World Press Freedom Day 2020: Threats Faced by Assyrian Journalists


A journalist covering Assyrian New Year in northern Iraq in April 2018. (Courtesy: Assyrian National Broadcasting)

The United Nations recognizes May 3 to be World Press Freedom Day, observed to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year's theme is "Journalism Without Fear or Favour." According to UNESCO: "World Press Freedom Day is a day of support for media which are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom. It is also a day of remembrance for those journalists who lost their lives in the pursuit of a story." Learn more about some of the threats faced by Assyrian journalists in the countries that form their ancestral homeland below.


Iraq

Death and kidnapping remain concerns for journalists, both local and foreign, in Iraq. Crimes committed against journalists largely go unpunished. The persistent targeting of journalists in the country has negatively impacted freedom of expression. Until the outbreak of COVID-19, journalists in Iraq were increasingly under attack following the wave of anti-government protests which began in October 2019. According to Reporters Without Borders: "Iraqi journalists risk their lives when they cover protests or investigative corruption, and the dangers have grown since the start of an unprecedented wave of anti-government protests in October 2019. Journalists who dare to report the demands of the protestors are liable to be harassed, abducted, physically attacked or even killed by unidentified militias. The threats come from all quarters and are designed to deter them from investigating or publishing the fruits of their research. The state's powerlessness increases the dangers and makes it impossible to determine whether what the many militias are doing suits the government, whether the government has given them the go-ahead, or whether it has no control over the situation." In these conditions, journalists of minority backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to attack.


Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Journalists in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq are often the victims of murder, enforced disappearances, and torture. They can be attacked with full impunity. Assyrian journalists who report on the discrimination, injustice, prejudice, corruption, political coercion, or who are critical of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) policies and practices are frequently threatened with violence by members of the Asayish (KRG political police). The KRG has long sought to silence dissidents, regardless of ethnic identity: Kurdish journalists who criticize the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) have been killed; such cases have occurred as recently as last year. In 2019, two Assyrian journalists were detained by authorities; one of them was detained for a period of 13 days during which he was threatened and assaulted. Such cases serve as "examples" to others who might express dissent or critique the government and are particularly effective at deterring minorities from exercising free speech, as minoritized communities already feel more vulnerable and are more susceptible to terrorization and intimidation. While the KRG has laws which protect the rights of journalists, these laws lack clear definitions, are never implemented, or are used in accordance with the moods of those in power.


The KRG has also demonstrated discriminatory practices when granting permits for media outlets. Assyrian media groups independent of the KRG can be denied without a reasonable basis for their rejection, or simply without being given a valid explanation. For example, Assyrian National Broadcasting, a California-based broadcaster, has consistently been denied authorization, despite repeated attempts to register and obtain a license.



Syria

The Syrian Government has long infringed on the rights of journalists in the country. The risk of arrest, abduction, or death make journalism dangerous and difficult. Assyrian-language publications were banned; a number of underground Assyrian publications operated under these circumstances. Assyrian writers and journalists involved in these publications used pseudonyms, but were routinely threatened, detained, and tortured. Today, journalists are targets of intimidation by various actors, including the government, Turkish-backed forces, and Kurdish forces and authorities.


Kurdish Self-Administration of North and East Syria

Northeastern Syria is under the de facto rule of the so-called Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and its armed forces and their subsidiaries–together known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). While it entertains some foreign relations, including with the United States, the self-administration is not officially recognized by the Syrian Government or any international state or organization. Kurdish authorities and the SDF in northeast Syria have created a repressive atmosphere, where journalists risk their safety reporting on the reality of the situation in the region. Assyrian journalists who are critical of the self-administration and its policies face intimidation, threats of violence, and arbitrary detentions. In 2018, the self-administration detained an Assyrian journalist who reported on the forced closure of Assyrian schools in the region. Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria have consistently denied violations by security forces and attempted to conceal them from the press and human rights groups.


Turkey

Journalism in Turkey is under sustained and frequent attack. Journalists and writers who criticize the Turkish Government risk harassment, intimidation, criminal investigation and prosecution, and detention. According to Amnesty International, in 2016, one third of all imprisoned journalists in the world were in Turkey's prisons: "The severity of the Turkish government's repression of the media is such that it has been described by some as the 'death of journalism'." Turkish authorities continue to lead efforts to silence independent media and critics of state policies and patterns of governance. Assyrians in Turkey have been wrongfully imprisoned for speaking about the 1915 Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Genocide, and charged with “inciting racial or religious hatred encouraging people to disobey the law.” Assyrian journalists and human rights activists face harassment and intimidation. Ordinary civilians have been detained for speaking to the media about the conditions facing Assyrians in the country.



Iran

Iran imprisons, harasses, and surveils journalists and their families. According to Reporters Without Borders, Iran has been one of the world's most repressive countries for journalists for the past 40 years: "State control of news and information is unrelenting and at least 860 journalists and citizen-journalists have been imprisoned or executed since 1979. The Islamic regime exercises extensive control over the media landscape and its harassment of independent journalists, citizen-journalists and independent media has not let up." Journalists in Iran are constantly subjected to intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and lengthy jail sentences imposed at the end of unfair trials. The media which still resist the government lack the resources to report freely and independently. As a result, Assyrian voices are suffocated.

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