For the past two years, activists and journalists seeking refuge from Islamic State repression in Raqqa would take sanctuary across the border in southern Turkey, setting up safe houses and offices, and darting back to Syria regularly with camera equipment and other vital supplies. But that sanctuary is now under threat.
Islamic State is increasingly able to reach into Turkey and members of media organizations covering the militant group’s crimes have told CPJ they are scared to operate out of the country.
Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), the citizen journalist collective honored with CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, and other groups are trying to help staff escape Turkey following the murder of three Syrian journalists in cities near the border at the end of last year, and the release this month of a video showing the killing in Raqqa of five men Islamic State accused of collaborating with journalists in Turkey.
The murders in Turkey represent a broadening of Islamic State’s strategy of silencing dissent by targeting journalists, a practice CPJ documented last year in the Islamic State strongholds of Mosul in Iraq, where at least five journalists were kidnapped and murdered by the group, news outlets were forced to close, and where CPJ received reports of more than 30 missing, presumed held captive or killed by the militants; and Raqqa, where Islamic State uses its slick propaganda machine to show forced confessions and murders of victims it claims are press as a way to spread fear and try to silence its critics.
The first murders in Turkey took place in October 2015, when Fares Hamadi, who worked for Syrian news website Eye on the Homeland, and Ibrahim Abd al-Qader, who worked for RBSS, were killed in the Turkish city of Urfa. Supporters of Islamic State claimed responsibility on social media for their deaths. When Naji Jerf, a filmmaker who produced a documentary on Islamic State and another on RBSS, was shot in Gaziantep two months later, journalists with whom I spoke said they knew were being targeted directly.
“After Naji was killed, we all became much more afraid. We now see those first two murders [of Hamadi and Abd al-Qader] as beginning of a campaign, not as a one-off attack. All Syrian journalists are feeling very threatened at this time. Personally, I know I cannot stay in Turkey much longer,” a freelance Syrian journalist and friend of Jerf’s, who asked to remain anonymous, told me via Skype. On January 10, Turkish state media reported that three men suspected of being involved in his killing were in custody in Gaziantep.
On January 3, 2016–a week after Jerf was killed–Islamic State released a 10-minute video showing the murder of five men. The victims said they covertly filmed life in Raqqa and set up Internet cafés to share footage with Turkey-based activists. The men, who appear to be speaking under duress, linked their reporting to networks in Turkey. One victim said he traveled to Turkey to collect a camera and another said he transferred money between the two countries and helped establish an Internet café.
CPJ was unable to verify that the victims were media workers. One of them said in the film that some of his footage was used by the BBC and Syrian opposition channel Orient TV. The BBC did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment, and Orient TV told CPJ it is investigating whether one of the victims had worked for the station under a pseudonym. Syrian news website Eye on the Homeland and RBSS, two of the most prominent groups transferring footage from Syria to Turkey, deny any of the five worked with them.
Following the murders, two RBSS members, who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, said the group is discussing how to relocate its journalists from the south of the country to the comparatively safer cities of Istanbul and Ankara, and if possible out of Turkey altogether.
“We have many staff in Turkey and since the latest attacks we have tried to establish new ways to protect them. Nobody working near the border should stay in the same house for more than a few weeks, they must use social media less, and change their pseudonyms a lot. Effectively, they must go into hiding,” one of the members said.
“Getting prominent staff members out of south Turkey is important right now. But even in Istanbul members have been getting death threats on Facebook and by phone,” added another journalist from the group. “We need to find a new base in a different country. We are trying to [get staff to] apply for visas to as many different countries as possible.”
“For media work, Turkey feels as dangerous as Syria these days,” he said.
In response to these fears, the manager of a small Syrian news outlet, who asked that he and his outlet not be named, said he has temporarily banned his reporters from traveling to Syria. “Anybody who crosses the border regularly is easily identifiable to militants. In this environment we cannot take any chances,” the manager, who requested anonymity because of the threat from Islamic State, said.
With many journalists in Turkey scrambling to leave, pressure on those still in Syria is growing. There are fears that with fewer media offices in cities such as Urfa and Gaziantep, journalists will struggle to feed information out of the warzone safely. As CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa research associate Jason Stern wrote last month, with fewer international journalists coming to Syria and local media fleeing, there are fewer independent reporters to verify information on the inside. This makes the work of groups such as RBSS and Eye on the Homeland all the more vital.
Access to vital reporting equipment, such as sophisticated hidden cameras, will also be harder to come by, the Syrian manager with whom I spoke said. And, with the flow of news and people across the border becoming more sporadic, Islamic State will be able to tighten its grip on the dissemination of information.
“The media landscape in this war is changing, and sometimes it feels like the militants are forcing our hand,” the manager said.
[Reporting from Beirut]