A prominent Syrian rights organization slammed the alleged arrests of over a dozen journalists and other media workers by Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria last week as a “slap against freedom of speech.”
The Paris-based Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) said the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the military force of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), detained at least 16 media workers in the former Islamic State (IS) capital of Raqqa on July 30th.
SNHR executive director Fadel Abdul Ghany said most of those arrested have previously documented ISIS crimes. He alleged the SDF, which justifies its existence through its fight against ISIS, is acting against those who pose a threat to this legitimacy.
“Arresting 16 media workers – this is [a] slap against freedom of speech [and] freedom of journalists,” Abdul Ghany told The New Arab on Thursday.
“If ISIS committed such crimes against 16 media workers, or [jihadist group] HTS [did], the attention and the impact will be 10 [times more] than now.”
But the SDF told The New Arab its “main mission… is to defend the area against terrorism and occupation, so we have nothing to do with arresting journalists or other internal issues”.
It directed The New Arab to contact the Internal Security Forces – the local police service, also known as the Asayish.
Abdul Ghany said that after the SNHR published a statement about the detentions, it received feedback from the US State Department, which he said is interested in seeking more details.
The SDF cooperates extensively with US-led coalition forces and is mostly comprised of the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The SNHR said in its statement on Monday that the arrestees have not been allowed to speak with relatives or engage a lawyer.
“We fear the detainees may suffer torture and go on to become forcibly disappeared, as is the case with 85 percent of all detainees,” the statement said. Abdul Ghany clarified this was an overall figure for Syria and not specific to AANES-governed territory.
“A number of the detainees were severely beaten during the process of their arrest, and threats were directed against them,” the SNHR added.
It said the 16 arrestees work for several different organizations and were detained by SDF intelligence on “false” allegations of “espionage”. They were arrested without warrants, according to Abdul Ghany.
The Rojava Information Center (RIC), an organization based in AANES-held territory that assists journalists, referenced a report in The New Arab last week saying 16 activists and media workers had been arrested.
The RIC cited the local Union of Free Media (UFM), which is reportedly linked to the region’s authorities, as saying the Asayish arrested a number of journalists last week in the context of an operation with the SDF targeting alleged “Turkish ‘agents'”.
Turkey, a longtime military opponent of the SDF, has threatened a new offensive in the AANES areas of Manbij and Tel Rifaat.
According to an SDF statement on Sunday, “36 people involved in the ranks of the spies and agents” were arrested in various areas during the anti-espionage operation, though no mention was made of their professions.
The RIC cited the UFM as saying some detainees had been released, among them journalists.
“The arrest of media professionals and journalists is always worrisome, especially concerning charges of espionage during a time of heightened attacks against the region,” RIC spokesperson Sasha Hoffman told The New Arab on Thursday.
“Contrary to previous arrests of journalists by [North East of Syria’s] internal security forces, which mainly targeted opposition media, it appears that this time media professionals working for AANES structures or formerly affiliated with AANES-friendly media were also targeted.
“We hope that the internal security forces will release information on the reason for their arrest and abide by the region’s legal standards.”
Hoffman said the RIC had enquired with local security forces but had not received a response.
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