Syrian journalists threatened by neighbouring states, as Syria remains second most dangerous country in the world for reporters, RSF and SCM warn

As diplomatic relations warm between Bashar al-Assad and neighbouring leaders, Syrian reporters exiled to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Türkiye face the threat of deportation to Syria, where they risk imprisonment and even death. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and its local partner, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) warn that Syria, ranked 179/180 on the world press freedom index, remains as dangerous as ever for news professionals and calls for the protection of Syrian journalists in exile.

Syrian journalists in Lebanon have to disappear to survive. “In Syria, we hid to avoid imprisonment and death. In exile, we hide to avoid deportation to Syria, which would lead to our imprisonment and death. It’s almost the same situation, one step removed.” It’s a concise summary of the situation, according to a 31-year-old freelance journalist from Damascus residing in Beirut who requested anonymity. Although his paperwork has been in order since he arrived in Lebanon in 2020, an officer of the general security office threatened him in April, upon finding out his profession: “You got lucky with your residency,”  the officer told him. “Next time, we’re deporting you.”

He is one of several reporters in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, in addition to Türkiye,  living and working in fear of being sent back to Syria where they risk imprisonment and death.

Despite their different political contexts, all four countries have adopted measures to justify the deportation of Syrian refugees, often under the guise of “voluntary return”. No provisions were made in these countries to protect Syrian journalists with arrest warrants in Syria from being caught in the net of arrests and deportations.

“Syrian journalists residing in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Türkiye are living in constant fear of arrest and deportation. If sent back to Syria, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, they risk imminent arrest and even death. We call on the governments receiving them, and on the international community as a whole, to afford them protections and guarantees. They must not, under any circumstances, be sent back to the regime that continues to persecute them.” said Jonathan Dagher, Head of RSF’s Middle-East desk.

”Syria remains unsafe, with journalists facing the risk of arrest, abduction, and murder. Therefore, we call on neighbouring countries—Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq—to fulfil their responsibilities towards Syrian journalists who have taken refuge there, provide them with protection, and not forcibly return them to Syria, where their lives would be in danger.” said Ebaa Munzer, Coordinator of the Media and Freedoms Program at SCM.

Pressures in neighbouring countries

At least three other Syrian reporters in Lebanon have reached out to RSF in May 2024 requesting urgent support to leave the country, all citing fears of deportation amid rising hostilities toward Syrian refugees. One of them, a freelance journalist wanted by Bachar al-Assad’s forces for his reporting in Damascus, was detained after a visit to the French embassy in Beirut following an interview as part of his asylum request process request. Security forces released him four days later, giving him a month to fix his papers or leave the country.

In Jordan, security forces detained Atiya Mohammad Abu Salem, a media student and freelance journalist, while he was covering a protest in Amman in support of Gaza. His arrest on 9 April came as part of a wider campaign of detaining reporters, and he remained in detention for over a month, threatened with deportation to Syria, before eventually obtaining his release on 29 May. In Iraq, a journalist who also requested anonymity fears deportation and consequent arrest in his home country, where an arrest warrant has been issued against him and his family since 2019.

Persecution with political cover

On 1st May 2023, the foreign ministers of Jordan and Iraq authored a statement with other arab foreign ministers, stating that the “the voluntary and safe return of refugees to their country is a top priority,” and that “the necessary steps must be taken to start implementing it immediately, in addition to strengthening cooperation between the Syrian government and the countries hosting refugees.” On 12 May, the Iraqi interior minister announced in a press conference with his Syrian counterpart, the launch of a joint “security cooperation” between the two countries, which consisted of several agreements, including the “extradition of wanted fugitives” back to Syria. On 27 May, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced in a conference in Brussels that Lebanon had a “clear and specific action plan” for the return of Syrian refugees to Syria. The next day, his government formed a cabinet to negotiate with the Syrian government on the matter.

Syria ranks 179 out of 180 on world press freedom index 

In 2024, Syria fell to the 179th rank out of 180 countries on RSF’s press freedom index, with more than 25 media professionals still in prison, 6 still forcibly disappeared, 3 disappeared, 38 still held hostage, and at least 283 killed since the start of the Syrian revolution – including 3 in 2022 and one in 2023. Journalists who end up deported there face the risk of disappearance, kidnapping, and death.