Press freedom watchdog criticizes suspension of Kurdish reporter in northeast Syria

Rudaw's Vivian Fatah was suspended because she did not describe Kurdish fighters who had been killed in Syria as martyrs.

al-monitor People carry the coffin of a member of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) who was killed during clashes in Syria, during a funeral in Kirkuk, Iraq, Oct. 21, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Ako Rasheed.

May 12, 2020

The Committee to Protect Journalists has criticized the suspension of a Kurdish reporter in northeast Syria who did not refer to killed Kurdish fighters there as having been “martyred.”

The New York-based organization that promotes press freedom said authorities in the autonomous administration of north and east Syria should allow Rudaw’s Vivian Fatah to report again at once.

“The authorities in northeastern Syria should reinstate Vivian Fatah’s press credentials immediately, and stop interfering with the workings of the press,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement.

The autonomous administration is the Kurdish-led government in northeast Syria. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the dominant party there. Rudaw is affiliated with the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) based in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The KDP and the Barzani family that runs it also enjoy support in Kurdish areas of Syria. The PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), leads the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that control northeast Syria.

Fatah was suspended Monday for a report she did on ongoing Kurdish unity negotiations between the PYD and KDP-backed groups in Syria. In the video report, she is standing in front of YPG graves that read “sehid” — an Arabic loan word in Kurdish meaning “martyr.” Kurds typically refer to their dead as “martyrs,” including when they died fighting the Islamic State — as YPG soldiers did.

However, in her report, Fatah said the soldiers were “killed” and not “martyred.”

The autonomous administration suspended her for two months “after she offended martyrs and their families,” a statement read. Rudaw defended Fatah’s actions, saying “martyr” is a “term with strong religious and political significance which is rarely used in news reporting.”

The suspension comes at a time when Kurdish parties in Syria are trying to mend their long-damaged relations. While the Kurdish National Council’s Rojava peshmerga has been prevented from returning to fight in Syria by the PYD, Turkey’s invasion of northeast Syria in October helped prompt the two sides to talk. There are now negotiations between a KDP ally, the Kurdish National Council, and the PYD.

The PYD has a communalist, left-wing ideology derived from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. Turkey believes the YPG is a PKK offshoot, and this prompted Ankara to attack YPG positions near its border in October.

But the KDP has an oil-based relationship with Turkey and typically has a more politically conservative base, factors that have led to bad relations between the KDP and the PYD/YPG for years.

The Kurdish National Council, meanwhile, is more supportive of the Syrian opposition.

The autonomous administration’s decision created a debate on Kurdish social media. Some accused Rudaw of hypocrisy for using “martyr” to describe its peshmerga forces who died in Iraqi Kurdistan. Others criticized the suspension for violating press freedom.

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