By Rozh Ahmad:
The RSF report on Rojava is anything but an exposé of the reality on the ground.
As an independent journalist and videographer, I have been in and out of Rojava since July 2012, freelance reporting for international news agencies, regional media outlets and Kurdish newspapers.
As a journalist, I have no interest in political parties, Kurdish and non-Kurdish alike. But my experience in Rojava as a journalist is very different from how the reality on the ground for journalists is portrayed in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report.
The RSF this year awarded the editor of ‘Awene’ Kurdish newspaper as one of the world’s “100 Information Heroes” for World Press Freedom Day. I freelance report for this newspaper too and greatly admire the RSF’s work internationally.
However, its Rojava report shows that some interested parties are using the RSF’s reputation to spout political propaganda, all in the name of journalism.
The headline selection is interesting, which states: “How Kurdistan’s PYD keeps the media and news providers inline.”
It’s an odd headline, given that ten major political parties head the canton governments of Rojava, including Syriac Christian parties as well as right wing Kurdish parties, all of which ideologically oppose PYD’s left-leaning policies.
These parties have ministers in Rojava canton governments and their members have commandant positions in the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Co-presidents and prime ministers of the three canton governments of Rojava aren’t PYD politicians.
Thus, it’s illogical to accuse only the PYD if the media is kept inline in Rojava, which in my experience is not the case at all.
The report particularly targeting the PYD leads to the speculation that RSF either has no clue as to what is happening on the ground or is misled by interested parties striving for political propaganda through a reputable and renowned platform.
The report says:”Last year the Kurdish Supreme Committee, announced the creation of the Union of Free Media (Yekîtiya Ragihandina Azad, or YRA).”
But then it goes on to claim: “The creation of the Union of Free Media looks like the establishment of a kind of information ministry.”
It then counters its own claims by paradoxically adding: “The organization has registered a growing number of abuses perpetrated against Syrian news providers by the Asayish (security forces) and the YPG (i.e. the armed wing of the Supreme Kurdish Committee, also alleged to be the armed wing of the PYD). ”
Well, if the YRA is a ministry of information, how could it register complaints against its own authority?
I double-checked and talked with YRA officers in Al-Qamishli. Many YRA members say they aren’t affiliated to the PYD, but members of parties politically opposing the PYD; however, they believe in a united front to defend Rojava and greatly contribute to YRA to bring about civil society institutions.
The YRA provides the necessary support for journalists working on the ground in Rojava, including those working for political parties and TV stations that strongly stand against the PYD and the canton governments.
The anti-PYD magazines and newspapers are available across Rojava and can be found at YRA offices.
The YRA office in Al-Qamishli is where many international journalists meet. We always meet to find out more about the happening before going on assignments. Colleagues usually have a coffee, flick through the various pro-PYD, anti-PYD and non-partisan private publications, some with their interpreters, before planning ahead assignments.
The Voice of America (VOA) journalist in Syria, Jamie Dettmer, was nearly kidnapped outside YRA office in Al-Qamishli by a handful of the regime’s soldiers November last year. YRA staff rejected handing him over, promptly called the Asayish security forces and saved his life. After a standoff, the soldiers were forced to leave and Dettmer was back to work and safety.
On the registration of abuses against local journalists mentioned in the RSF report, YRA said: “We have registered abuses, but not at the hands of the Asayish, YPG or the PYD. Non-political people for personal vengeance had violated the rights of some local journalists. We also condemned what Bishawa Bahlawi claimed before the RSF report, but he too confirmed that unknown men had escorted him out of Rojava, not official security forces of the cantons or YPG members.”
The YRA has announced in a statement that they too consider the RSF report of being “politically biased, tainted with misinformation and discrimination about Rojava.”
“Nudem”, one of the widely read non-partisan, privately owned newspapers in Rojava is overtly critical of the PYD.
The RSF report first mentioned Nudem editor, Mesud Hemid, as one of the main contributors of the report. But in an interview with VOA, Hamid rejected his contribution to the report saying his name must have been mentioned by mistake.
He then went on to criticize the RSF report. “The RSF report is far from the truth. Everybody has arrears in Rojava, including all the political parties, but the situation is normal. I believe that the RSF report is politically motivated. Anybody reading it would quickly realise that it was written purposely to hurt Rojava,” he said.
Kurdish Rojava is different from the rest of Syria. In the last three years of the civil war, no journalists have been held hostage or killed, which is widespread for ransom elsewhere in the country.
Many average Kurds in Rojava consider the journalists mentioned in the RSF report as “anti-Rojava propagandists” or even “traitors”, mainly because they are either members of the ruling Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP-Iraq), work for media organisations owned by this party or support Islamic opposition groups fighting the pro-Kurdish forces.
The KDP-Iraq strongly stands against Kurdish self-rule in Syria; it even labeled Rojava peoples as “terrorists” when it recently dug trenches on its border to further blockade Rojava Kurds.
Zagros TV is officially a KDP-Iraq mouthpiece and Syrian Kurdish journalists working at its studio inside Iraqi Kurdistan are renowned to support and spout Syrian opposition propaganda against Rojava, mirroring the KDP-Iraq official line.
Zagros TV journalists are also known in the Kurdish public domain to have voluntarily left for Iraqi Kurdistan in search for a better life. The public in Rojava generally criticizes them for having left behind their families and compatriots now haunted by war, although I believe this is their legitimate right to choose, of course.
I have met with Bishawa Bahlawi and Rudy Ibrahim at YRA office in Al-Qamishli and together often used the YRA free bus service to frontline press conferences.
On 1st March 2014, the YRA organised a bus to take journalists to the Tal Barak frontline. Bahlawi and his crew also used the bus and were present at the press conference, where international and local journalists freely asked all sorts of questions.
Although nice folks, still many people inside Rojava openly state that they dislike Bahlawi and Ibrahim for spreading the Syrian opposition and KDP-Iraq official line against Syrian Kurdish cantons in their journalistic reports.
These journalists were well aware of this and, whenever a demonstration or public congregation was held to entomb YPG and YPJ fighters in Al-Qamishli, they shied away and did not attend to report it, fearing that members of the public, not the authorities, could insult and spit on them in condemnation.
People’s anger was understandable as their sons and daughters were being buried, so these journalists just kept quiet.
Additionally, Bahlawi is widely accused by many for having worked as a Baathist informer before the Kurds took control of their areas in Syria in 2012.
It’s commonly held that, when he was young, he openly collaborated with Assad’s regime during the 2004 uprising in Al-Qamishli, helped the secret police to identity and arrest Kurdish youth activists.
He is also accused of having openly worked at the Baath Party Student Union Headquarters at Damascus University, where he is said to have grassed on pro-Kurdish student activists, leading to their eventual arrests by the regime’s Mukhabarat secret police.
January this year, regime forces in Al-Qamishli arrested Bahlawi, only for him to be released the following day. This further escalated the accusations against him of being a regime’s informant.
Ibrahim, also mentioned in the report, works for the pro-Syrian opposition Orient News.
He too is commonly disliked in Rojava for basically praising Islamic rebels in his reports, while a majority of Kurds claim that in self-defence they fight these rebel groups.
Bahlawi is mentioned in the RSF report as having allegedly been escorted out of Rojava by half-a-dozen masked militiamen they assume were YPG and PYD members. “They said they were from a martyr’s family,” Bahlawi said to the TV station he is working for, based in Erbil of Iraqi Kurdistan.
I am concerned for their safety as journalists and do encourage them to plainly speak up about the intimidation because I strongly condemn any sorts of intimidation against all fellow journalists across the world.
However, I am trying to offer the other side of this story, which the RSF has failed to do.
I talked to the Asayish security forces in Al-Qamishli about the accusations.
Thomma Yakop, a non-PYD Christian officer, said: “Journalists working for Zagros TV left Rojava in the early days when there was no authority. We have also heard of Bahlawi’s claims. We of course condemn it and are investigating it, even though he is out of Rojava now. However, all our efforts has led us thinking that the accusations are either baseless used as reasons to leave for Iraqi Kurdistan or Europe, or, it was real and carried out by armed men for personal reasons and vengeance.”
He said: “We are living through a civil war, most people are armed and vengeance is the essence of a patriarchal society that we are challenging and trying to change here in Rojava today. Also, these journalists have had some problems and all are aware about it. Perhaps it was carried out on personal level. Bahlawi also said that masked men escorted him out of Rojava, not our official security forces.”
On the allegations that the masked men were YPG, PYD or Asayish forces, Yakop said: “Bahlawi himself has said in his media statements that the men told him they were from a martyrs’ family. Who is this martyr and his family and who were the gunmen, we are still investigating to find out and get to the bottom of this ugly incident.”
Looking at my own experience and after having double-checked both sides on this sensitive topic, all that comes to my mind is that the RSF report is anything but an exposé of the reality on the ground in Rojava, while some interested parties have been quite successful at misinforming, misleading and using a reputable organisation to spout their own political propaganda on an international scale, all in the name of journalism.
Rozh Ahmad is a British-educated journalist based in Kurdistan.