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

Who is 2021’s Tyrant of the Year? WINNER ANNOUNCED

At the end of every year, Index on Censorship launches a campaign to focus attention on human rights defenders, artists and journalists who have been in the news headlines during the past twelve months and their oppressors.

This year, we asked for your help in identifying the Tyrant of the Year. There was fierce competition, with many rulers choosing to use the cover of Covid lockdowns to crack down on their opponents.

Heartbreakingly there was fierce competition – with too many repressive regimes in the running. However, your views were clear.

The crown for the most oppressive Tyrant of 2021 goes to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.  

We can think of a few reasons why Erdoğan claimed the top spot. He refuses to release civil society leader Osman Kavala, imprisoned since 2017 despite being acquitted twice. Student LGBTQ+ artwork and campaigning on International Women’s Day has also led to arrests in the country.

He has also, perhaps ironically, become the first European leader to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on violence against women. Kurds have also continuously seen their rights to freedom of expression curtailed while opposition politicians such as the Democracy and Progress Party’s Metin Gurcan have also been jailed for criticising the president. 

While Erdoğan topped this year’s poll, two other names pulled in plenty of votes: China’s Xi Jinping came in second with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad following closely in third.

The December poll saw huge amounts of traffic on our website with thousands of votes cast. We also saw the number of cyber attacks on our site double during the period, suggesting that it had annoyed some of those in the poll or their supporters.

We give thanks to all those who voted, to those continuing to loudly criticise tyrants globally, and remind everyone to stay vigilant to those seeking to silence them and us all.

Syrian journalist says UK is dealing with Assad as “a president, not a criminal”


Credit: Joseph Willits, Caabu

Journalist Zaina Erhaim says the Syrian government wants her killed and that co-operating with Syrian officials, by seizing her passport, was a very dangerous thing for the UK to have done. “It’s obvious that they are still dealing with Assad as a president, not a criminal.”

Erhaim, a Chevening scholar and award-winning reporter, had her passport confiscated by British officials when she flew into London to take part in a literature festival with former BBC foreign correspondent Kate Adie. Erhaim, who won the 2016 Index award for journalism, voiced concern that the actions of officials in the UK suggested that they condoned the Syrian government. “They were speaking about the regime with really tender language as if was a legitimate government,” she said.

The journalist was speaking at a press conference, organised by the Council for Arab-British Understanding, in conjunction with Index on Censorship, Reporters Without Borders, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and the Frontline Club. Her passport was seized at Heathrow on September 22 after being reported as stolen by the Syrian government.

Erhaim considers herself to be lucky because she has another passport, even if it is now full. She is also thankful that she works for an international organisation, speaks English and has the support of other journalists.

“If this happened to another Syrian who doesn’t have another valid passport and he or she’s not supported, what would happen?,” she asked. “Because if [border officials] are following the rules, they should deport him or her back to Damascus.”

Another major concern for her is making sure European governments are not able to deport Syrians fleeing from war in the future without the press being informed.

She said: “I’m not optimistic that the Home Office is going to be doing something about the situation, I’m not optimistic that my passport is going to be returned, and even if it’s returned I don’t think I would be able to use it again.”

When asked what a future without her passport holds, Erhaim said: “I believe this is going to be the last trip abroad I’m making. This is not as scary as not being able to go back to Turkey because all my family is there, the father of my baby is there. I don’t have my exit stamp for Turkey because that’s on the new passport. So they might ask me, ‘Where is your exit stamp?’ and not allow me in, which is really scary.”

If Erhaim is unable to gain access to Turkey, the only other option she sees at the moment is to stay in Britain or another European country where she holds a visa and seek asylum. This is a prospect she currently rejects. “I’m not ready for that,” she said.

Erhaim’s future may be uncertain but she will continue to fight and will only consider asking for asylum if she was threatened in Turkey or survived an assassination attempt.

“I would rather be stuck in Turkey than here, and I will try to go back.”

Also read:

Index condemns UK’s seizure of award winner’s passport

Podcast: How are women journalists shaping war reporting today?

Zaina Erhaim: “I want to give this award to the Syrians who are being terrorised”

Zaina Erhaim: Balancing work and family in times of war

War reporter Marie Colvin’s family sues Syria

The family of murdered journalist and Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin has filed a lawsuit against the Syrian government, accusing it of being responsible for her death while she was reporting in the country in 2012.

The suit, filed to a federal court in Washington, alleges that Colvin was killed in a deliberate attack, planned by President Bashar al-Assad’s government, to silence the media “as part of its effort to crush political opposition”.

Colvin, a veteran war reporter, was killed alongside French photojournalist Remi Ochlik when a rocket attack was launched against a makeshift broadcast studio in the rebel-controlled area of Baba Amr in Homs, the country’s third city.

Colvin’s work and legacy is discussed in the latest issue of Index on Censorship magazine, which has a special report on the risks of reporting worldwide. In a piece debating whether journalists should work in war zones, Channel 4 New’s Lindsey Hilsum writes: “In February 2012, Marie and photographer Paul Conroy crawled through a sewer to get to Homs, as the Syrian regime’s bombs turned the buildings of rebel-controlled Baba Amr to burnt-out carcasses and rubble. In her dispatches, Marie described the makeshift beds on which children slept underground to avoid the bombs, the operations without anaesthetic, the despair of people who felt they had been abandoned by the world. It was classic, old-fashioned eyewitness reporting […]

“Marie felt she had a responsibility to report; she refused to leave it to YouTube. Yet, on this occasion, the risk was too great. Was she brave, or – in her own words – was it bravado? Either way, we are all the poorer because Marie Colvin is no longer reporting from Syria.”

Read the full piece in the latest issue of Index on Censorship magazine.