BY: AL DONATO
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) states in its report released today on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day that the reality of the citizen journalists in Syria is moving towards either retirement or displacement.
According to the 10-page report, Syria ranked 174 out of 180 according to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
The report notes that the Syrian regime bears the greatest responsibility for Syria’s horrendous status globally, and for the grotesque misrepresentation of Syria and the Syrian people. Since the beginning of the Assad family’s rule, the report states, the regime’s security services have completely dominated every facet of the press and other media, and following the outbreak of the popular uprising for freedom in March 2011, they became even more lethally brutal and oppressive towards any independent press and media covering events in the country. This savage repression is driven by the regime’s fear that independent media would expose the practices and crimes of the Syrian regime and thoroughly disprove the complete falsity of the claims published as ‘news’ by the official media outlets, which are wholly controlled by the regime’s security services.
The growth of Syrian citizen journalism was a decisive factor in the preparation of press reports on events in Syria in cooperation and coordination with international journalists and media outlets. For this reason in particular, the Syrian regime, through a deliberate and clear strategy used in all Syrian governorates, targeted local journalists using snipers and singled them out for arrest, enforced disappearance and torture, with the regime also attempting to undermine the credibility of Syrian journalists by denying the veracity of their reports.
The report stresses that even in areas that broke free of Syrian regime control, citizen journalist and media workers have not been safe, with the regime and its allies targeting them with aerial and artillery bombardments, killing or injuring many of them. The report notes that one of the gravest examples of this attack strategy is the policy of ‘double-tap’ strikes targeting civilian populations, including primarily media workers who come to the bombing site to film the aftermath and prepare reports on the events that took place. According to the report, at least 1,457 media workers have been injured, with their injuries ranging from mild and moderate injury to permanent disability.
The report stresses that the Syrian regime allows no form of criticism at all, even from its most ardent loyalists, and will tolerate no kind of freedom of expression or press freedom; the Syrian regime has even prosecuted loyal media workers who obediently presented its account of events and defended it devotedly for years; when they expressed the slightest criticism or objection, however, they were quickly arrested by the security services. The report outlines the case of the prominent regime media figurehead known as Wesam al Tair, who was infamous for his absolute loyalty and his closeness to the ruling family, whose fate, as the report states, remains unknown.
The report further explains that ISIS copied the Syrian regime’s practices in many types of violations, such as filming and publishing various videos showing clearly coerced ‘confessions’ by citizen journalists admitting to supposed crimes against ISIS and expressing repentance before being executed by a variety of horrendous methods. One of the most notable of these gruesome publications by ISIS was what it called ‘The Devil’s Revelation’, issued in June 2016, containing footage of the execution of four citizen journalists in Deir Ez-Zour governorate (Samer Mohammad al Abboud, Sami Jawdat al Rabah, Mahmoud Shaaban al Haj Khader, Mohammad Marwan al Eisa).
As the report reveals, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham has also persecuted citizen journalists in the areas under its control, killing all those who it felt might pose a threat to its extremist ideology and policies, as it did with Raed al Faris and Hamoud Jneed, as well as arresting dozens of citizen journalists in retaliation for issuing publications contrary to its policies or for participating in activism without obtaining permission; this persecution has led many media activists, fearing for their lives, to either abandon their journalistic activities or flee their areas.
The report notes that ahe areas under the control of the Armed Opposition have also not enjoyed positive models of press freedom, with citizen journalists routinely being subjected to a policy of harassment, extortion, intimidation, detention and torture.
The report stresses that Syrian Democratic Forces have also largely suppressed press freedom, in particular any approach that opposes their policies, carrying out a wide range of violations, including arrests, enforced disappearances and torture against citizen journalists who have criticized the Syrian Democratic Forces’ policies and their administration of the areas under their control.
The report documents some of the most notable violations against media workers according to the SNHR’s database, which recorded the deaths of at least 695 (local and foreign) journalists and media workers between March 2011 and May 2019, of whom 546, including five children, one woman and five foreign journalists, were killed by Syrian Regime forces, while Russian forces killed 20, and ISIS killed 64, including one child, two women and three foreign journalists. Meanwhile, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham killed seven media workers, while 25 others were killed at the hands of factions of the Armed Opposition, including one child and three women.
The report further reveals that Syrian Democratic Forces killed four media workers, while International Coalition forces killed one media worker, and another 28 were killed at the hands of various other parties.
According to the report, there have been at least 1,136 cases of arrests and kidnappings of media workers at the hands of all key perpetrator parties in Syria between March 2011 and May 2019, of whom at least 421, including four women and 18 foreign journalists, are still detained or forcibly disappeared in detention centers. Of these, 349, including two women and four foreign journalists are still detained by the Syrian regime, while another 48, including one woman and eight foreign journalists are imprisoned in the detention centers of ISIS, with Hay’at Tahrir al Sham still detaining three media workers, including one foreign journalist.
Meanwhile, 14 media workers, including one woman and five foreign journalists are still detained by factions of the Armed Opposition, while Syrian Democratic Forces are still detaining seven media workers.
The report calls on the UN Security Council to contribute to combating the policy of impunity by referring the situation in Syria to the ICC and making clear efforts to end the conflict in Syria through a political process that moves Syria from a totalitarian state to a stable democratic civilized state.
The report further recommends that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should condemn the targeting of media workers in Syria and highlight their sacrifices and suffering.
The report calls on the Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) to conduct investigations into the targeting of media workers in particular because of their vital role in recording events in Syria.
The report also calls on Arab and international media institutions to support their fellow journalists in Syria by publishing periodic reports that highlight their daily suffering and commemorate their sacrifices, as well as to communicate with their families, and provide relief and comfort to them.
In conclusion, the report stresses that all parties in the areas under their control must abide by the provisions of international humanitarian law with regard to the protection of civilians, especially media workers and their equipment.