“I currently live in the Turkish city of Gaziantep and my safety becomes more and more difficult to guarantee after an increase in threats directed at me and my family ”, Naji Jerf wrote in his visa request to the French ambassador in Turkey at the end of 2015. The Syrian journalist fled to Turkey after he had caught the attention of the Syrian secret service, among other reasons due to his reports of the atrocities committed by Assad’s regime and because he helped citizen journalists. He also extensively reported on the practices of Islamic State and that caused bad blood. The death threats directed at Jerf in Turkey increased after the Syrian journalist released a revealing documentary about ISIS. In the documentary, titled ‘ISIS in Aleppo’, Jerf shows how ISIS executed numerous members of the Syrian opposition. Jerf had just received his liberating visa and was about to fly to France with his family, among which two young daughters. But the Syrian journalist never made it to Paris. On December the 27th 2015 he was shot in broad daylight on the street in Gaziantep. The assassination was claimed by Islamic State. Syrian journalists who flee to Turkey risk their lives by continuing their work there.
De Syrische journalist Naji Jerf. Bron: YouTube.
Not safe from the knife of Islamic State
Walking through a suburb of Gaziantep at dusk, three of them – Haytham Alhanat, Ahmad Mhidi and Mouna Abboud – talk about their work and the threatening factor: Islamic State. “Jerf’s murder was not an incident”, says Alhanat, who writes for Ain al-Madina. “In the space of one year, four Syrian journalists have been murdered here in the south of Turkey.” In October 2015, Ibrahim Abdelqader and Fares Hamadi were killed in Sanliurfa, also close to the Syrian border. ISIS claimed the double assassination and released a video message in which they issued a warning directed at anyone who would report negatively on the terrorist organization: “You are not safe from the knife of Islamic State. Our hand reaches to wherever you are.” On April 12th this year, Mohammed Zahir al-Sherqat underwent the same fate as his compatriots. ISIS declared they had targeted al-Sherqat, because he occupied himself with “activities against ISIS”. Some Syrian journalists only narrowly escape an attempt on their life. Ahmed Abdelquader, brother to Ibrahim Abdelquader who was murdered in October 2015, is one of them. Other Syrian journalists receive personal death threats. “Many Syrian journalists do not feel safe in Turkey” says Alhanat, who says he does not receive threats from ISIS.
His colleague Ahmad Mhidi points to a bar, which lights up between modern apartment buildings: “That’s where we need to be for the best Syrian coffee in town.” On the surface, things appear calm in Gaziantep, 60 kilometers from the Syrian border. The contrast with Aleppo is huge. The Syrian city is besieged from all sides and has been reduced to rubble. The war that rages there is hardly noticeably in Gaziantep, but the Turkish city is not oblivious to it. On the contrary, Aleppo has moved to Gaziantep. The Turkish city houses about half a million people, 350 thousand of whom are Syrians. Partly in refugee camps, partly in the city, people are trying to build a life for themselves. But not all Syrians are in Gaziantep to escape the violence in their own country. Members of the Syrian opposition use it as a base to prepare their military operations against the Syrian regime. And Islamic State also has cells in the city. The bomb attack that killed 60 people at a Kurdish wedding in August was attributed to ISIS. And earlier this year, the city was shaken by the bombing of a police station, also attributed to IS, but not claimed by them. “This place is teeming with ISIS members and so is Sanliurfa, 140 kilometers away from here”, Mhidi explains.
Once inside and among fellow Syrians, Mouna Abboud also tentatively starts to talk. In an earlier report by OneWorld Abboud explained how she fled Syria and that she only succeeded in crossing the Turkish border at her fifth attempt. Her story is similar to that of Naji Jerf, who was murdered last year. Like Jerf, Abboud initially fled from the regime, but is now threatened by ISIS. “In Syria I already wrote about torture practices in Assad’s prisons, before I landed in prison myself. If you don’t support Assad, the regime sees you as a terrorist”, she says. She was sent to prison several times for using her pen to support prisoners, women in particular. “I want to write a book about it, but because Arabic is my only language, I cannot gain a foothold with financers and publishers outside of Syria.” ISIS also fails to escape her pen. Among other things, she has written about the Yazidi women, raped by ISIS and traded as slaves.
They say I should fear for my life and the life of my brother
“Since ISIS has been in charge, it’s been very hard to work as a journalist”, says Alhanat, who explains how and why he went undercover in Deir Ezzor. “In order not to draw attention to myself and to come across as a pious Muslim, I stayed away from girls, abstained from alcohol and started to work as a market vendor. That way I could see the practices of ISIS in the street and write about them for Ain al-Madina”. This online magazine started during the revolution to act as a counterweight to the media that were controlled by Assad, but with the rise of ISIS the focus of their coverage has shifted. The disappearance of Samer Abboud coincided with a stricter ISIS regime for journalists, something which made their work even more dangerous according to Alhanat: “Samer has probably been kidnapped by ISIS. For me that was the moment to flee. It became too dangerous.”
“They shouted ‘keffar, you’re an infidel’”, says Abboud about the threats she receives. When she was still living in Syria, ISIS followers threatened her over the phone, in Turkey mainly on Facebook. “And they say I should fear for my life and the life of my brother: ‘If you want to see your brother, come back to Syria. Come to us in Deir Ezzor’, they say.”Her brother, Samer Abboud, worked in the Syrian town of Deir Ezzor, where his two friends Alhanat and Mhidi also used to live and work. Early October 2015, Samer Abboud disappeared without a trace.
Reports of the execution of foreign journalists have reached the general public through the decapitation videos ISIS released of, among others, James Foley and Steven Sotloff (2014). However, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least 27 journalists across different countries have been murdered by Islamic State and at least 11 are missing. The deaths of local journalists garner less media attention. In Turkey, four journalists have been murdered in one year's time.
It’s a matter of life and death
Once outside ISIS-territory, Syrian journalists are still unable to continue their work safely. “They flee the deadly censorship of ISIS, but too often journalists still run immense risks in the countries where they have found shelter”, states Sherif Mansour of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “Governments of countries that journalists have fled to, should do more to protect them. It’s a matter of life and death.” After the assassinations of Naji Jerf and Zaher al-Shurqat, CPJ specifically urged Turkey to take action. “To quickly bring the murderers to justice and to take measures to protect all Syrian journalists in Turkey.”
The appeal made by CPJ seems to have fallen on deaf ears. A look at different press freedom lists shows that, internationally, journalists in Turkey fare badly. On the list of Reporters Without Borders, Turkey ranks number 151 out of 180 countries. Turkish, but also foreign journalists, are intimidated or arrested by the Turkish authorities. Since the coup on July 15th this year, the number of journalists in prison has grown even further. Upon request, CPJ replies by email that Turkey has not responded to the various appeals to help the Syrian journalists, who are in fear of their lives due to ISIS.
Turkey does not remain entirely idle, though. “The Turkish authorities are really working on the case and have now identified five suspects. They are now in prison”, tells Aref Krez, a friend of the murdered Naji Jerf, through Facebook messenger. The investigation into the murder of Zaher al-Shurqat on the other hand, does not seem to progress very much at all, says Barry Abdulatiff, a friend of the journalist who was murdered in Sanliurfa. “Based on what I saw, they carried out a brief investigation in the hospital, but I’ve not heard anything about the progress of the investigation since then. And even though they have CCTV footage of the murder scene, they still haven’t found the killer.”
Islamic State in Turkey
The main problem is the presence of large numbers of ISIS supporters in the south of Turkey, say Haytham Alhanat and Ahmad Mhidi in the Syrian coffee shop in Gaziantep. “Syrian refugees have often had immense difficulties getting into Turkey, but the south of Turkey is teeming with ISIS members, who are able to cross the border with relative ease.” Sometimes they pretend to be ISIS deserters who have fled to Turkey, says his colleague Ahmad Mhidi, who previously talked about ISIS deserters in an interview with OneWorld. “But not nearly all self-declared former ISIS fighters have truly deserted ISIS. When they post victory photos of ISIS on Facebook, they clearly haven’t said goodbye to ISIS. We have regularly alerted the Turkish authorities to these ISIS supporters, but so far they have hardly taken any action.”
However, in August, Turkey did launch an offensive against ISIS in Syria. These military operations across the border in Syria help to shield Turkey from areas occupied by ISIS, which makes it harder for ISIS to smuggle fighters and weapons into Turkey. These actions against ISIS in Syria are a response to the terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Ankara and Gaziantep and also – or even mainly – against the threat that emanates from Kurdish unity in Syria.
Syrian journalists cannot count on help from the Turkish authorities and ever since the refugee deal between Turkey and the EU, their passage to Europe has been cut off.
Afterwards, Turkish authorities do persecute perpetrators to a limited degree, but that does not mean Syrian journalists feel safe in Turkey. Syrian journalists cannot count on help from the Turkish authorities and ever since the refugee deal between Turkey and the EU, their passage to Europe has been cut off. Naji Jerf was an exception to the rule: he received a visa for Europe prior to the deal. That is one of the reasons Mouna Abboud tells her story under her own name. Other Syrian journalists in Turkey confirm death threats by ISIS, but want to remain anonymous for safety reasons. Abboud is fully aware of the risk she runs. “But by telling my story, I hope to increase my chances of getting a visa for Europe.”
Shortly after these conversations with Mhidi, Alhanat and Abboud, ISIS publishes a YouTube video of the execution of five journalists from Deir Ezzor. Abboud’s brother is one of them. The video shows how Samer Abboud is killed in the street with a knife. Mouna Abboud’s determination remains unshaken. Despite the death of her brother in Syria, the journalists murdered by ISIS in Turkey and the death threats ISIS sends her. “I will continue to write about Assad’s regime and Islamic State, because it’s hard to say whose crimes are more atrocious.”