A new requirement that journalists in northeast Syria join an official union to obtain press credentials is seen by critics as an attempt to regulate and restrict the region’s media.
Under the measure, all journalists, including those who work as fixers for foreign media, must first become members of the Union of Free Media (YRA) before credentials are approved.
Reporters need the credentials to work or to travel to certain locations, especially areas once held by Islamic State militants.
The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), also known as Rojava, which governs the northeast, announced the change in April, saying the requirement will support and promote better journalistic standards.
But local journalists warn that it could allow authorities to limit media in the region. They point out that a media law passed last year made no such demand.
Concerns were also raised that the ruling could give officials power to determine who is or is not a journalist. Prospective members of the YRA — which was set up about 10 years ago as the region gained autonomy from Damascus — must meet union criteria, including having two years of professional experience.
The region’s journalists already risk persecution, arrest or harassment if they report critically on authorities or the regional security force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Some, like the Iraqi Kurdish broadcaster Rudaw, have had licenses revoked over coverage that authorities deemed as incitement.
And while the YRA describes itself as an independent syndicate whose senior leadership is elected, journalists and observers largely see it as being close to local authorities.
VOA contacted the AANES media office for comment on the new requirements but received no response.
Since the ruling came into effect, journalists have flagged delays and confusion. Some said their applications are still pending after they refused union membership.
A journalist at one international news outlet said when he tried to renew a license earlier in May, AANES said union membership was a precondition.
The journalist, who spoke with VOA on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said he felt like he had no choice but to apply for membership, and that final approval is still pending.
A media law adopted last year did not include any provision requiring journalists to have union membership. Because of that, the journalist said he considers the new measure a violation of the law.
YRA co-president Malva Ali confirmed that membership in her organization is now a requirement for securing credentials, but that YRA did not have a role in the decision.
“We don’t have authority to do that,” she told VOA from Qamishli, in Syria. “The Autonomous Administration is the executive body in this region, and we can’t interfere in their decisions.”
Ali sees the move as an attempt by local authorities to improve journalistic practices in a region entangled in many conflicts.
“We have ongoing threats from Daesh (Islamic State), Turkey and other actors who want to destabilize our governing experiment,” she said. “So, there must be a way to keep journalistic standards high so that not everyone is able to exploit journalism for malign purposes.”
Ali said the union’s requirement of journalism experience is to ensure that “only competent and real journalists are admitted to the union, which would reflect positively on the overall media environment.”
But some local media outlets see forced membership as a problem.
“All over the world, joining trade syndicates and unions is a voluntary act," said Sherin Ibrahim, manager of Arta FM. “That’s why we can’t force our employees to join the Union of Free Media.” (Arta FM is an affiliate of VOA’s Kurdish Service).
Ibrahim said she hopes regional authorities will drop the union requirement.
“This (new provision) will impact the work of our reporters and other staff members who travel between cities,” she said. “Arta has been around for nearly 10 years, and our continued work and popularity with listeners are proof of our professionalism. So, why should there be a syndicate determining if we’re good journalists?”
The requirement that everyone working in media apply for credentials could also impact foreign news coverage, another journalist said.
While international reporters work in Syria under a separate media permit, the new law will impact local journalists and fixers whom many foreign crews rely on.
“This is a pure security measure,” said Syrian journalist Kamiran Sadoun, who for several years assisted international news crews covering the northeast.
“By such a ridiculous decision, they not only want to restrict local journalists and media outlets, but they also want to ensure that those who assist foreign news outlets are also in check,” Sadoun told VOA.
Sadoun, who is currently in Prague for a scholarship, added, “[Authorities] explicitly told me several times over the years that they didn’t like some of the reports produced by foreign journalists I had assisted. They don’t tolerate critical reporting by journalists that they can’t control, so what they would do is intimidate local fixers who work with such reporters.”
Sadoun was arrested twice in 2021 while working as a fixer. Security in Raqqa briefly detained him in June 2021 when he was accompanying a Dutch reporter. In February 2021, he was arrested at a checkpoint and held for two days.
Syria ranked 171st out of 180 countries, where 1 is most free, according to the 2022 Press Freedom Index, an annual ranking of countries produced by Reporters Without Borders.