On the eve of a long-delayed decision in the trial of Mazen Darwish, the head of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), and two of his assistants, Hussein Ghareer and Hani Al-Zitani, Reporters Without Borders reiterates its call for their release. Held since February 2012, the three are victims of a four-year-old crackdown on journalists and civil society in Syria.
Four-year crackdown, three-year silence
They were arrested along with other SCM employees when air force intelligence officers raided the SCM’s central Damascus headquarters on 16 February 2012. Darwish, Ghareer and Zitani were put on trial in February 2013 on charges of “publishing information about terrorist actions.”
But the trial was then suspended and has been delayed many times since then. Two of their colleagues, Mansour Omari and Abd al-Rahman Hamada, were released on bail on 6 February 2013, but they are still also being prosecuted.
The indictment explicitly links the prosecution to their SCM activities, which the authorities regarded as an attempt to “destabilize Syria’s internal situation with the aim of ensuring that international organizations condemn Syria in international forums.”
These activities included monitoring information posted online by the Syrian opposition, publishing reports on human rights and the situation of the media in Syria, and keeping a record of the names of those detained, missing, wanted, or killed in the course of the Syrian conflict.
“We fear another postponement in this trial in a further display of the Syrian government’s contempt for the most basic principles of justice and international law,” said Yara Bader, a member of the SCM staff and Darwish’s partner. “This contempt continues to fuel the conflict in Syria and continues to encourage extremism and terrorism.”
A year ago – a few weeks after UN Security Council Resolution 2139 of 22 February 2014 demanded the release of all people arbitrarily detained in Syria – Reporters Without Borders and 60 other human rights organizations condemned the seventh consecutive postponement of their trial by the head of the Damascus terrorism court.
“It is high time that the Syrian authorities put an end to more than three years of arbitrary detention and glaring violation of Darwish, Ghareer and Zitani’s right to due process,” said Reporters Without Borders programme director Lucie Morillon.
“In response to US secretary of state John Kerry’s comments on 15 March, President Bashar al-Assad said he ‘always listens to statements,’ but our organization and Syrian and international civil society in its entirety are also waiting for action from President Assad.
In the eyes of some international community representatives, the horrors carried out in Syria by Islamic State and the Al-Nusra Front seem to have erased the Syrian government’s atrocities of the past four years, but the fate of Darwish and his colleagues shows that they are all driven by a common desire to suppress freedom of information.”
The media – common enemy of all of Syria’s belligerents
International and Syrian journalists, both professional and non-professional, are the victims of violence and reprisals throughout Syria, where they are targeted by government forces, armed opposition groups, and members of the Al-Nusra Front, Islamic State and other extremist militias.
The most recent victims include three Syrian journalists working for Orient TV – Youssef Mahmoud El-Dous, Rami Adel Al-Asmi and Salem Abdul-Rahman Khalil – who were killed when a missile hit their car during clashes between government forces and rebels in the southern province of Deraa on 8 December.
Japanese journalist Kenji Goto became the third foreign journalist to fall victim to Islamic State’s barbarity on 31 January, five months after the beheadings of US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
At least 43 professional journalists and 127 citizen-journalists have been killed since the start of the conflict in 2011. Around 50 others are sharing the fate of Darwish and his colleagues – prolonged arbitrary detention in one of Syria’s many jails.
According to Reporters Without Borders’ tally, at least 20 Syrian journalists and five foreign journalists are missing or are being held hostage by Islamic State or other armed extremist groups.
Aside from the conflict’s extreme violence, the prolonged ruthless crackdown on the media in Syria has forced dozens of professional and citizen-journalists to flee abroad. However, many of those who have left continue to fear for their safety in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Iraqi Kurdistan and even Turkey.
Some have told Reporters Without Borders about the threats they have received since leaving. The borders that are porous for professional and citizen-journalists seeking refuge are also porous for the many kinds of predators seeking to exact reprisals.
One of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists, Syria is ranked 177th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
(Photo: Mazen Darwish)