups. Last month, ISIS fighters seized the town of Azaz, near the Turkish border, from a rival militia. Sporadic clashes have broken out elsewhere across north and eastern Syria. The hostilities could deal a blow to the jihadi groups, which are gaining strength across north and east Syria -- but they could also fracture the anti-Assad cause.

By going after ANA in Raqqa, ISIS is moving to squelch a vocal critic in a city that has become one of its strongholds.  

"We've been quiet about the mistakes that have come out of the opposition -- from people who claim they're part of the opposition," said Rami Jarrah, the co-director of ANA. "We know that the public does not support these people, but they don't have an alternative unless we start speaking out against these groups."

For the three months that ANA operated in Raqqa, the radio station focused its criticism on the Islamist radicals. It featured the perspective of regular Syrians who attacked ISIS, and also aired a program called "With the People" that highlighted the harassment of activists and journalists.

For nearly two years, ANA has produced content aimed at an international audience. On its YouTube channel, for example, it adds English subtitles to videos it deems important: One subtitled video shows the devastation that followed the regime's Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs, while another video shows a peaceful conversation between Sunni rebels and an elderly Alawite man.

Several months ago, however, it launched radio programs aimed at providing news for Syrians inside the country, and influencing how they see the revolt. One program, for example, discussed the history and stages of the French Revolution -- an effort, perhaps, to provide Syrians with some context for the length of and the changes within their own uprising.

But it was the anti-ISIS programming that caused ANA's four citizen journalists in Raqqa to live a precarious existence, even before the raids. According to Jarrah, they first had to win the approval of Jabhat al-Nusra, which the State Department considers an al Qaeda affiliate, to bring their broadcast equipment into the area. However, they set up at a different address than the one that they gave to the jihadi group. Soon after they moved into their new offices, ISIS fighters overran the post of a rival rebel militia next to their building -- ANA's new neighbors were now precisely the people it was trying to avoid.

"It was dangerous over the past two months, and we knew so," Jarrah said. "We spent the past two months with the guys just coming to the office to set up the broadcast, and then taking their computers and working elsewhere."

The confrontation came to a head on Oct. 1, when ISIS fighters seized ANA staffer Rami al-Razzouk at a checkpoint, as he was traveling to the city of Tabaqa. Razzouk has not been heard of since, though ANA received unconfirmed reports that he had been beaten severely and transferred to the eastern province of Deir Ezzor. ISIS raided ANA's offices roughly three hours after Razzouk's capture, seizing the group's laptops and a camera. A sharia court judge attempted to mediate, but ISIS rejected the intervention, accusing the media outlet of taking money from foreign intelligence organizations.

Prominent Syrian dissidents have also recently castigated ISIS's behavior. Anti-Assad writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh penned an essay describing how he was forced to flee Damascus for fear of capture by the regime; when he arrived in Raqqa, where he had lived in his youth, he found himself once again forced into hiding for fear of capture by the Islamist radicals. ISIS's name, he wrote, "befits a ghoul in one of the folktales we used to hear in youth."

In other parts of Syria, ISIS has been responsible for some of the worst human rights violations committed by anti-Assad groups during the conflict. Human Rights Watch (HRW) detailed how ISIS fighters participated in a massacre of at least 190 civilians in pro-government villages in the province of Latakia. A rebel military leader interviewed by HRW reported that as of last month, ISIS also held over 100 hostages from the assault, whom they were attempting to exchange for their own prisoners and money.

ANA plans to re-launch its broadcast in Raqqa as soon as possible. Jarrah said the outlet is sneaking new equipment into the area, and plans to be broadcasting again within two weeks.

"I think the main lesson is that we were quiet [about ISIS's activities] for so long, that now -- when we're being attacked, when we're being oppressed -- there are people saying 'Well, these guys are on your side,'" he said. "But these guys were never on our side." 

ZAC BAILLIE/AFP/Getty Images

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'It's Our Imperative to Get on the Ground': An Exit Interview With AP's First North Korea Bureau Chief

When Jean Lee became the Associated Press's first North Korea bureau chief in 2012, she anticipated many of the challenges she'd face while in country: the trouble accessing places typically considered off-limits to foreigners, the constant scrutiny, the roadblocks to verifying information under a secretive regime.

What she didn't expect was the backlash, which came swift and harsh from those who questioned the news agency's decision to play ball with one of the world's most repressive governments in exchange for access (the Wall Street Journal headlined one op-ed about the bureau "Associated Propaganda").

"The lack of support for what we were trying to do … was a bit tough to stomach," says Lee, an American journalist of Korean descent who was the AP's Seoul bureau chief before expanding her coverage to North Korea. "The pressure … and the criticism from other journalists for opening up a bureau when frankly, as journalists, I do think it's our imperative to try to get on the ground and to try to write from as many angles as we can. For so long we and so many other Western media have had to cover this country from the outside -- it was a really bold bid to try to write about it and report on it in a different way."

The AP announced this week that Lee is stepping down as Pyongyang bureau chief (to be replaced by Tokyo news editor Eric Talmadge) and is taking on a new role based in Seoul where she will write in-depth stories about the Korean Peninsula. Lee spoke to Foreign Policy about the role she played in the first chapter of the AP's great Hermit Kingdom experiment, reflecting on one of the most enviable -- and difficult -- journalism jobs on the planet.

Working for the first major Western news organization to have a full-time presence in the Hermit Kingdom, Lee and photographer David Guttenfelder brought back glimpses of the country unlike any we've seen before. Guttenfelder captured rare, striking images of daily life in North Korea, while Lee filed stories that brought us inside anti-American North Korean kindergartens, took us to a North Korean film festival, and informed us of some of the nation's worst food shortages in years.

Their access, she says, was "unprecedented."

"We've been to so many places," she notes. "Inside homes, factories, farms, talking to ordinary North Koreans, to villages that no foreigners have ever been to."

Still, some in the United States have questioned whether, in agreeing to the government's terms for operating in the country, the AP has unintentionally served as a mouthpiece for the regime in Pyongyang. Journalist Donald Kirk called the bureau "a conduit for chirpy, upbeat stories rather than real news," while North Korea blogger Joshua Stanton, writing for the Journal, argued that the bureau was "showing a minuscule elite … under choreographed conditions."

It's a portrayal Lee vigorously disputes. Observers, she says, "tend to jump to conclusions about the operation without understanding how difficult it was to get this far."

Yes, there's propaganda: "It is a job requirement, and a survival tool, for many North Koreans to promote their propaganda, and quite a bit of what we see is theater," she acknowledges. And yes, access is a consistent problem: "It's our challenge to convince the North Koreans that it's worth letting us inside" homes, farms, and military factories.

But most reporting on North Korea today is shaped by stereotypes, she points out -- and by people who don't know the country well.

"Many Western journalists arrive in North Korea thinking the country is bizarre, everything is fake, and that the people are brainwashed robots, and look for things to support that impression," she says. Spending time on the ground helps sort truth from fiction, she says, as does consulting with sources both inside and outside the country.

As bureau chief, Lee split her time between Pyongyang and Seoul, where she also headed up the AP's bureau. She made trips of anywhere between two and five weeks to North Korea, and could have stayed longer but found it "a very difficult place to stay."

"Psychologically, it's very demanding," she explains. "It's tough to feel like you are under that kind of scrutiny around the clock. It's exhausting."

Everywhere she went, she says, people told her she was the first American they'd met. "It's a different kind of responsibility," she observes. "I was not anticipating that when I became a journalist that I would have to become a diplomat as well."

Lee and Guttenfelder, like all foreigners in North Korea, needed government permission in advance to travel outside the capital and, "as with most places in the world," sought permission to visit specific sites from municipal officials, or farm or factory managers. She says they did make spontaneous stops on occasion and carried out man-on-the-street interviews that were not orchestrated. "I pick who I want to speak to, as I would anywhere else," she adds.

Lee typically traveled with a North Korean driver, an AP staffer, and a translator provided by the Korean Central News Agency -- a propaganda arm of the government. The AP considered KCNA "our partners," she says, though she recognizes that others don't necessarily see it that way. "Somebody said we were signing a pact with the devil," she recalls.

But she also had a personal mission when it came to the KCNA staffers: "to share with them what the outside world is like, to share with them our form of journalism, expose them to Western media."

Lee's professional mission, in turn, was to expose North Korea to the Western world -- with all the limitations that come with that objective. "Seeing the country on a day-in, day-out basis, seeing the country as it's evolved over the last three years -- that informs our reporting," she explains. "There's no question about the payoff."

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