Truth is said to be the first casualty of war, but Khaled al-Khatib and a small group of journalists running a new newspaper in Syria’s rebel-held territories are determined to keep the patient alive.
Suria Al-Hurra (Syria the Free), their month-old weekly, is seeking to become an important source of information for what goes on in the war-torn country - refusing to bend the facts, no matter the pressure to do so.
“We are nobody’s mouthpiece; we are journalists,” Khatib, the 30-year-old chief editor and former Aleppo University geography professor, defiantly tells AFP.
“We will never publish anything we’re not 100-percent certain is true. Many times people try to manipulate us.”
Such adherence to normal journalistic standards is risky in a country that, before its March 2011 uprising erupted, harbored a tame press that obediently vaunted the merits of now-beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad.
Regime elements - notably Assad’s fiercely loyal shabiha militia -- take exception to Suria Al-Hurra’s aims. So do some rebels, who want to see the paper act as a propaganda tool in their struggle.
“So far no one has turned up in the newsroom trying to intimidate or kidnap us,” Khatib says.
“But on our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/soria.alhoura, in Arabic) there was a shabiha who said that if he found us one day he would break our feet and our hands and then kill us.”
The danger is real enough that Khatib doesn't want to broadcast the location of the office from which he and five reporters work in a village in northern Aleppo province.
Even with the rebels, who know the location, relations are not always smooth.
“There are some leaders of different katibas (rebel fighting units) that have come to us to say they don’t want to deal with us because in our paper we criticized some errors they made in the FSA (Free Syrian Army),” the editor says.
The office is a modest one, located in an old post office. A heater sits in the middle of a carpet-covered floor to stave off the freezing winter air. There are a few portable computers and a filing cabinet.
And there is a caricature of Assad, dressed as a super hero who is vainly trying to stop a Syria-shaped boot from squashing him flat.
Suria Al-Hurra publishes all sorts of news and features - from what is happening on the battlefield, in local communities and the byzantine world of revolutionary politics to information on how the outside world is reacting to what is happening in Syria, including translations from the foreign press.
Wealthy Syrian donors, mostly ones who have fled to neighboring Turkey and other countries, provide the funds supporting the newspaper: $2,000 for each weekly run of 6,000 copies printed in Turkey, which are distributed for free every Thursday or Friday in rebel-held areas around Syria.
Some rebel fighters even come to the office to collect the newspaper to hand out in their bases.
Khatib estimates that 10 people read each copy, giving “a circulation of 60,000.”
While it is too early to say what impact the publication is having in a nation where lies, propaganda, omissions, partisan bias and errors dog every event, Suria Al-Hurra’s news crew is determined to bring an exacting scrutiny to the news they cover.
As well as the six working in the office, the paper relies on five other correspondents in Aleppo province.
“Usually they send in items by Internet. Sometimes they come to the newsroom to work from here, which is the ideal. But for security they can’t always do that," Khatib says.
All the journalists are aged between 25 and 30.
Khatib says he and his colleagues started by handing out anti-regime pamphlets to university students and organizing protests before using their own money to launch their first issue that came out December 7.
“There came a moment when we became tired of reading information on the Internet about the revolution without knowing if it was true,” he says.
“So we thought we'd seek out the information ourselves... and, what’s more, we wanted to denounce all the mistakes being made in this revolution so that a solution is found.”
An example is a piece they ran denouncing people who were receiving free food aid and then selling it on the black market.
Their weekly goes beyond professional ambition. Khatib and his colleagues see it also as a symbol of the struggle for a democratic, open society that inspired the uprising against the ruling Assad family.
“We have already lived more than 30 years under the yoke of oppression," Khatib says. “It’s now time to be free.”