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Journalists flee northwest Syria as intimidation ramps up

Dozens of journalists have fled northwest Syria, some paying fortunes to reach Europe, to escape the Syrian opposition factions and Hayat Tahrir-al-Sham.
Syrian refugee journalist

IDLIB — Suhail Zubair, a pseudonym, is one of many journalists who have fled the city of al-Bab the northeastern countryside of Aleppo, fearing for his safety and that of his family. He was threatened by the Syrian opposition factions loyal to Turkey after he reported on prisons run by these groups in the cities of al-Rai and Afrin, where thousands of detainees are held.

Zubair told Al-Monitor that he has reported for several local and Arab satellite stations. But constant threats over his investigative journalism pushed him to flee with his family a year ago to Turkey. There, he paid some $60,000 to get them smuggled to Sweden.

“It all began in al-Bab when I obtained private information from former prisoners in al-Rai prison about the [Turkish-backed] factions detaining dozens of Kurdish women of various ethnicities from the city of Afrin. The women have been in prison since the factions took over the city in 2018. They are not even tried and are subject to gang rapes by prison officials, some even tortured to death,” Zubair said.

Zubair said, “I met with the families of 10 Kurdish female prisoners from Afrin. These families showed me pictures of the imprisoned women, some of whom were minors. The families told me that when the factions took control of Afrin, these imprisoned girls were barely 10 years old. Their fate remains unknown.”

He went on, “These women and girls were subjected to the worst treatment. I was able to speak to some of former prisoners, who told me they were kidnapped from their homes one year after the factions took control of Afrin. The factions began kidnapping Kurdish women and some were held in these prisons. The factions blackmailed their families and forced relatives to pay high ransoms, often reaching $30,000, in exchange for releasing them. These prisoners asked me not to name them in my documentary, for fear of being kidnapped again and killed by the factions.” 

Zubair added, “I also spoke with sources from the Syrian armed opposition, who told me that the factions prevent international human rights organizations from entering the women’s cells or communicating with them, as they fear being held accountable and tried in international courts if the women reveal to these organizations the abusive practices and grave violations.”

Zubair said he was threatened three times by one faction leader who said he would booby trap his car and house if he continued his investigation.

“I tried to conduct an investigative report on these women and their alleged crimes," he said. "I was threatened by a faction leader who said he would blow up my car, kill my family, kidnap and stab my children and rape my wife if I continued.”

“I also noticed that some days I was followed by masked people wherever I went to do my job. My journalist friends advised me to flee with my family because I was dealing with real criminals who do and will carry out their threats. My fellow journalist Hussein Khattab, who was a correspondent for the Turkish channel TRT Arabic, was assassinated in December 2020 by unknown persons on a motorcycle,” he said.

Alaa Haitham is a pseudonym for a TV journalist who once worked in the northwest Syrian city of Idlib, which is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and fled months ago with her husband and two children to France. She told Al-Monitor about the hardships female journalists face in northwest Syria.

Those in control of the area “are extremist jihadists and former fighters of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra who threaten journalistic work, especially work that criticizes their policies,” she said.

“I received death threats because I was preparing a documentary film about the difficulties female journalists face ... as well as the imprisonment, death threats and rape at the hands of HTS,” Haitham said.

“I dedicated the introduction of my documentary to Nour al-Shilo, a journalist and activist who had been detained for months and reportedly faced execution. But she was eventually released last year. HTS threatened to kidnap and kill me, which prompted my husband to look for a smuggler we paid some $60,000 to get us to France,” she added.

Journalists from the cities of Idlib and al-Bab told Al-Monitor that every week, more media workers are fleeing Syria because of the restrictions and threats they face.

They added that the Syrian opposition factions’ prisons hold dozens of journalists and activists who have been stuck there for years. Many other journalists have been kidnapped, killed in their booby-trapped cards and some shot.

An Al-Hal correspondent in Idlib reported March 18 that 17 media activists from northwestern Syria had fled in less than three months.

According to a May 2021 report by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, a partner of Reporters Without Borders, the Syrian war claimed the lives of more than 700 journalists between 2011 and 2021. Syria ranked 173 out of 180 countries for 2021 in press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders.

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