Syrian civil society and independent media under constant threat in the midst of civil war
In March 2017, five prominent civil society organisations in the city of Douma and eastern Ghouta came under scrutiny by the Jaysh Al-Islam (Army of Islam), the largest rebel faction in the region. As reported by Global Voices, the crackdown on civil society took place after the magazine Rising for Freedom (RFM) published an article that some considered to be blasphemous. Protesters gathered outside the magazine's offices demanding a retraction. RFM decided to temporarily suspend its operations. The five civil society organisations subsequently came under pressure from the authorities to also suspend their operations. CSO staff were harassed and even threatened, though they had no ties to RFM. The CSOs were eventually able to resume their operations, but the future of RFM's publications in Syria remains uncertain.
In February 2017, 40 human rights and civil society organisations called for prioritising five key human rights issues at the peace negotiations. The priority issues include the release of all political detainees and human rights defenders as well as the repeal and reform of laws that criminalise the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association in Syria. The statement, released on 21 February 2017, specifically noted the following:
“A large number of peaceful protesters, and political and humanitarian activists remain in incommunicado detention while others have faced trial, some of them before military and counter-terrorism courts, for exercising their rights”.
The signatory organisations declared that any peace agreement “should include a commitment to release political detainees, journalists, aid workers, and human rights activists and grant independent monitors access to detention facilities and to all those deprived of their liberty". The group also called for the urgent repeal or revision of laws that “criminalise the exercise of the rights to peaceful expression, assembly, and association, including the July 2012 counter-terrorism law, which criminalises nonviolent activism and opposition to the government”.
Despite the extremely difficult and dangerous situation in Syria, civil society still continues to organise. In January and February 2017, in the Al-Waer neighbourhood near Homs, activists hosted several lectures and cultural gatherings on political history, women in the revolution, and other informative topics to promote free thought and expression.
Although the UN peace negotiations were reinvigorated in February 2017, violence in Syria rages and freedom of expression remains under constant threat. According to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, government and pro-government forces continue to attack civilian targets, including hospitals, schools and water stations. And armed groups continue to indiscriminately target civilians. Syria also remains the most dangerous country in the world today for both professional and citizen journalists reporting from within conflict zones. According to Reporters without Borders, 211 journalists have been killed since the conflict started in 2011.
During the month of February 2017, the Syria Network for Human Rights documented attacks and threats to media professionals. In that month alone, six media activists were killed, ten injured and three arrested. Journalists and reporters put their life on the line when reporting on clashes and violence between the forces fighting within the country. On 12th March 2017, freelance journalist Mohamed Abazied was killed in an airstrike in Daraaa while reporting on Russian and Syrian military airstrikes.
Freelance journalist Mohamed Abazied killed in airstrike in Syria while reporting on Russian and Syrian airstrikes https://t.co/ltZCNvbITT— Freedom of the Press (@FreedomofPress) March 17, 2017