A pro-government stance does not suffice to protect media personnel from arrest. Several Syrian media outlets have reported that Rabea Kalawandy, a journalist who works for the Iranian pro-government TV channel Al-Alam, was arrested in Aleppo on 8 July. His family have no idea why he is being held. He did not publish anything on his official Facebook page the following day and started sharing contents again the day after with no explanation.
The only thing that we know for sure is that he has joined an already long list. RSF has learned that, in the past 12 months, at least 13 reputedly pro-government Syrian journalists have been charged or threatened by the intelligence services in connection with what they reported. The most common charges are “undermining the nation’s morale” and “harming the prestige of the state.”
Illusion of freedom
Until now, these journalists were privileged. The intelligence had chosen them and had allowed them to access combat zones and population resettlements so that they could play a key role in providing media coverage from the official viewpoint. This gave them a large audience. The director of NGO Syria Justice and Accountability Centre director Mohammad Al-Abdullah told the independent media outlet Enab Baladi that they sometimes used their fame and their familiarity with key figures to raise matters linked to such issues as poor living standards and corruption, but the reaction from the authorities and the security services served to remind them that the limits on criticism had not changed.
These journalists include Rida Albasha, a reporter for Al-Mayadeen, a Lebanese TV channel whose coverage usually favours the Syrian and Iranian governments. Albasha was one of Syria’s most ubiquitous war reporters and was very influential on social networks. He accompanied the government forces in many of their battles until he started to talk openly about corruption in Assad controlled areas, above all in Aleppo, in videos broadcast live on Facebooks. He was expelled from Syria in April.
“The power of fear in journalists”
Shortly after being expelled, Albasha posted this question on Facebook: “Why did you promulgate a media law if you apply to journalists the laws that are used to prosecute murderers, drug traffickers and thieves?” His post was later removed but it was for the same reason that a newspaper editor who does not want to be named reached a joint decision with the newspaper’s owner to stop publishing. In an editorial that was online briefly in mid-May before being taken down, he referred to “the power of fear in journalists” during what is one of the toughest periods in the Syrian media’s history.
Other journalists have also expressed their frustration on Facebook although, as in the preceding cases, they quickly removed their posts for fear of reprisals. The well-known former host of a state TV channel programme about corruption (who also prefers not to be identified although he now lives in self-imposed exile) said he left Syria because it was no longer possible to cover corruption properly.
The price of fuel is another subject that is off limits for the press in Syria. Mohamad Harsho, the editor of the Hashtag Syria website, was arrested on 10 April after posting an article about a government plan to increase the price of gasoline. He was released after intelligence officials got the site to remove the story and issue a formal apology instead. His punishment was less severe than that of Raeif Salameh, a journalist with the Baath Party’s media unit, who was jailed from April to May for allegedly running a Facebook page critical of the health ministry. And Hashtag Syria correspondent Amer Drau was held for four months in 2018, from August to November, after being arrested for “publishing false news.”
The unknown fate of Damascus Now’s editor
The most emblematic case is that of Wissam Al-Tair, the editor of Damascus Now, the most influential pro-government media outlet on Facebook, with more than 2.7 million followers. There was widespread surprise when he was arrested on 15 December 2018 and his Facebook page stopped functioning for several days. Sonel Ali, a Sham FM journalist who was arrested in the same raid, in which equipment was seized, was quickly freed. But not Al-Tair.
No one knows for sure where Al-Tair is or why he is being held. Some sources say he made the mistake of posting a poll about the fuel crisis in Syria. The Syrian writer and researcher Hossam Jazmati has offered another explanation on his Facebook page. He claims to know from “reliable sources” that Al-Tair was selling photos to foreign media, which constitutes an act of treason because only media that have the government's approval are allowed to do this.
Al-Tair’s family, who live in Jableh (25 km south of the port city of Latakia), talked about his arrest in a video posted on Facebook shortly afterwards. His brother says in the video that the intelligence services arrested Al-Tair when he began taking an interest in corruption. In tears, his mother describes going to Damascus and spending ten days there seeking information about his fate, without success. According to unconfirmed reports, he died under torture.
In theory, the Syrian constitution (adopted in 2012 after the first protests) guarantees press freedom and the “right of access to information about public affairs,” and prohibits “arrests, interrogations and investigations of journalists.” The government often reiterates this and claims that the media enjoy a great deal of freedom. Information minister Imad Sara recently even claimed in a communiqué that “red lines” would no longer be imposed on the media.
In reality, control of online publications has been stepped up since the government’s adoption of a law in March 2018 creating a special court for “information and communication crimes.”
Syria is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.