A man is seen sanitizing a quarantine facility in Jisr al-Shughur, Syria, on April 27, 2020, to protect against coronavirus. (AFP/Abdulaziz Ketaz)

Journalists in Syria tell CPJ of fear of humanitarian catastrophe if COVID-19 spreads

Syria hasn’t been greatly impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic. The Syrian Health Ministry has counted 123 cases, and six deaths as of June 1, according to a report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The country has begun to relax restrictions it imposed in mid-March, including curfews and limitations on travel between governorates, as detailed in another OCHA report.

Fear, however, remains that the spread of COVID-19 across Syria would result in a humanitarian catastrophe in a country that has been ravaged by a war that has entered its ninth year and has left 6.1 million internally displaced people and 5.6 million refugees, according to data from the U.N. Refugee Agency UNHCR and OCHA.  

Local journalists working in areas held by opposition groups in northern Syria told CPJ they are relieved by the seemingly low rates of coronavirus, but are concerned about the reliability of official statistics and about the impact that preventive measures are having on the economy and their work.

CPJ spoke via messaging apps to two journalists, one based in the Kurdish-held area in northeastern Syria and one in opposition-held Idlib, about their experiences working amid the pandemic. Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Heybar Othman, reporter for the U.S.-funded Arabic language broadcaster Al-Hurra

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the entire journalistic agenda in northeastern Syria. Journalists like me were covering the fight against the militant group Islamic State and the effects of the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, including Turkey’s efforts [to relocate mostly Sunni Syrian refugees in the Kurdish-majority areas in northeastern Syria that it retook in October 2019] but I am now covering the effects of COVID-19 on internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees.

The pandemic is aggravating an already dire situation for refugees and IDPs resulting from the civil war. They are experiencing the worst days of their lives because humanitarian aid isn’t being delivered to the camps, they cannot go to work because of the quarantine, and sterilizing equipment and antiseptics are a luxury they cannot afford. Farmers and other manual workers who are paid daily wages versus salaries are also struggling these days.

I have also done some stories about the frailty of the health sector in northeastern Syria, because it’s not ready to deal with COVID-19 if it spreads across the region. Nearly three million people live here, but there are only 35 ventilators, four PCR-based COVID-19 detection devices [machines that test for coronavirus], and there aren’t enough devices to take peoples’ temperature. There’s also a shortage of medical staff.

The Kurdish-led administration took preventive measures, including quarantine, as early as March 23 and the first confirmed COVID-19 casualty, a man from Al-Hasaka who died in Qamishli, wasn’t reported until April 17, so journalists were not particularly concerned about their health at the beginning. But the lack of transparency on this matter by the [Bashar] al-Assad government, which until recently had reported only 45 cases across Syria, was very concerning for me and other journalists. We have doubts about the reliability of those figures. 

At the beginning of the quarantine, the Kurdish internal security forces issued special permissions for journalists, so that they could report during curfew, but it took some time to adapt. On the first day, there were incidents of security forces tearing apart some of those permissions, saying they were invalid, but eventually the problem was solved.

The Kurdish authorities in the northeast suspended two journalists from work on April 1, but the suspension was lifted two weeks later. One of them, Badirkan Ahmed, a freelance journalist contributing to the broadcaster Al-Aan TV, was suspended from reporting during curfew hours for writing a tweet saying that the first COVID-19 case had been reported in Qamishli when it hadn’t been officially confirmed. Naz Sayed, a reporter for the broadcaster Al-Ghad, was initially suspended from work for three months over a report on the economic impact of COVID-19 and rising prices, but the decision was subsequently canceled.

[CPJ reviewed a statement by the Kurdish authorities in northeastern Syria suspending Ahmed and Sayed. Reached by CPJ over messaging app, Ahmed confirmed that the suspension had been lifted on April 22. Sayed did not respond to a request for comment from CPJ. On June 19, Amer Murad, the head of the media office of the Autonomous Administration of Northeastern Syria told CPJ via email that Ahmed was suspended for publishing “fake news” by publishing video footage of a woman he claimed had COVID-19 without verifying if she did. Murad told CPJ that Sayed was suspended for publishing a video of a woman with a disability, thus discriminating against her and violating her privacy.]

For my personal safety, I am following the World Health Organization’s advice and maintaining social distancing, using hand sanitizer, and observing the quarantine insofar as possible. When I am out reporting, I wear a mask and gloves and, to avoid exposure, I am now working alone, so I work as a reporter, but I also shoot and edit video.

I think we have enough protective equipment in northeast Syria, but the problem is that many journalists are only wearing a mask and gloves when they are in front of the camera!

Mustafa Dahnon, freelance journalist for outlets including London-based Middle East Eye

COVID-19 still hasn’t reached our area, so little has changed. When news spread about the virus, some people began to wear masks or to stay at home. The local authorities and some organizations, including the Syrian Civil Defense [the volunteer organization also known as the White Helmets], sterilized public facilities to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in the event it reached the area. A quarantine center was also set up by local authorities in Jisr al-Shughur for people returning from Turkey to Idlib, because that was the main safety concern, that people returning from Turkey were infected with COVID-19.

In Idlib, an epidemiological monitoring laboratory was set up and until now all the people they tested for COVID-19 have tested negative.

If COVID-19 spreads across Idlib, local authorities in Idlib wouldn’t be able to do much, because our health system is weak. We have been facing war since 2011 and dozens of hospitals and medical facilities have been destroyed in airstrikes by Russian and al-Assad warplanes. We don’t have enough hospitals, doctors, or nurses. If COVID-19 spread to Idlib, we would witness one of the biggest humanitarian catastrophes of our century and we wouldn’t be able to stop it.

Initially, I told myself that I should observe the quarantine and stay at home for two weeks, so I went to the market to get supplies. Two weeks passed and I realized that I could go about my business because COVID-19 hadn’t reached Idlib.

Nevertheless, I am taking precautions when I am out reporting. I keep away from crowds, keep a safe distance from other people, and wear a mask.

The main impact of COVID-19 has been on my workload and assignments. After the outbreak of COVID-19, international media attention turned to the spread of the virus in other countries, especially in Europe and the United States, so I cannot continue to cover the war. I cannot sell my articles and reports to media outlets. That is the main problem I am facing resulting from COVID-19. There is little interest in Idlib right now.

Editor’s note: The 11th paragraph has been updated with comments from Amer Murad, the head of the media office of the Autonomous Administration of Northeastern Syria.