Fighters of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are seen in Deir Ezzor, Syria, on March 23, 2021. SDF and other security forces recently harassed and detained journalists in northern Syria. (AFP/Delil Souleiman)

Journalists attacked throughout northeastern Syria, 2 remain in detention

New York, July 23, 2021 – All parties in northern Syria must do their utmost to ensure that members of the press can work safely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Since July 16, unidentified attackers and Syrian Kurdish security forces have attacked and detained at least five members of the press throughout areas in northern Syria controlled by groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and at least two journalists remain in detention, according to news reports and posts on social media by those journalists and their families.

“The recent string of attacks on journalists in northern Syria shows that members of the press are not safe anywhere in the country,” said CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa representative, Ignacio Miguel Delgado. “All parties in northern Syria must do everything in their power to ensure the safety of journalists and allow them to do their jobs freely and without fear of reprisal, and must release any journalists still in custody at once.”

On July 16, two masked men in the northwestern city of Azaz stabbed and robbed cartoonist Hadeel Ismael, who works for the news website Syrian Press Center, according to news reports and Mohammad Ismael, a communication officer with the press center, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app and email.

The attackers stabbed Ismael in the back and stole her purse shortly after she received a wire transfer of 15,000 Turkish lira (US $1,750) at a post office in Azaz, according to those sources. Mohammad Ismael told CPJ that the cartoonist was taken to the National Hospital in Azaz, where she was given 10 stitches and then released.

Previously, on June 19, an unidentified person driving a car with tinted windows and no license plates chased Hadeel Ismael down a street in Azaz, called her by name, threatened to kill her, and told her to stop drawing cartoons of Nasr al-Hariri, the former head of the Syrian opposition coalition, Mohammad Ismael said.

Mohammad Ismael added that local authorities have stalled in their investigations into the stabbing attack on the cartoonist, which he said he believed was retaliation for her work and not a simple robbery, citing the previous threats she had received.

Azaz is under the control of the Turkish-backed National Syrian Army, according to news reports.

Separately, on July 17, Syrian Kurdish Asayish security forces near the northeastern town of Rmelan arrested Barzan Hussein Liyani, a reporter for the broadcaster Ark TV, according to news reports and reports by the Skeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom and the Syrian Journalists’ Association

Liyani’s brother, Gulal, wrote on his Facebook account that Asayish security forces raided the journalist’s home at 2 a.m. and brutally arrested him. Agents took Liyani to an undisclosed location, seized his phone, and have not informed his family of his whereabouts or the reason for his arrest, according to a statement by the London-based human rights organization Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Gulal Liyani told CPJ via messaging app that local authorities have refused to give the family any information about Liyani’s whereabouts or the charges against him.

Liyani recently covered power cuts in rural areas, drought, and the positive economic impact of remittances in northeastern Syria for ARK TV, a broadcaster affiliated with the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP), which is based in Iraqi Kurdistan and rules the autonomous region. Liyani was previously arrested by Asayish security forces in May 2017 and held in jail for several months, CPJ documented at the time. 

Also on July 17, members of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces arrested Ezzedinne al-Mala, a reporter and columnist for the newspaper and news website Kurdistan, in front of his home in Qamishli, according to a statement by the Syrian Network for Human Rights and those reports by Skeyes and the journalists’ association.

The statement added that his family was not aware of the reasons for his arrest or his whereabouts, and said his cell phone had been seized.

Al-Mala works as an editor for Kurdistan, and has recently written columns calling for the resumption of talks between Kurdish parties, praising regional leader Mustafa Barzani, and interviewing members of the opposition Kurdish National Council.

According to news reports, both Liyani and al-Mala are members of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan-Syria, a member of the Kurdish National Council, an opposition party in the autonomous region of northeast Syria.

On July 18, reporter Qusay al-Ahmad and camera operator Mohanad al-Ahmad, both with the Qatari broadcaster Al-Jazeera Mubasher, survived a car bomb attack in the northwestern city of Afrin, according to news reports and pictures of the charred car shared on social media.

Qusay al-Ahmad wrote on his Facebook page that he and Mohanad, his brother, were about 20 meters away from their car and were planning to travel to interview internally displaced Syrians during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha when the vehicle exploded. He wrote that the explosion completely destroyed the car and injured his brother’s ear.

In the days before the attack, Qusay al-Ahmad had covered the construction of a housing project in the town of Sawran and school exams in Afrin that took place amid COVID-19.

According to the news website Damascus Countryside Reporters’ Network, al-Ahmad survived an assassination attempt in February 2020, when unknown people plated a hand grenade under his car.

Areas under the control of the National Syrian Army, including Afrin, have seen several recent car bomb attacks and assassinations of military and police officers affiliated with the opposition Syrian Interim Government, according to reports.

In an email to CPJ, the Syrian Democratic Forces’ Office for Media and Information said that any legal action concerning civilians in northeast Syria falls under the responsibility of Internal Security Forces (Asayish) and the SDF did not have the authority to take legal action against civilians.

CPJ emailed the Asayish and the Syrian Interim Government’s media office for comment, but did not immediately receive any replies.