Aziz Alhamza – citizen journalist

Aziz Alhamza photo
Aziz Alhamza – co-founder of ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’

Citizen journalism – the collection and dissemination of news by members of the public – came to prominence during the Arab Spring. Where national and mainstream media outlets are distrusted or deficient, ordinary people share photographs, film and their first-hand descriptions of events, often online, to present an alternative narrative. Citizen journalism can be a form of activism and resistance, and can therefore carry enormous risk.

Aziz and his friends were ordinary teenagers when civil war broke out in Syria. They were motivated to join protests in 2011 when a group of young Syrian students were arrested and tortured for spraying graffiti with anti-government slogans. The young men began documenting the human rights violations carried out by government forces in their home city of Raqqa, and sharing this information with the world via the internet. Often, their citizen journalism was the only source of information coming out of Raqqa that wasn’t state controlled and heavily censored.

Then , in 2013, the group calling itself Islamic State (IS) arrived in Raqqa. Soon, IS was using Raqqa as its “capital city”, from where it controlled the large areas of Syria and Iraq that IS occupied. It also became the centre for organising terrorist attacks against European countries. As in other areas under its control, IS committed atrocities in Raqqa that included murder, torture and rape, as well as crackdowns on activists and anybody who disagreed with them.

With IS in control, no official journalists could enter the city, and reporting on events there was banned. Aziz and his friends set up a secret organisation to document the crimes of IS and government forces and their impact on daily life for civilians in the occupied city, including food shortages and lack of medical care. Their group was called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), and its members soon realised that they would have to operate in secrecy to keep themselves safe.

Not long after their occupation of Raqqa, IS began killing people who opposed them, including people whose only “crime” was collecting and sharing information about life under their control. One of the first members of RBSS to be killed was Al-Moutaz Billah Ibrahim, who was stopped while trying to leave Raqqa with a camera and a laptop. When IS fighters found information about RBSS on Moutaz’ laptop, they executed him in a public square, as a warning to others.

Some members of RBSS fled over the border to Turkey, but IS tracked them down and assassinated three more. A handful survived, including Aziz, by going into hiding and finding refuge in other countries. Their families were targeted, but their determination to tell the truth remained strong. As Aziz explained, “We won’t stop. We have too many friends and family dead. The only way we will stop is if ISIS kills us all or we go back home.”

Gunfire rings out in the streets of Raqqa today, as the Syrian government fights to take back control from IS. From their new homes in exile, Aziz and his fellow activists continue to receive information, photos and videos from citizen journalists in Raqqa, which they post on the RBSS website. Thanks to their determination, and the enormous courage of those still in Raqqa who risk their lives to share their stories, the world cannot turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed there.

The RBSS website is available in English at:  Copyright for the photo of Aziz Alhamza above has not been verified. Please contact this blog if you are the copyright holder.