Samer Al-Ahmad- SY24
“Most girls working in this field face verbal or visual harassment; people also reject the presence of female media persons in the street,” said activist Sarab Mohammad in her comment on hardships suffered by female journalists and media activists in Idlib in northern Syria. Sarab (a pseudonym for security reasons) continues: “this society thinks that working in media is exclusive for men, while women cannot work in it. We face a big social pressure.”
Sarab and dozens of other female media activists in northern Syria face great pressure during their work in the Syrian north, especially in Idlib governorate which is mostly controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (Levant Liberation Committee). Women activists there mainly face the risk of death as a result of the repeated bombing of the area by the Russian warplanes and the Syrian regime’s warplanes, in addition to the risk of getting assassinated or abducted by unknown armed persons or by the security institution affiliated with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (Levant Liberation Committee), which is restricting journalists there.
Sarab told us about an incident that happened recently where she had to borrow a sum of money from someone because her journalist paycheck was insufficient. The man tried to rape her and physically harassed her, and someone saved her at the last minute. This incident left her with a dislocated shoulder. She stayed home for a week without speaking to anyone, and eventually decided to confront him. Sarab says: “I went to the person who tried to rape me and told him that I will file a complaint against him and prosecute him. He denied what he did, so I brought some media colleagues and one of them was a female colleague who was also harassed by the same man. He was forced to confess and pay a sum of money as a compensation for what he did.” it is worth noting that the procedure law in Idlib often relies on the Syrian law in addition to the National Salvation Government’s jurisprudence. Moreover, cases are not recorded in the event of reconciliation between the plaintiff and the defendant, and the public claim is dropped once the personal claim is dropped.
“Dress decently!” or “why are you in the street or the demonstration without covering yourself?” these are sentences that Sarab and other media women often hear by people in the streets. She adds: “any girl who says she has not been harassed so far should expect to be harassed in the future. Moreover, many girls fear talking about the topic so they say they were not harassed at all.”
Shadia Ta’taa’, a media woman in Idlib countryside, was harassed in a way similar to Sarab. She recounts what had happened: “I had to speak with the director of one of the centers for a press release of a report I was working on. The director started coming on to me and offered to have an affair, which forced me to cancel the idea of writing the report and cut all direct communication with the director.”
Women activists are subject to different kinds of harassment. We learned from informed sources that one female journalist tried to obtain a press card from the Salvation Government, and she needed a personal photo. Her male colleague came to a park and wanted to take her photo, but Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (Levant Liberation Committee) came and arrested her and her colleague, and they were not released until after the area near the prison got air bombed. Shadia says: “the salvation government’s failure to grant the press card significantly affects the work of female media activists, as they cannot move freely and this affects their job opportunities and drives them to work for low wages.”
We headed to the Security and Protection Coordinator at the Syrian Female Journalists Network (SFJN) Bushra Al Dakheel, who explained that: “the biggest challenge female journalists and media persons face in northern Syria which also poses a threat to their lives and the lives of their families is accusing them of infidelity and atheism.” She explained that these accusations represent a dangerous trend whose features started increasing dramatically. Moreover, female journalists are often prevented from field work, and their roles are limited to preparing and writing reports and stories on women and family issues.
Al Dakheel confirmed that SFJN stands side by side with the Syrian female journalists and rejects any violation and provides support and assistance in any danger they might face and follows up with any complaint submitted to SFJN. She continued: “the Association considers the discrimination against female journalists and abusing them a violation of their right to dignity, equality and the principles of journalistic work. The Association also supports female journalists in their fight to obtain their rights, and not to tolerate any form of violence, harassment or bullying against them.”
It is not possible to obtain accurate statistics on cases of harassment and violence faced by female media activists in northern Syria or in Syria in general, especially that the statistical mechanism in areas under the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (Levant Liberation Committee) is almost impossible in light of the scrutiny and banning imposed on journalists by the Committee. Moreover, such statistics might be viewed by the Committee as a weapon that could be directed against it. The same applies for areas under the control of the Syrian regime.
The Syrian Center for Journalistic Freedoms is trying hard to document and prosecute these violations as indicated by Judge Ibrahim Hussein, the Center’s Director, who adds: “during our work, we documented almost 35 violations against media women in Syria since March 2011, and they were all clear violations that varied between murder, arrest, detention, beatings, threat, etc. However, we are confident that there are many other violations that we were unable to document, often because the victims of these violations refused to raise these issues in the media due to the nature of these violations. There are multiple cases of harassment and violation of financial rights or rights imposed by labor laws, and we detected all of these violations but were unable to document them due to the discretion of those who were violated.
Hussein adds: “we can say that the suffering of female media colleagues was larger in Syria because working in the media field itself is naturally accompanied with occupational pressures due to the nature of the job. In addition, they are women in a society where the work of women in many fields is still viewed as a violation of customs and traditions.” as for human rights, Hussein describes these violations saying: “there is no doubt that these violations violate international covenants, and some of them such as killing and detention undoubtedly fall within the framework of war crimes, because they took place against journalists while they were civilians, and the Rome Statute requires the protection of journalists by all the parties of the conflict. Moreover, we do not forget to point out that some violations against women media workers are criminalized under criminal laws in all countries of the world, such as sexual harassment.”
All the violations that were and still being committed in Syria against female and male media persons are considered a violation of international covenants and an attack on human rights principles, and they are inconsistent with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that: “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Moreover, Article 14 of the Third Geneva Convention and Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention also criminalize the harassment of women at times of war.
In its report issued on the 8th of last March on the occasion of International Women’s Day, Reporters without Borders Organization pointed out that: “the more women working in journalism, the more suffering they experience in the face of the repression practiced against them by authoritarian regimes. Moreover, the percentage of women arrested among journalists rose to 8% while it did not exceed 3% five years ago, and detention operations are concentrated in nine countries in the world including Syria.” It also published that: “many women choose to remain silent about the difficulties and dangers they face while carrying out their work. Also, a large number of female journalists reported having been intimidated, threatened or attacked because of their media activity, and a large number of women activists were sexually harassed.”
On possible solutions to this violation, Al Dakheel mentioned that “Syrian and international media organizations and groups can consolidate their efforts to take appropriate measures in order to expose these practices and challenge them, and work on protecting female journalists from these dangers. In addition to networking with local and international media and civil society organizations that support freedom of press and expression, in order to create initiatives and take relevant measures that ensure the safety of women journalists and freedom of expression, and to encourage women journalists to document the violations they face by all possible means.”
The Syrian Female Journalists Network is trying to create an electronic platform to receive complaints of physical, psychological and digital violations, in addition to advocacy campaigns on social media against the risks faced by women journalists and their perpetrators. It is also trying to increase the awareness on the safety of women journalists through trainings, activities and workshops, and to increase the awareness on the threats, abuse and harassment that women journalists might face online. Moreover, it is working to assist media institutions in establishing policies to prevent harassment and punish the perpetrators, and to provide advice and assistance whether related to digital security or evacuation cases in emergency situations, in addition to psychological support and documenting violations and counting them, according to Bushra Al Dakheel.
Sarab, Shadia and dozens of others whose stories we have not received yet, experienced something that is still ongoing in northern Syria. Reporters without Borders organization issued a press release a few days ago, denouncing the violations of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (Levant Liberation Committee) and its harassment of journalists in Idlib. Sabreen Al Nouri, Head of the Middle East Office at Reporters without Borders, said: “we condemn the constant threats made by the jihadists of HTS to journalists who do nothing except what their professional duty dictates them to, by reporting the resentment of residents in Idlib.” It is reported that Syria ranks 174 (out of 180 countries) in the World Press Freedom Index, which was published by Reporters without Borders organization earlier in 2019.
*this story was produced with the support of Journalists for Human Rights Organization (JHR) and The United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF)