Rights are still under attack globally

There are times when it feels that the earth is shifting upon its axis. When the gravitational pull of events is so strong that our news curves towards it. Moments when even the light of truth gets sucked towards the darkness caused by war. Although some will try to look away, they soon discover that there is no way of doing so: the sorrow, the heartache and suffering forbids our humanity to ignore.

The current war in the Middle East is one such event. As it continues to rightly dominate global news, we need to ensure that tyrants aren’t ramping up their attacks on their citizens while the world is looking elsewhere. The role of Index on Censorship is to try and provide a telescope to the public so they can witness where their values are under attack. Failure to do so would only secure further silence for those campaigning for freedom of expression.

That’s why this week I want to highlight some of those stories you may not have heard, but so desperately need to be told.

Freedom of expression abuses continue in India. It has become clear that the Indian authorities are using counterterrorism law and financial regulations to silence journalists, human rights defenders, activists and critics of the government, including 12 international human rights groups. At the start of October, the authorities arrested the editor of NewsClick, Prabir Purkayastha and human resources chief Amit Chakravarty. This was quickly followed by the government raids on 46 journalists associated with the news outlet. A depressing spiral of acts are being committed by the Indian authorities and any criticism of the Modi government is met with the heaviest of action.

The bombing of Syrian cities by Russia continues as they seek to shore up the Assad regime. A two-year-old child was killed in a Russian air attack on a family home in the village of Jaftallak Haj Hamoud, north of Jisr al-Shughour, according to the Civil Defence organisation and confirmed by medics and local reports. In a nation where news is so tightly controlled it’s important that we share these stories, as the actions of Putin around the world only deliver misery.

Only a week after a huge earthquake, Afghanistan is now faced with another. The epicentre is thought to have been just outside Herat, ending hopes of further rescues and a humanitarian crisis will continue to deepen in a country where rights, freedoms and liberties have all but disappeared following the fall of Kabul. More than 90% of the people killed in the last earthquake were women and children with the death toll expected to be over 2,000 people.

India, Afghanistan, Syria: three nations who are faced with immense struggles. Some caused by natural disaster, others human-inflicted. But the commonality remains the same. Little or no freedom of expression in these nations hampers our ability to understand and help those in need.

Now more than ever these people need to be heard and Index will always speak up for those without a voice.

Questioning of journalist at UK airport highlights increasing overreach of border forces

The police at London’s Luton airport worked through a list of questions. Did Broomfield consider his reporting to be objective? Did he include multiple sources in his work? How did he get paid? What was his opinion about beheadings, and did he ever send anybody a photo of a beheading? “Not answering the questions is a criminal offence, so I complied,” British journalist Matt Broomfield said about the questioning he was subject to in July. His laptop and phone were confiscated and he didn’t receive them back.

The questions indicated that Broomfield was a person of interest because of his journalistic work in Syria between 2018 and 2021. Besides reporting for media like VICE, the Independent and the New Statesman, he founded the Rojava Information Center, a news agency dedicated to improving the quality of reporting on the autonomously administered regions in the northeast of Syria (often referred to as Rojava) by making sources available and by working as fixers and translators for visiting journalists. But Broomfield said he wasn’t entirely certain about why was questioned: “They said they were doing a mopping-up operation, but didn’t give any details.”

It wasn’t the first time Broomfield, who is currently based in Belgrade, Serbia, had been questioned at an airport. In 2021 he was detained in Greece because, as he learned after being detained, he was banned from travelling to Schengen territory. He was eventually put on a plane to London, where he was again questioned. Broomfield said:

“After that, I have travelled to London several times without problems. You know, if you spend three years in Rojava, you can expect police wanting to talk to you. But now I needed to answer their questions again?”

After confiscating his equipment, the police asked if he had any confidential sources and material on his phone and laptop. Broomfield said no and explained that legally he doesn’t have to give police his password (police can only request your phone password if they have a warrant, something that many might be unaware of). Broomfield has since wondered what would have happened if he had said yes.

“What worries me is that the police ability to impound journalists’ tech reduces sources’ ability to trust journalists,” he said.

In 2019 Index investigated how border officials are increasingly demanding access to individuals’ social media accounts around the world. This is ushering in a frightening new era where people are worried that their words, their criticism and taking part in a protest will end in a travel ban and are, as Broomfield says, deeply concerned about their own sources.

Fiona O’Brien, the UK Bureau director of Reporters Without Borders, is also worried. In an interview with Index, she said: “We recognise the importance of national security and nobody says journalists are above the law, but press freedom is at stake here. Journalists have the right to work freely and without fear of the confidentiality of their sources.”

She said the police’s actions seem to be an overreach of the use of the law: “They have a duty to protect the public but their powers to do so should be used exceptionally.”

Recent statistics show that 2,498 people were subject to the use of schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, but it remains unclear how many of them were journalists. O’Brien said she heard of three cases so far this year.

“The lack of transparency is problematic. We don’t know why exactly people are questioned, we don’t know what happens to their equipment, and the police are not allowed to search confidential information on journalists’ equipment but we don’t know how this works in practice. We have written to the counter-terrorism police to talk about this, but so far we received no response.”

What Broomfield himself is also curious about and can’t seem to find answers to is the extent Turkey is involved. The autonomous administration in Northeast-Syria is considered to be a ‘terrorist’ entity by Turkey, as it is founded on the ideology of the Kurdish political movement, of which the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is a part. While the PKK is not active in Syria, Turkish authorities have been calling on NATO members to crack down on all Kurdish activism they deem “terrorism”.

“I don’t know if Turkey shares lists of names with European authorities or if they just demand a firmer crack-down in general, but I do know that the UK and Turkey have shared security interests and the economic ties have strengthened, especially after Brexit,” said Broomfield.

He also points to the strong ties between Turkey and Germany, the latter being responsible for the Schengen ban he received and which is due to end (but may be renewed) in 2026. He is trying to find out more about the background of the ban and trying to get it reversed with the help of a lawyer in Germany. Broomfield said:

“This ban hampers my work much more than the questioning and the confiscation of my equipment. It would be good to be able to travel to key places in the Schengen zone to report on Kurds in Europe. I get invitations to speak at conferences in Europe but can’t accept them. The ban narrows my horizon.”

Did Broomfield expect to face problems because of his work in Syria?

“I’m aware that reporting there comes with risks, both in the short term on the ground and in the long term. But the work my colleagues and me have done there, supportive of what the autonomous administration tries to build but looking at it with a critical eye, is important and we need more of it. The situation I am now in limits my ability to use my liberty as a British citizen to draw attention to the plight of the Kurds. To me, all this speaks to the trend of increasing Turkish influence on Europe’s security policies.”

Both Reporters Without Borders and the National Union of Journalists are supporting Broomfield in efforts to get his equipment back and to get more clarity on the background of his detention and interrogation. The NUJ didn’t want to comment, but did share that Broomfield’s case follows the recent similar case of Ernest M., a foreign rights manager for the French publisher Editions La Fabrique, who was arrested by British police under terrorism legislation when he arrived in London for this year’s London Book Fair.

Meanwhile, Broomfield is applying to several funds for journalists to cover his legal expenses.

Journalists battle for truth after Turkish earthquakes

When Turkey’s Kahramanmaraş province was hit by two powerful earthquakes on 6 February 2023, the government responded by attacking the country’s already beleaguered press and journalists. It is time now to take stock, lay bare abuses and ask the right questions.

Over 55,000 people died in the earthquakes in Syria and Turkey and thousands are still missing. In Turkey alone, there was a devastating effect on at least 10 provinces, wiping several cities off the map.

The harrowing aftermath of the earthquake was compounded by the government’s inadequacy in providing disaster relief. Beyond that came a series of measures to stop the media from reporting on the earthquake, ranging from detentions and intimidation to physical attacks.

In the time between the earthquakes hitting on 6 February and the first week of March, 10 journalists were taken into custody, with two of them arrested for their reports from the disaster ground. In addition to that, 26 journalists were targets of physical attacks or attempted attacks in the earthquake region, initiated by security forces and unidentified groups. A state agency gave three independent news stations astronomical fines, and journalists working in pro-government media have targeted at least three journalists for their work in the disaster region.

On 9 February, the day after the government declared a state of emergency in the affected regions, it blocked Twitter for up to 12 hours. This move didn’t only hinder the coordination of relief efforts, but also led to hundreds, maybe even thousands of lives being lost, as many earthquake victims were tweeting their status and asking for help from under the rubble in those most crucial hours.

Even for a government known for its repressive policies, why did shutting down social media and stopping the press take precedence over rescue efforts?

In Turkey, where the vast majority of media is in government hands and internet access restrictions are common, the earthquake laid bare the disastrous consequences of two decades of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Following the earthquakes, thousands of buildings collapsed, with yet thousands more severely damaged — believed by many construction experts to be a result of a series of amnesties which legalised unregistered developments, and the support for government-friendly construction companies.

The media exposed the links between the government and construction companies, which could easily obtain licenses for unfit buildings. This strictly contradicts the government’s narrative of the earthquake being the “disaster of the century”.

News reports on buildings — including that of the Kahramanmaraş Chamber of Civil Engineers, which survived the two quakes without so much as the glass of a window shattering — stood testimony to the fact that although the earthquakes were natural, the disaster was man-made.

Covering up these incidents by stopping journalism took precedence over saving lives.

The first earthquake-related detention occurred as early as 7 February, when Evrensel Daily’s Adana correspondent Volkan Pekal was taken into custody by police officers while filming at Adana City Hospital on charges of recording “without permission”.

By the third day after the earthquake, four journalists had been detained while filming or interviewing in the affected cities. Many journalists now face investigations under Turkey’s newest “fake news” law which makes “spreading misleading news publicly” a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.

On 27 February, local journalists and brothers Ali İmat and İbrahim İmat from the earthquake-stricken town of Osmaniye were arrested on the same charge. They exposed how hundreds of tents in Osmaniye were kept in storage houses, instead of being distributed to survivors.

There were also threats. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told journalists the government was monitoring those who were critical of Turkey’s handling of the disaster. Turkey’s state broadcast monitoring agency, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), issued Halk TV, Tele 1 TV and Fox TV with five programme suspensions and administrative fines for their news reports on the disaster.

More than one month after the earthquake, many cities still don’t have running water; debris and rubble haven’t been cleared up in many places. Survivors still don’t have access to tents, let alone housing. With general elections due in two months, instead of addressing the needs of survivors and putting in place procedures to ensure that the next earthquake will not result in a similar outcome, the government of Turkey still chooses to demonise and punish independent journalism.

The silence after the earthquake in northwestern Syria is deafening

Syrian television channels have recently been showing images of president Bashar al-Assad visiting buildings damaged in last week’s earthquakes that have killed more than 40,000 people.

In the wake of a natural disaster, such demonstrations of concern and empathy with those affected are commonplace among politicians worldwide.

Yet some argue that the images on Syria’s screens are not what they seem and amount to disinformation.

Moufida Anker, a Syrian journalist and activist, said: “It is terrifying what is happening. The dictator appeared to be laughing. The most terrible thing is that he deceived the international organisations that came to support him and deluded them that the buildings in front of them were destroyed by the earthquake. Many of them were destroyed earlier by his own planes; we have proof of that with the photos archived earlier.”

Assad’s critics say he has found in this disaster an opportunity to break the international isolation that was imposed more than 10 years ago.

The earthquake has increased the oppression of Syrians in the northwest of the country that has been going on since 2011. The UN says that since the uprising, the Assad regime has killed more than 400,000 Syrian citizens for reasons related to freedom of opinion, expression, and demonstration, and hundreds of thousands are in prison for the same reason.

Syrians living in the northwest of the country, on the border with Turkey, and the hardest hit by the earthquake are being ignored and silenced.

From the first moment of the earthquake, and despite the horror of what it left behind, the Assad regime has practised a media blackout regarding news from the northwest of the country. Assad’s loyal channels do not talk about the number of victims there, which far exceeded the number of victims in the areas controlled by the Syrian government.

The media and social media in Assad-controlled areas are subject to great censorship by the Syrian government security forces, as civilians in these areas are afraid of showing any sympathy for the people in the northwest. We recently documented an arrest carried out by the regime’s security forces of a citizen from Homs who called his relatives in the north of the country to check on their health after the earthquake.

The aid donations that have flowed into the country from the UN, people in Arab nations and other countries have not been reaching those in the northwest, with many saying much of the aid has been diverted into areas controlled by the Syrian government as well as being illegally sold in Syria’s markets.

Dozens of photos have been circulated by activists in Damascus and Aleppo that appear to show influential members of the Assad regime to be involved. It is little wonder that Assad is now being called “the aid thief”.

The first earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, hit Syria at 4.17am on Monday 6 February. A second quake, measuring 7.5, hit nine hours later.

According to official statistics published by the volunteer Syrian Civil Defence organisation, or White Helmets as they are better known, 2,274 civilians died in north-western Syria as a result of the quakes.

In the week since the disaster, the United Nations has admitted that it has been unable to provide help to the Syrians in the northwest of the country.

The Idlib region and the area around Aleppo are home to more than five million Syrians, most of whom have been displaced after years of attacks from the Syrian army, whose mission is supposedly to protect Syrians.

Martin Griffiths, the UN’s under-secretary-general and the emergency relief coordinator, said: “We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.”

This prompted Syrian activist and journalist Muhammad Tata to set up a fund to collect donations from the afflicted to the United Nations, an ironic action intended to criticise the international body’s inability to meet the urgent calls for aid.

Many destroyed buildings have been adorned with the official flag of the United Nations, and signs placed on the rubble saying “We died…Thank you for letdown.”

After the quake, it took many days before the Syrian government approved the opening of crossings from Turkey to facilitate the entry of aid, and this at a time when the Assad regime did not even recognise the earthquake victims in Idlib and area around Aleppo – the official government death toll left out those in areas not controlled by the government. When al-Salam and al-Rahi crossings were finally opened, Assad was accused of doing so for political gain.

“They who died survived, and they who survived died” is a phrase now used by hundreds of Syrians on social media, amid wholesale grief and mourning for loved ones and friends and international impotence.

Rizik Al-Abi’s fee for this article will be given to those affected by the earthquake in Syria