Reporter Kidnapped, Beaten in Northeast Syria

WASHINGTON — Tuesday started like any other day for Jindar Barakat. The reporter, who works part time at a currency exchange, was opening up the store in the northeastern Syrian city of Al-Hasakah.

But instead of customers, masked men in military uniform filled the store.

"They were probably five men, all masked up," Barakat said. "Two of them captured me, while the rest started to search the store, seizing my cellphone and other personal belongings."

The 33-year-old was confused, but as he was blindfolded and bundled into a nearby vehicle, he suspected he was being targeted for his reporting for Yekiti Media.

The news website is affiliated with the Kurdish Yekiti Party in Syria, one of several political parties that oppose the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the de facto ruling party in northeast Syria.

The PYD and its affiliated military force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), control large parts of north and eastern Syria. The SDF has been a major U.S. partner in the fight against the Islamic State terror group.

Barakat's reporting focuses on abuses carried out by the local authorities, including the arrests of activists, recruitment of children by local military forces, and corruption.

As he was driven away, Barakat tried to make sense of what was happening.

"I asked them to identify themselves, but they were very harsh with me. I knew they were affiliated with the PYD because of their uniforms and also because they didn't stop on checkpoints," Barakat told VOA.

"I was blindfolded and handcuffed, and they kept beating me and insulting me," he said.

About an hour later, the vehicle stopped, and Barakat said he was taken to what felt like an empty room.

"They kept me blindfolded and tied my already cuffed hands to a rope and pulled it upward," he said. "They beat me on my back, neck and the back of my hands."

As he was being beaten, Barakat said his captors told him they didn't like his media work and Facebook posts. But "they didn't point to a particular article or post," he said.

Neither the press office at the PYD-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) nor the local security service known as Asayish responded to VOA's requests for comment.

After several hours, Barakat was dropped without his phone at the side of the road, about 15 kilometers from his home. The journalist walked to a nearby house to borrow a phone to call a cab.

Images he shared with VOA showed bruising to his hands, the back of his neck, and his stomach.

"Their objective was to intimidate me and deter me in my work as a journalist," he said. But "I won't be afraid of them."

Risky beat

Since the beginning of Syria's conflict in 2011, the PYD-run semiautonomous region has largely been seen as friendly to international journalists.

But it's a different story for local reporters, who can be detained, harassed or attacked for coverage deemed too critical of local authorities.

Red lines for media often include major corruption cases, oil deals made by the local administration and military matters, particularly those related to terrorism.

Security forces in the northeastern city of Qamishli last month briefly detained eight reporters and personnel from international and regional news organizations who were covering a demonstration against the recruitment of children by local military forces.

History of harassment

Barakat was first harassed over his reporting in 2015. It was the first of at least three occasions where he has been detained or taken for questioning by different security agencies, local news reported.

Last month, a stun grenade was thrown at the balcony of his apartment. He believes those responsible are part of the local security apparatus.

The incident was widely reported in Kurdish and regional media. The regional AANES security forces did not comment publicly on the incident.

Tuesday's beating was condemned by the General Union of Kurdish Writers and Journalists in Syria.

In a statement, the union demanded that "the perpetrators be brought to a fair trial by independents, and in the presence of independent human rights organizations."

Radwan Badini, a professor of politics and journalism at Iraq's Salahaddin University-Erbil, said the violence against journalists in northeast Syria is alarming.

"This is increasingly becoming a regular occurrence, which will necessarily threaten the margin of press freedom that journalists in northeast Syria enjoy," he told VOA.

While the northeast generally has a better climate for media than the rest of Syria, the country as a whole has a poor media freedom record. It ranks 173 out of 180 countries, where one is freest, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

"The risk of arrest, abduction or death makes journalism extremely dangerous and difficult," according to RSF's World Press Freedom Index.

Source: Voice of America