Their target is Merna Alhasan, a freelance journalist who is one of the first women in the region to acquire a significant media profile as a result of her coverage of the situation in the Idlib region.
“Look what happens to someone who betrays her country,” was the response repeated on dozens of pro-government social media accounts earlier this week, including a member of the Syrian Parliament, when it was reported that she had been raped by terrorists and left for dead. Denying the report on Facebook, Alhasan responded: “Every day a new rumour! I’m fine, thanks.”
This is not the first time she’s been subjected to a smear campaign, but the threats, insults and gibes have been growing ever since the fighting intensified in the Idlib region and direct military clashes began between Syria and Turkey.
Alhasan told RSF that false reports and rumours about her – such as the claim that her father had decided to kill her for sullying his honour by appearing on TV – are often shared on the accounts of media outlets and leading figures who support Bashar al-Assad’s government.
After she was filmed in a square in the rebel-held town of Saraqeb challenging a pro-Assad journalist with a large Facebook following, another pro-government journalist had himself filmed making a sexist remark about her in the same square on 2 March, after the town was captured by Assad’s army.
“Delighting in a journalist’s supposed rape and constantly using her gender to attack her work is intolerable,” said Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “The polarization of the media in Syria is resulting in spiteful and degrading smears and, in this case, attacks on a woman’s morality.”
According to the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), the Idlib region has around 60 women journalists. Those contacted by RSF confirmed that they had gender-related problems, in part because of the way society regards them. “When I’m out reporting and holding a camera, I can see the contempt in men’s eyes,” freelancer Shadia Tataa said.
Another journalist, Jehan Haj Bakri, said the Jihadi rebel group HTS had threatened her because she did not wear a hijab. “I was forced to wear a hijab in order to win the trust of people and society and avoid being subjected to violence by Islamist groups,” she said. Hadia Mansour had to use a pseudonym and keep changing it for security reasons. “I found this very frustrating,” she said, “because I couldn’t appear under my real name and all my work had to be concealed.”
Syria is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.