Members of the Popular Mobilisation Units pose with the Iraqi flag in Tal Afar. Authorities in Iraq and Syria who relied on militias to help fight Islamic State must now decide what to do with the groups. (AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)
Members of the Popular Mobilisation Units pose with the Iraqi flag in Tal Afar. Authorities in Iraq and Syria who relied on militias to help fight Islamic State must now decide what to do with the groups. (AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

Islamic State recedes but threats to journalists in Iraq and Syria remain

After three years of fighting in Iraq and Syria, the militant group Islamic State has been forced out of large swathes of territory. But local journalists and press freedom groups with whom CPJ spoke said that the defeat of Islamic State doesn’t necessarily mean that journalists will be any safer.

The extremist group is one of the main suspected sources of fire in the killings of journalists in Iraq and Syria ever since it declared a caliphate in Mosul in June 2014. During its three-year grip over large parts of both countries 38 journalists were killed, at least eight are missing, and others were forced underground as the militants created a monopoly over information in the territory under its control, CPJ has found.

But Islamic State is not the only threat facing journalists in the region. Local journalists with whom CPJ spoke during its mission to Erbil and Lebanon in March 2017, predicted that the emergence of militias, political pressure, censorship, and sectarianism would pose a threat in a post-Islamic State Middle East.

Abdalaziz al-Hamza, co-founder of the citizen journalist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), told CPJ that journalists will remain under threat.

“I don’t think the end of [Islamic State’s] presence in Syria will bring any opportunities for Syrian journalists. Threats against journalists will worsen. Armed groups remain the main threat to journalists, although the level of threat posed to them changes from one armed group to the next,” al-Hamza said.

Militias have proliferated across the Middle East in recent years. Authorities in Iraq and Syria who relied on these politically and religiously diverse groups to help oust Islamic State, must now decide whether to integrate these militias into their own forces, or try to disband them, according to news reports.

Rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have repeatedly condemned abuses allegedly carried out by militias, including extrajudicial executions, forcible disappearances, and torture.

Dlovan Barwari, from the independent Iraqi civil rights group Legal Defense for Crimes Against Press Freedom, said that he sees them as the biggest challenge. “Militias don’t hesitate to use all kinds of threats against journalists, including killings. Journalists in areas retaken from [Islamic State] are very cautious and exercise self-censorship for fear of militia brutality and of being accused of terrorism,” Barwari said.

Ragaz Kamal, co-founder of the local Iraqi human rights organization 17Shubat for Human Rights, told CPJ that journalists in Iraq face a threefold threat from “armed groups that have gained political cover, like the PMF, political parties, and the authorities because of their job.”

Kamal added, “None of these groups tolerate criticism and they are rarely held accountable for their actions against journalists. The end of [Islamic State] will not change much for journalists in either Iraq or Kurdistan.”

Rahman Gharib, coordinator of the Iraqi press freedom organization Metro Center for Journalist Rights and Advocacy, said that the case of a Kurdistan TV cameraman killed by men who identified themselves as a militia highlighted the dangers such groups pose.

“Not only do militias threaten journalists, they also identify them on a sectarian basis as Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Arabs…Journalists are threatened, harassed, and sometimes killed. Arkan Sharifi for example, was killed by the PMUs,” Gharib said, referring to the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella group of mainly Shiite militias.

Eight masked men who said they were members of the militia forced their way into Sharifi’s home in the city of Daquq in north central Iraq on October 30, and stabbed the Kurdistan TV cameraman to death, according to CPJ research. Sharifi had returned to Daquq four days earlier, having fled when the Popular Mobilization Forces first seized the city, according to Kurdistan TV.

Gharib added that a lack of protection for journalists, and a climate of self-censorship is preventing the media from playing a vital role.

“If Iraqi journalists had access to public information they could play a pivotal role in Iraq’s struggle against corruption, but journalists face threats and murder if they uncover instances of corruption. Journalists in Iraq need laws to protect them and those laws are lacking in our country. In Iraqi Kurdistan, even though there are laws regulating the work of journalists and access to information, journalists face violence,” he said.

A September 25 referendum on Kurdish independence further stirred tension in areas under Kurdish rule, and left media outlets and journalists in the political crossfire. CPJ documented how outlets and journalists regarded as critical or anti-independence by Kurdish authorities in Erbil had broadcast signals blocked, offices attacked, or were ordered to leave the city of Kirkuk.

In neighboring Syria, journalists with whom CPJ spoke said they also do not believe the recent defeat of Islamic State in the country will lead to improved safety or greater respect for press freedom.

Yara Bader, head of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, told CPJ, “Press freedom doesn’t rank high in any of the Syrian parties’ agendas. The future for journalists will depend on who is in power. In areas held by Assad, journalists are jailed on terrorism charges, media are strictly controlled, and torture and disappearances are common. Islamist factions are equally repressive of journalists. In the Kurdish-held areas, journalists enjoy more freedoms, but there are also arrests.”

Syria is currently divided by several factions after coalitions led separately by President Bashar Assad’s regime and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) forced Islamic State from its strongholds in November. The Syrian regime and the SDF hold 83 percent of the territory, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and news reports. Other factions, including the Free Syrian Army, the Army of Islam and Al-Qaeda’s offshoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, hold several enclaves.

Al-Hamza, of RBSS, said, “In rebel-held areas, journalists are safer than in areas held by the regime or by some armed groups, but they still face the risk of being arrested, kidnapped or killed.”

Seven journalists were killed in Syria in 2017, all in crossfire, according to CPJ research. Since the start of the civil war there in 2011, 114 journalists have been killed in relation to their work in Syria, making it one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist.

CPJ also documented two separate cases of security forces detaining journalists in the Kurdish-held region of Rojava in 2017.

Bader, who is based in Berlin, Germany, said, “Internationally, things don’t augur well for press freedom, either, with the war on terror taking precedence over media freedom. The only thing that makes me hopeful is the Syrian journalists who are abroad and have experienced freedom of media and expression for the first time. Without any previous media background, they have created independent outlets, gained experience as journalists, and improved the quality of their job. However, I don’t think there will be room for them to come back to Syria…I am afraid that Syria will turn into a news black hole like North Korea.”

[Reporting from Beirut]