Germany: Second group of endangered journalists rescued from Syria

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), together with the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), has helped a second group of Syrian journalists in grave danger to leave the crisis-ridden country.

After more than two years of efforts, RSF and its partner, the SCM, succeeded in evacuating 11 journalists and their families from the Idlib region to Germany. The Idlib region, located in the northeast of the country, is one of the last not yet to be returned to Syrian government control. The threat was therefore all the greater for journalists working for foreign or opposition media, who risked being detained if they fell into the hands of the authorities in Damascus.

This rescue operation is the second of its kind. In 2018 and 2019, twelve journalists and their families were able to leave the Daraa region after intense mobilization by RSF and SCM.

"We are very happy that the last journalist from the Idlib group arrived safely in Germany," said Christian Mihr, executive director of RSF's German section. "The rescue operation has once again shown that it is possible to help people who are in danger without excessive bureaucracy. But we need politicians to show the will and courage to issue humanitarian emergency visas far more frequently. We appeal to the new government to be aware of its responsibility and not to close itself off to this course of action."

The complicated rescue operation began in August 2019. The Syrian government forces and their allies had been attacking rebel strongholds in the province of Idlib since April of that year. At the same time journalists were receiving direct death threats from jihadist groups such as Idlib-based Hajat Tahrir al-Sham.

"I had no intention of leaving my country at that time," says journalist Lama al-Saud, who worked for the Idlib Center for Media Services. "But the government forces' offensive came as a big shock. The government was looking for me because my journalistic work was not in line with their repressive policies. The militias that dominated the region were also fighting against us." Her colleague Hazza al-Hazza was working for Radio Fresh, a radio station based in Kafr Nabl and founded by journalist and activist Raid al-Faris, who was murdered in 2018. "After they killed him, we had to flee. Al-Qaeda people were hunting down every reporter who defended democratic and secular values."

Complicated verification process

The SCM, which has been an RSF partner for many years, had put al-Hazza, al-Saud and several others on a list of media workers in acute danger. The complicated verification process included clearly establishing that the individual was under threat specifically because of their journalistic activities, that they worked for a reputable and professional media outlet, that they had never participated in armed conflict and had not spread hate speech in any form on social media or via other channels.

Situation remains extremely dangerous for journalists

While the group from Idlib is now safe, the situation for journalists across Syria remains extremely dangerous, but especially for those in the few areas that the Assad government has not yet recaptured. Here, independent media workers will almost certainly be seen as enemies and could be crushed between the fronts. In addition, journalists and reporters have repeatedly come under direct attack: in July Homam al-Asi, a freelance photographer, was killed during an artillery bombardment in Idlib. On the same day, three journalists were arrested near Qamishli in Kurdistan, and shortly before that a cartoonist was attacked and robbed near Aleppo. For many Syrian journalists facing multiple threats, the prospect of being evacuated is their only hope.

In its comprehensive report "Syria: The Black Hole for Media Work", the SCM lists in detail which actors were responsible for specific violations of media freedom. In the ten years of conflict under examination – from spring 2011 to the end of 2020 – the SCM documented 720 extrajudicial killings, 434 random arrests and 140 abductions. The Syrian government is responsible for most of these violations (795), while 171 violations are attributed to members of the armed opposition forces, and 164 to Islamic State, which was known as ISIS until 2014.

Syria is ranked 173rd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.