Reporters Without Borders is extremely concerned about the significant deterioration in freedom of information in areas controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The organization is aware of the security problems in the region as the conflict in Syria drags on and the civilian population comes under threat from Jihadi groups. However, as the authority responsible for that part of the country, it is the role of the PYD to ensure basic freedoms, including freedom of information, are respected.
However, the creation of the Union of Free Media looks like the establishment of a kind of information ministry. Furthermore, the organization has registered a growing number of abuses perpetrated against Syrian news providers, mainly by the Asayish (security forces) and the YPG (people’s protection units, i.e. the armed wing of the Supreme Kurdish Committee, also alleged to be the armed wing of the PYD).
In a report published in November last year entitled “Journalist in Syria: Impossible Job?”, Reporters Without Borders recorded some of these abuses (see pages 9 and 10).
Union of Free Media, a potential information ministry
On 15 August last year, the Kurdish Supreme Committee, the governing body in the Kurdish majority areas of Syria, which collectively calls itself “Rojava”, announced the creation of the Union of Free Media (Yekîtiya Ragihandina Azad, or YRA). The YRA, based in Qamishli, is a kind of information ministry seen as the only body that oversees media organizations that want to work in Rojava. This means news organizations and those involved in news and information must request and obtain a permit from this body in order to be able to operate and work there. Also, many news providers report that they must also keep the Asayish informed of their movements. The authorities argue that such authorization is necessary for the journalists’ safety.
Abuses on a large scale
The PYD and its henchmen have no qualms about arresting or even abducting news and information providers whom they see as too critical in order to silence them and intimidate the others.
On 23 April, Mohammed Mahmoud Bashar, a reporter for the television channel Rudaw, was arrested by the Asayish in Derbassiyah. He was released on 28 April.
Raman Hisso, a reporter for Zagros TV, told Reporters Without Borders:
“About 5 p.m. on 19 March, I was on my way to Amuda when two armed and masked men kidnapped me in a brown 4x4. They took me to a place I didn’t know and I was violently beaten by several men for more than an hour.
“They then took me for questioning by Kurdish-speaking interrogators who asked me about my work for Zagros TV, especially about my program for the Kurdish station ARK. They also asked me about my part in the revolution in general. It lasted more than eight hours, during which time I was blindfolded and my hands tied.
“I was also asked about other media activists and an attempt was made to use me to set traps for them. They took my cell phone and my two SIM cards, and searched through my Facebook page and the chats I had taken part in. They changed my password and those of some the pages that I administered.
“They accused me, among other things, of having links with the Syrian coalition and relations with Kurdish National Council, and even with Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). They also accused me of terrorism. But none of this is true. They then let me go near some waste ground not far from where I live. I know it was the PYD who kidnapped me.”
Hisso added: “In February last year three members of the PYD brutally assaulted me, breaking my camera, while I was filming a demonstration in Amuda. I managed to get away.”
Hisso said the Asayish tried to get him to telephone the journalist Idris Muhammad Khalaf, who uses the name Idris Hota, who was listed among his contacts. Hota, who writes for the news site ARA News, had himself escaped a kidnap attempt earlier this year.
Expulsions are also commonplace and target not just news and information providers. Reporters Without Borders has also recorded the expulsion to Iraqi Kurdistan of a number of civil society dissidents.
Mahmoud Bahlawi, also known as Bishwa Bahlawi, a correspondent for the Rudaw television station and Rudy Ibrahim of the station Orient News were arrested in the Al-Kornishe area of Qamishli on 18 April by four armed men in military fatigues “which looked like Asayish uniforms”, one of the journalists said.
“They ordered us to get their car, then blindfolded and handcuffed us. One of them threatened us. When we asked them who they were, they didn’t reply. The car stopped after half an hour. They made us get out and put each of us in a different cell. A few hours later we were moved again, and when we arrived a man told us in Kurdish: ‘We are not Arabs, we are Kurds from the YPG Families of Martyrs Foundation. This time we are taking you to a place from where you will not be able to return to Rojava.
‘If you ever do come back, we will kill you. That’s the law as it applies to traitors and collaborators who do not respect the blood of the martyrs and who say only bad things about the martyrs from morning to night.’
“We changed cars several times. At one point we stopped and were handed over to some Peshmerga (troops of the Iraqi Kurdistan government) and were told: “Rudaw, you are a treacherous and collaborationist station. Off you go to Iraqi Kurdistan and don’t come back.”
Expelled from their own area by the YPG, the two Syrian Kurdish journalists have been living in Irbil since then.
On 24 April, the Rudaw journalist Jomard Hamdosh was threatened by the YPG in Afrin with arrest and expulsion if he continued covering the news. His house was vandalized. Previously, on 29 January, the Asayish banned him from working as a journalist in the Afrin district. Hamdosh, knowing that his house is being watched, has been in hiding ever since. He says he has received information that a decision to arrest him and expel him to Iraqi Kurdistan has been taken. “As far as the YPG are concerned, anyone who works for Rudaw should stay in Iraqi Kurdistan not in Rojava,” he said.
Numerous news and information providers have gone into exile to get away from pressure and threats from the PYD. Among them was Zara Seyda, the former head of the media bureau of the Yekiti Kurdish Party and editor of the Arabic version of the Ara News since last September.
Seyda told Reporters Without Borders: “I was in charge of news coverage in Amuda and Qamishli (for the party). On 27 June 2013, I was filming a demonstration when YPG forces began firing on demonstrators. I published photos and video of the massacre. Immediately afterwards, they came looking for me. I went to Turkey because I am wanted by the YPG. They threaten or kidnap anyone in the news business whose work they don’t like.”
Another example is Hajjar Al-Sayed, who worked for Arta FM and the SMART news agency. “About a year ago, I was threatened several time by an Asayish official. Always the same one. On the last occasion, he made me get into his car and told me to stop working for news organizations linked to the opposition. He said it was a warning and if I didn’t stop reporting the news, I would be punished … My family was fearful of retaliation by the Asayish and advised me to leave. I’ve been living in Irbil ever since.”