After criticizing al-Assad, Kenan Wakkaf is missing and abandoned by fellow journalists
Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim
The case of the Syrian journalist Kenan Wakkaf has sparked widespread controversy after he went missing over a Facebook post criticizing Bashar al-Assad, the head of the Syrian regime, for meeting with a famous actress while the economic and living problems are piling up from all sides.
As Wakkaf’s fate remains unknown to the time of writing of this article, numerous shy demands and solidarity appeals were released for the journalist.
Enab Baladi has monitored humble and unassuming advocacy campaigns in solidarity with Wakkaf. Appeals on social media seeking to uncover his fate were carried by known and unknown names or from his friends, which opened the door to criticism and questions about the lack of support for the journalist.
Further, Wakkaf’s critical case was absent from the pages of al-Wehda newspaper, where he worked, or the rest of the state newspapers and local media outlets.
Wakkaf was also abandoned by fellow colleagues and rights advocates, even by the Journalists’ Union in Damascus amid the absence of information about his disappearance.
On 6 February, Wakkaf posted a video on his Facebook page, calling on people who may be concerned to take care of his children after a large security force raided his house in his absence with the aim of arresting him.
The security forces were heavily armed, “as if they were trying to fight the Islamic State group,” Wakkaf mocked in the video.
Reporters Without Borders said that the al-Wehda newspaper dismissed him from his job some time ago and that Wakkaf recently worked in a bakery to fend for his family.
Ibrahim Hussein, Director of the Syrian Center for Journalistic Freedoms (SCJF), told Enab Baladi that ordinary people in regime-controlled areas are not able to condemn the security abuses against journalists or to voice solidarity with the victims due to the repressive milieu.
The voice of Wakkaf, who used to work for the state-run al-Wehda newspaper, is one of the angered voices from the main stronghold of Bashar al-Assad in the coastal region that supplied the Syrian regime army and allied militias with tens of thousands of fighters, but their region has been suffering a deterioration in living conditions, high prices, and cuts in food subsidies.
Wakkaf came under fire when he shared a Facebook post criticizing al-Assad’s reception of actress Sulaf Fawakherji and her husband, actor Wael Ramadan, where he hinted at al-Assad’s indifference to the crises in his areas of control, such as protests in As-Suwayda city, the queues in front of the immigration and passport departments, the directorates of supply, the civil registry, and the directorates of transport.
Hussein indicated that the pro-Assad Journalists’ Union is a hostage and is one of the regime’s tools to perpetuate its tyranny since the security forces are practically the ones who choose the Union’s leadership, he added.
Syrian journalists are also stifled by the fear of expressing solidarity with their colleagues who are being abused or arrested. “We can almost see some victims glorifying the regime and embellishing its actions, even though they suffered from abuse and injustice,” Hussein said.
The absence of solidarity with the Wakkaf case inside Syria consolidates an ugly reality centered on silencing policy and muzzling freedom of speech.
Reporters Without Borders published its blacklist for 2021, entitled “Predators of Press Freedom,” shedding light on the most egregious international violators of press freedom.
The list included 37 leaders around the world, including the head of the Syrian regime.
Sociologist Talal Mustafa of Harmoon Studies Center said the reasons behind the lack of clear Syrian sympathy for the threats or the arrest of Wakkaf return to a change in the position of the Syrians, which is no longer the same.
Now, there are Syrians at home who are facing difficulty, and there is a security risk in people’s sympathy with any detainee, opponent, or critic of the regime, and there is fear and panic as a result of the brutal crimes that the regime has committed against opponents during the past years, Mustafa said.
The former sociology professor at Damascus University explained that people began to some extent fear even the results of their sympathy with the detainees and that the matter is not the result of the past years only but has existed since the era of Hafez al-Assad.
Mustafa believes that the fear of these consequences has created a kind of division between the Syrians at home and the Syrians abroad, which is not a healthy condition. When a Syrian abroad criticizes the regime or a particular idea, he is always criticized and attacked on treason charges.
The lack of support and advocacy for journalist Wakkaf was not limited to inside Syria but also extended abroad, as his case did not receive wide reactions, although the margin of freedom for Syrians abroad is much greater, according to Mustafa.
The contradiction in concepts and opinions inside and outside Syria played a passive role in consolidating sympathy or support and appeals.
“The post-revolution generation believes it is normal to have positions and techniques for political dealing, and new opinions, as this generation cannot be asked to work under the guidance of the old guards,” according to Mustafa.
There are social and economic variables inside Syria where there is a wrong view from Syrians abroad towards what is happening inside the war-torn country.
This was evident in the recent protests in As-Suwayda due to the sporadic opinions on calling it the “revolution of the hungry” or revolution of freedom and dignity, according to Mustafa.
Supporting Kenan Wakkaf
The lack of support does not repeal some voices from regime-held areas that demanded Wakkaf’s release, despite his unknown fate so far.
Activists circulated a (#كلنا_كنان_وقاف, We_All_Kenan_Wakkaf) hashtag of solidarity with him, whether from known or unknown personal accounts or from some people close to him.
Mahmoud Ibrahim, who works in the state-run al-Thawra newspaper, signaled in a Facebook post that his fellow journalist went missing for expressing what most people say indoors, but they do not dare to convey outside.
He wrote, “Is it the disdain, abuse, and the weakening of the nation’s psyche, or is it his daring to disclose what is going on in the hearts of the parish?”
Reporters Without Borders also called for Kenan’s release. Sabreen al-Nawi, the Middle East bureau chief of RWB, called for the release of Wakkaf and put an end to the judicial harassment that affects him. “In a country where the economic situation is a major concern for citizens, the public interest requires the people to freely inform and obtain information on these issues,” she added.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim Hussein indicated that the opposition’s Syrian Journalists Association (SJA) does not differentiate between Syrian journalists in regard to their affiliations, orientations, and areas of presence, but rather documents the violations that journalists are exposed to, regardless of their identity and the identity of the party that commits the violation.
The association also publicly sympathizes with all journalists who have been subjected to arrest or arbitrary measures, even though some of them are affiliated in one way or another with the Syrian regime, out of the association’s compliance with its principles, Hussein said.
A history of arrests
Wakkaf is known as a strong voice on social media against corruption fueled by deteriorating living conditions as well against the government’s economic and local policies, such a position was the reason for his arrest more than once.
His first arrest was on 7 March 2021, after he published a post that talked about a kidnapping carried out by the son of the governor of northeastern al-Hasakah province, Maj. Gen Ghassan Khalil, to get money.
He was also arrested in September 2020 due to re-publishing on his Facebook account a press investigation published in the al-Wehda newspaper.
Damascus-based the Union of Journalists said it had made efforts to free Wakkaf in 2020 but came without fruit. The head of the Union at the time confirmed to the attorney general that “the journalist’s arrest was not justified in Law No. 108 of 2011 for publishing media material even if the article was posted on social media.”
Imad Sarah, the then-Syrian Minister of Information, stated that the media law should be applied when dealing with any media issue. “No journalist will be arrested until the Ministry of Information becomes aware of the reasons for the arrest,” the pro-Assad al-Watan newspaper quoted him as saying.
Syria is among the worst countries in terms of freedom of expression, as it ranked 174 out of 180 in the annual classification of freedom of expression issued by Reporters Without Borders for 2021.
The RWB considered that there is no free press in the regime-held areas where the media outlets only transmit the official discourse directed by the regime.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) described Syria as the most lethal country for journalists in the world in 2019.
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