Arrests of 16 media workers in northeast Syria 'slap' to freedom of speech, rights group says

Arrests of 16 media workers in northeast Syria 'slap' to freedom of speech, rights group says
The Syrian Network for Human Rights said at least 16 media workers were detained last week by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) intelligence over 'false' allegations of 'espionage'. The SDF said it has 'nothing to do with arresting journalists'.
6 min read
06 August, 2022
The Syrian Democratic Forces are the official defence force of the autonomous administration in Syria's north and east [Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images-file photo]

A prominent Syrian rights organisation has slammed the alleged arrests of over a dozen journalists and other media workers by Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria last week as a "slap" to freedom of speech.

The Paris-based Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) said the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the military force of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), detained at least 16 media workers in the former Islamic State (IS) capital of Raqqa on 30 July.

SNHR executive director Fadel Abdul Ghany said most of those arrested have previously documented IS crimes. He alleged the SDF, which justifies its existence through its fight against IS, is acting against those who pose a threat to this legitimacy.

"Arresting 16 media workers – this is [a] slap against freedom of speech [and] freedom of journalists," Abdul Ghany told The New Arab on Thursday.

"If ISIS committed such crimes against 16 media workers, or [jihadist group] HTS [did], the attention and the impact will be 10 [times more] than now."

But the SDF told The New Arab its "main mission… is to defend the area against terrorism and occupation, so we have nothing to do with arresting journalists or other internal issues".

It directed The New Arab to contact the Internal Security Forces – the local police service, also known as the Asayish.

Abdul Ghany said that after the SNHR published a statement about the detentions, it received feedback from the US State Department, which he said is interested in seeking more details.

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The SDF cooperates extensively with US-led coalition forces and is mostly comprised of the predominantly Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).

The SNHR said in its statement on Monday that the arrestees have not been allowed to speak with relatives or engage a lawyer.

"We fear the detainees may suffer torture and go on to become forcibly disappeared, as is the case with 85 percent of all detainees," the statement said. Abdul Ghany clarified this was an overall figure for Syria and not specific to AANES-governed territory.

"A number of the detainees were severely beaten during the process of their arrest, and threats were directed against them," the SNHR added.

It said the 16 arrestees work for several different organisations and were detained by SDF intelligence on "false" allegations of "espionage". They were arrested without warrants, according to Abdul Ghany.

The Rojava Information Center (RIC), an organisation based in AANES-held territory that assists journalists, referenced on Twitter a 30 July report in The New Arab that said 16 activists and media workers had been arrested.

The article pointed to a story on New Arab affiliate Syria TV's website which said that, according to sources, the Asayish "launched a campaign of arrests targeting" these individuals.

The RIC cited the local Union of Free Media (UFM), which is reportedly linked to the region's authorities, as saying the police service arrested a number of journalists last week in the context of Operation Oath, an effort with the SDF targeting alleged "Turkish 'agents'".

Turkey, a longtime military opponent of the SDF, has been threatening a new offensive in the AANES areas of Manbij and Tel Rifaat.

According to an SDF statement on Sunday, "36 people involved in the ranks of the spies and agents" were arrested in various areas as part of the anti-espionage operation, though no mention was made of their professions.

But the UFM told The New Arab it was "inaccurate" that 16 journalists had been detained, adding that there are "no records to prove arrests of media workers".

The UFM, which called itself an "independent trade union organisation unaffiliated with any side or political faction", said that "according to information", Operation Oath has seen a number of current and former employees of AANES institutions arrested, including people who were working in archival offices.

It is "inaccurate" to describe them as journalists, the UFM said, adding that some of these people "have been interrogated and then returned to their homes".

The RIC had on Twitter previously cited the union as saying some detainees had been released, among them journalists.

Despite the UFM's insistence there's no proof media workers have been arrested, a report in British socialist newspaper the Morning Star highlighted by the RIC named several arrestees who appeared to perform or have performed media-related roles. They included an ex-correspondent for the SDF-linked Hawar News Agency (ANHA).

Also named were two individuals with current or previous positions at Raqqa Civil Council.

In response to a request for clarification, the UFM alleged that "according to information", the former ANHA correspondent is no longer able to work in the media. It was not possible to contact her for comment.

The union said AANES institutions have offices which carry out archival activities and communicate with the media to invite them to "any work or meeting or conference concerning the institution".

These are known as "media offices" but according to local law, the UFM said, staff in these departments cannot be officially assigned media tasks and are not classified as media workers.

The union added that this applied to the two individuals with present or past roles at Raqqa Civil Council who the Morning Star reported as having been arrested. The New Arab was unable to contact them for comment.

The arrest of media professionals and journalists is always worrisome, especially in relation to charges of espionage during a time of heightened attacks against the region," RIC spokesperson Sasha Hoffman told The New Arab on Thursday.

"Contrary to previous arrests of journalists by [North East of Syria's] internal security forces, which mainly targeted opposition media, it appears that this time media professionals working for AANES structures or formerly affiliated with AANES-friendly media were also targeted.

"We hope that the internal security forces will release information on the reason for their arrest and abide by the region's legal standards."

Hoffman said the RIC had enquired with local security forces but had not received a response.

The New Arab has contacted an Asayish media representative and the US State Department for comment.

Note: This story was updated on 7 August 2022 at 22:21 BST (GMT+1) after a response was received from the UFM. It was updated again on 8 August 2022 at 15:48 BST after the union replied to a request for clarification.

This article is part of The New Arab's States of Journalism series, a sustained exploration of freedom, repression, and accountability in MENA and global media landscapes. Read more of the series' articles here.