RSF asks Turkish government to protect Syrian refugee journalists

As the Turkish government conducts a new wave of expulsions of refugees, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) warns that many Syrian journalists are liable to be jailed, abducted or even killed if they are sent back to Syria. Turkey must protect them, RSF says.

“We are living in terror,” RSF was told by one of the Syrian journalists who are refugees in Turkiye. RSF managed to contact five of them, and three agreed, on condition of anonymity, to describe what it has been like for them in recent weeks, living in hiding, being unable to walk down the street and, less still, go to work. “I lost my job with a Syrian media outlet here because I could no longer go to work,” one said by telephone. “If I go out, I risk getting myself sent back to Syria. I don’t know what to do,”

His fear, shared by many of his fellow Syrian journalists in Turkiye, is well founded. The Turkish government embarked on a new wave of expulsions of refugees at the start of the year, in the run-up to the 28 May elections in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan secured another term in office. Syrian journalists who fled their country have not been spared. Arrested on the street or sometimes at home, they have been interrogated, mistreated and threatened with deportation back to Syria, one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists.

“No region in Syria is safe for journalists. To send them back to the country they fled because of their journalism is to put them at risk of being jailed, abducted or even murdered. The Turkish authorities know this. Journalists are once again hostage to diplomatic power struggles. At the very least, we call on the Turkish authorities to adhere strictly to the principle that no refugee should be sent back to a country where they would be in probable danger. The authorities must provide journalists in Turkey with all necessary protection and, to this end, must facilitate the required administrative procedures.”

Jonathan Dagher
Head of RSF’s Middle East desk

Foreign policy change behind expired papers pretext

The Turkish authorities generally use expired papers as their grounds for detaining Syrian journalists. This is what happened to Khaled Obeid, a Syrian journalist who fled to Turkey in August 2021. He had an identity document that is issued to applicants for international protection and guarantees them relative safety – a document initially valid for one year. 

He thought he had complied with all the necessary formalities but, during a visit to a hospital in November 2022, he learned that this document was no longer considered valid because his information had not been updated. He was arrested while reporting for the Creative Syrians media outlet in Osmaniye on 11 January 2023, although he had an administrative appointment scheduled a few days later to regularise his situation. He was then forced to sign a “voluntary” deportation form and was deported to Syria.

Another Syrian journalist was arrested at his home in Turkey in January 2023, just after his protection document expired. Temporarily released during the chaos resulting from the earthquake in southern Turkey in February 2023, he is now living in hiding. The police often go to his family's home to arrest him.

The new administrative severity towards Syrian refugees reflects a foreign policy change. In 2014, President Erdogan accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of “state terrorism” and granted millions of Syrians temporary protection in Turkey. But in 2019, RSF was already sounding the alarm about expulsions of Syrian journalists for foreign policy reasons. And now, for the past few  months – as Turkey, like other countries in the region has been seeking to restore diplomatic relations with Damascus – journalists have been struggling to renew their temporary protection applications.

The danger to which Syrian journalists are exposed when deported back to Syria is all the greater if they continued to cover Syrian developments while in Turkey. The biggest threat is that of reprisals by the forces controlling the country’s different regions, including the Free Syrian Army, a coalition of armed opposition groups supported by Turkey; the Islamist militant group Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS); and the Syrian government itself. Although journalists are usually deported to rebel-held territory, rather than government-controlled areas, they are still at the mercy of militant groups capable of threatening, kidnapping and murdering them.

Between 300 and 700 professional and non-professional journalists have been killed in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011, including three in 2022. During the same period, more than 300 journalists have been arrested and nearly 100 have been kidnapped. Nearly 100 of these arrested or abducted journalists are still missing.

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