Jana al-Issa | Hassan Ibrahim
Media activist Louay Younis was not aware that he would be subject to arrest by the military police along with a woman and her two children from a nearby house on the evening of 5 August in the town of Jindires in the Afrin region, north of Aleppo, without any charges being brought during the raid.
The incident of the arrest of the member of the Syrian Media Union was not far from an incident of an attack on the media activist and al-Jazeera correspondent Malek Abu Obeida and a group of activists and journalists with him by members of the civil police while covering the protests of the medical sector in the city of al-Bab in Aleppo’s eastern countryside on 1 August.
The list of media professionals who have been subjected to violations by various parties in Syria is still full of names and incidents amid the control and restrictions imposed by the authorities on them despite the passage of more than 11 years since the call for freedom of expression in general, and freedom of the press in particular.
In northwestern Syria, being a media person “not loyal to the de-facto authorities” is allowed. However, you do not have the right to choose the media issues that you will reveal or highlight or even choose an event of interest to a large number of Syrians that you want to cover. If you do any, the military police, the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), and the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) are ready to “hold you accountable” in the manner dictated by their mood or according to the extent of what they consider as “attacking and criticizing” in the press material.
Enab Baladi discusses the reasons for not stopping the violations committed against media professionals in northwestern Syria, where the opposition parties to the Syrian regime control, in light of the presence of a number of press associations and professional unions to which media professionals are affiliated.
In this file, Enab Baladi also tries, with the participation of opinions and testimonies from journalists and activists in charge of press associations operating in the region, to shed light on possible solutions to protect media professionals and defend their professional rights.
From ban to arrest
Violations are unchecked
Syria ranked 171 out of 180 countries at the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index for 2022, according to the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.
There are many violations against media professionals in northwestern Syria, and they were not limited to arresting or assaulting activists only, as they reached the point of preventing journalists from covering certain events, either because of the position of these authorities regarding the media outlet for which the journalist works or for unclear reasons, which were not revealed by the official authorities.
On the 18th of last July, the incident of preventing the correspondent of the Syrian Orient media outlet, Mohammad Haroun, from conducting a video report on the recently opened dental clinics at the University of Aleppo in the liberated areas sparked widespread controversy, especially since the ban came from the head of the university’s media office, despite the reporter obtaining an oral approval from the university president.
On 13 June, members of the Turkish-backed forces prevented Enab Baladi’s correspondent from reporting the prisoner swap between the National Army and the Syrian regime forces, at the Abu al-Zindain crossing between the regime and opposition areas in the city of al-Bab, despite the entry of several local networks to the crossing, without explaining any reasons for this ban.
On the other hand, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which has military influence in Idlib and parts of the western countryside of Aleppo, released on 31 March the media worker Ahmed Zakaria al-Dala’, four months after his arrest, following a poll of people’s opinion he had conducted on the reality of living conditions in the town of al-Dana in the northern countryside of Idlib.
Tahrir al-Sham controls the Idlib area, while the National Army factions control the countryside of Aleppo, while the area is subjected to repeated violations and bombardments by the Russian-backed Syrian regime forces or by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Journalists: We defend ourselves by ourselves
The Syrian Center for Journalistic Freedoms of the Syrian Journalists Association monitors monthly the violations that media workers are subjected to on all Syrian territories.
According to local media workers and activists in opposition-controlled areas interviewed by Enab Baladi, media professionals who are subjected to violations, harassment, or wrong practices in the region used to resort to social media sites first, considering it to be the first and most important platform that puts pressure to defend them.
Walid Othman, a freelance journalist working for a number of Syrian media outlets and a member of the Syrian Media Union working in the countryside of Aleppo, told Enab Baladi that only the journalists themselves are defending journalists.
Othman believes that in northwestern Syria, it is not possible to rely on a specific authority to protect media professionals and journalists due to the absence of human rights and media agencies concerned with their protection on the one hand and due to the de-facto authorities’ lack of commitment to recommendations and calls to protect media professionals and facilitate their work on the other hand.
Most media professionals work to protect themselves by forming media associations, federations, and gatherings, which are similar to “emergency projects” that are held in places of conflict, with the aim of unifying the efforts of media professionals in the region and trying to create pressure currents on local authorities and factions in the event of any violation taking place in the region, whether against media workers or others, Othman adds.
For her part, Omaima Zaidan, a journalist in the Syrian Hibr Press news site, who lives in the countryside of Aleppo, told Enab Baladi that her possession of a media card from the Media Union in the Afrin region and its countryside did not prevent her from being exposed to obstacles or problems, which gave her a feeling that the media card is “useless.”
Zaidan believes that the media person is one of the most social groups and segments that are unable to protect themselves or defend their rights, noting that she prefers not to carry the media identity card while passing through security or military checkpoints in northern Syria for fear of being scrutinized more.
Orient’s correspondent in Idlib, Hashem al-Abdullah, also disclosed to Enab Baladi that those who defend the media are themselves through campaigns advocating for some of them, in addition to a number of unions and bodies seeking to defend them.
Denouncing or demonstrating, only pressure cards
Many media associations and unions were formed in northwestern Syria during the past ten years, some of which did not last long, while others maintained their work, which is often limited to documentation, advocacy, or statements of condemnation, without networking with human rights or judicial bodies to preserve the rights of media professionals, amid several obstacles still facing them.
On 6 August, the Revolution Activists Association in Homs issued a statement regarding the arrest of media activist Louay Younis, calling for his release and the necessity of further investigation by the military police before terrorizing civilians and holding them responsible for the safety and health of the detainee or any physical or moral harm to him.
The Syrian Media Union condemned, in a statement issued on the same day, the incident of Younis’ arrest, warning that the inevitable result of the recurrence of such matters is the further exacerbation of the situation as media professionals and revolutionary activists stage sit-ins against these actions that “offend the revolution of freedom and dignity.”
After demonstrations in front of the military police headquarters by dozens of media professionals and activists and several statements of condemnation that criticized the arbitrary arrest method and held the military police responsible for any consequences of the arrest process, Younis was released on 8 August after the police had released a woman and her two children arrested in the same incident on 6 August.
Hours after the attack on al-Jazeera correspondent Malik Abu Obeida, some media professionals in the region, including the activist who was beaten, met with the al-Bab city police command, and the latter pledged to hold accountable the elements responsible for the attack and not to repeat such incidents.
Meanwhile, the HTS released Ahmed Zakaria al-Dala’ after four months of almost daily sit-ins by the residents of Deir Hassan village, denouncing what they described as “the policy of silencing mouths” and the “arbitrary and abhorrent” methods of the arrest.
What is the use of media associations?
The Syrian Journalists Association, the Syrian Media Union, and the Media Union of Aleppo and its countryside are among the most prominent associations that are still working today in the field of documenting press violations and trying to support efforts and preserve the rights of media professionals in northwestern Syria.
Documentation; first block of media’s desired future
Mohammed al-Satouf, a researcher at the Syrian Center for Press Freedoms of the opposition’s Syrian Journalists Association, said in an interview with Enab Baladi that the association, since its inception in 2012, has played an important and prominent role in monitoring and documenting all violations committed against journalists, media activists, institutions and media centers in all Syrian governorates.
Al-Satouf added that the Syrian Center for Press Freedoms follows up on these violations and scrutinizes them after verifying them according to standards for documenting violations and issues a monthly report aimed at documenting them.
In turn, the Syrian Journalists Association organizes support and advocacy campaigns for media professionals and institutions in an attempt to convey their voice and their suffering to the international community and local bodies.
All these tools are considered, in one way or another, as a means of putting pressure on the forces controlling the land and the perpetrators of violations, which leads to a situation that may be positive, even at the minimum level, in terms of improving media freedoms, according to al-Satouf.
Al-Satouf believes that the documentation of violations against media professionals is the first building block in the future of media freedoms, as such documentation is key in preparing accountability files for perpetrators in the future.
For his part, the head of the Syrian Media Union, Jalal al-Talawi, told Enab Baladi that the Union is officially recognized by local councils, the civilian and military police, and the leaders of the National Army and has numerous channels of communication in Aleppo countryside, supporting its position as a representative of the media affiliates.
Al-Talawi added that the Union can communicate with any state or military institution in the event of any arrest or attack against media professionals and can claim their rights whether they are subjected to arbitrary arrest or assault and in the event of a particular case filed against them, the Union has the right to view the details of the case to pursue the matter, as he said it.
Restriction on media gatherings
Syrian journalist Omaima Zaidan believes that it is not in the interest of the local authorities to protect media professionals, attributing the reason to the many violations carried out by those authorities that do not want them to be disclosed or covered by journalists or media professionals, whose presence is deemed “undesirable” in the region.
Orient’s correspondent in Idlib, Hashem al-Abdullah, also confirmed the responsibility of the de-facto authorities for the absence of the role of media agencies concerned with promoting press freedoms.
“In light of the current circumstances and in a region where freedom of opinion and expression is not available, the environment is considered unsuitable for journalistic work, as de-facto authorities impose conditions on media professionals and deliberately restrict their freedom of the press,” al-Abdullah asserts.
Walid Othman, a member of the Syrian Media Union, believes that media gatherings in the region live in a state of frequent “back-and-forth” with the local authorities, due to the authorities’ refusal to legitimize the existence of the gatherings, under the pretext of recurring their presence under different names over the past 11 years, and on the pretext of these gatherings or unions’ inclusion of people who are not qualified to practice media work.
Al-Satouf, a researcher at the Syrian Center for Press Freedoms, says that no union institution can have a full and integrated role in guaranteeing the right of media professionals who are subjected to violations under the current circumstances and in the whole of Syria, from the pressures exerted by the controlling forces on the ground, each in its geographical space.
He added that ensuring that this is achieved is linked to several factors that precede it, such as a real transfer of power, the existence of a real judicial system, and other factors that must be available so that the association or unions can then perform their role effectively and completely.
Because the media plays a major role in exposing corruption and the negligence of the controlling powers, this puts media workers as a target for the authorities to restrict their activities and work to ensure that press freedoms do not take a real role.
Jalal al-Talawi, the head of the Syrian Media Union, considers that one of the main obstacles hindering the work of the Union in the way it hopes is the absence of a main official body that must be contacted in the event of any violation of the rights of media professionals, and the multiplicity of bodies in the region such as local councils and military and civilian police, or the leaders of the National Army and others.
Al-Talawi explained that the Union resorts to calling for demonstrations in the event that its demands are not fulfilled in a case of media advocacy to try to pressure the authorities to implement its demands, which it deems “feasible” considering previous experiences that took place in the region.
Key media gatherings in northwestern Syria
Syrian Media Union
It was formed in 2018 in the northern countryside of Aleppo and defines itself as “an independent institution that includes Syrian media professionals in accordance with an agreed ethical charter, and declared goals to organize efforts, develop skills, and protect rights.”
Syrian Journalists Association (SJA)
An independent organization that is not affiliated with any governmental or partisan entity, and represents its members wherever they are inside or outside Syria, and seeks to be an independent umbrella organization for Syrian journalists without discrimination.
SJA includes about 500 journalists inside Syria and around the world and works on providing academic and specialized training courses, networking with Arab and international press organizations and other organizations interested in supporting journalists, conveying the reality of what is happening in Syria, and providing logistical support services to activists and journalists inside Syria “in the event that funds and logistics are available for that.”
No solutions in the short term
Constitutional protection guarantees rights
Although the goal for which many union bodies and associations were formed in northwest Syria was to unite efforts and form a pressure force to protect media professionals and defend their rights, this step ran into more than one obstacle, according to al-Satouf.
One of the most prominent obstacles and challenges is the lack of real forces that can rein in the military forces controlling the ground, which are responsible for committing most of the violations in northwest Syria, according to the researcher.
Al-Satouf stressed that despite the presence of a judicial body in northwestern Syria and its claim to implement laws, its role is incomplete for reasons that have become known, whether in the HTS areas of control in Idlib or in the SNA areas of control in the countryside of Aleppo.
The judicial system in these areas does not fully fulfill its duty, as the perpetrators of violations against media professionals are not held accountable, which prompts revolutionary actors to exert pressure on the controlling forces on the ground and to form a pressure force to defend the rights of media professionals, according to the researcher at the Center for Press Freedoms.
For his part, a member of the Syrian Journalists Association, Ahmed Murad, said that journalists have always been the “weakest link” in all of Syria, which is governed by multiple authorities that are similar in their approach to tightening their control over all opposition voices in order to tighten their military grip.
According to Murad, the goal of journalistic work is not only to cover the events but also to reveal facts and hidden information, which goes against the interests of the tyrannical authorities, assuring Enab Baladi that all Syrian lands, regardless of the dominant party, until now, are ruled by nothing but tyranny.
Media work in northwestern Syria currently (and in the whole of Syria) lacks the legal framework, which is the constitutional protection of the right to freedom of expression, which is the basis from which laws to protect journalists and laws for the right to freedom of expression are based, something that has not been achieved so far, Murad says.
The currently formed press associations are a syndicate umbrella for journalists to guarantee their rights, but they do not have sufficient tools on the ground, which makes their role limited to advocacy only, he added.
Consequently, there is a need for a legal and constitutional framework and constitutional articles that guarantee journalists’ non-prosecution and the freedom to establish media institutions.
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