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Reporter’s Credentials Yanked in Northeast Syria for ‘Offending Martyrs’ 

FILE - TV journalists work from a hilltop in southeastern Turkey, as in the background smoke billows from a fire in Ras al-Ayn, Syria, Oct. 20, 2019.
FILE - TV journalists work from a hilltop in southeastern Turkey, as in the background smoke billows from a fire in Ras al-Ayn, Syria, Oct. 20, 2019.

Authorities in northeast Syria have temporarily suspended a local reporter’s press credentials after she used the word “killed” instead of “martyred” in her work.

The media office of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria said in a statement Sunday that Vivian Fatah, a reporter for Rudaw TV, would be barred from working for 60 days for “offending the martyrs and their families.”

The semiautonomous region is largely seen as friendly to international journalists, but local reporters occasionally have been persecuted, detained and harassed for critical reporting on the local administration, according to local news reports.

The Syrian Journalists Association reported that Kurdish authorities in April had suspended the credentials of two other journalists in the region.

Reporters blocked for 90 days

The media office at the time said Naz al-Sayid, a reporter for the Cairo-based al-Ghad TV, and freelance reporter Badirkhan Ahmed “committed a host of violations that harm the press.” The two journalists were blocked for 90 days.

Fatah confirmed to VOA that she had been suspended but declined to give details.

The order was related to Fatah’s reporting last week for Rudaw on fighters from the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2012, Kurdish forces have been in control of the northeastern part of the country. The SDF has been a major U.S. partner in the fight against the Islamic State militant group.

“The decision is contrary to the real understanding of media work and against the principles of freedom of the press,” Rudaw said in a statement Monday. “The justification in the order, and the accusations against Vivian Fatah for insulting the martyrs, has no valid basis.”

Worked for Kurdish network

Rudaw is a pan-Kurdish news network based in Irbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, and funded by the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

Amir Murad, co-chair of the media office that issued the statement, said journalists should respect the “principles of society” when reporting on sensitive matters.

“Our decision to suspend Vivian Fatah’s credentials wasn’t only because she used the word ‘killed’ instead of ‘martyred,’ but because society is sensitive to such a word,” he told VOA.

Murad said that use of “martyred” could be unprofessional in the media, but “our society has embraced this term to call those who have lost their lives in the fighting.”

Actions based on complaints

The media office has the authority to act against journalists based on complaints. In Fatah’s case, the office received comments from “families of martyrs.”

Explaining the earlier suspensions, Murad said al-Sayid “used her press credentials to mock a disabled individual” and Ahmed “falsely reported that a woman in Qamishli had contracted the coronavirus, although health officials later said that she had tested negative.”

Both were offered amnesty on April 22, which is Kurdish Press Day, according to a news release from local authorities.

Journalists in the Kurdish-held region rely on accreditation to travel. Without the government-issued credentials, reporters cannot work in certain locations, especially areas formerly held by Islamic State militants.

The CPJ on Monday called on Kurdish authorities to reverse its decision on Fatah’s case.

“No reporter should be suspended from work over a word that is widely used around the world to describe fallen soldiers,” CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa representative Ignacio Miguel Delgado said in a statement.

Local journalists say that compared with other parts of Syria, they are able to work in the Kurdish-majority region, albeit with some restrictions.

'Certain red lines'

“There are certain red lines that we can’t cross as reporters,” Ivan Hassib, a freelance journalist based in Qamishli, told VOA.

“For example, financial and military matters are topics that we can’t report on freely,” he said. “Only those who are close to the local authorities have access to certain information in these fields.”

Murad, of the media office, denied that was the case.

“If a journalist wants to write on something supported with documents and evidence, nobody could prevent them from doing so,” he said.

Syria ranks 174th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 press freedom index, where 1 is the most free.

Since the start of Syria’s conflict in 2012, media watchdogs say more than 200 journalists have been killed, mostly by government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and radical militant groups.