Turkey's no longer a safe haven for Syria's exiled journalists
Published 02/01/2016 | 02:30
Last Sunday was to be Naji al-Jerf's last day in Gaziantep, the Turkish town where the Syrian journalist and activist lived with his wife and two young daughters after fleeing their war-torn homeland.
The family was due to leave the following day for a new life in France, where they would be far from the threats that had become a daily occurrence even in what they had previously considered to be the relative safety of Turkey. But Jerf never made it out.
On the day of their planned departure, his wife Bushra was instead burying him in a nearby hilltop cemetery.
Jerf (37), was gunned down that afternoon after getting some takeaway lunch for his family at a local restaurant in Gaziantep, a town which, due to its proximity to the Syrian border, has become a hub for refugees and activists.
Eyewitnesses said a masked gunman shot him twice using a pistol fitted with a silencer before fleeing in an unlicensed vehicle. No one has yet claimed responsibility but suspicion has fallen on Isil. Jerf was an active campaigner against the Isil militants who found opportunity in the uprising he had believed in from the beginning.
"Now you will have the freedom that you wanted," his wife, swathed in the flag adopted by the Syrian opposition, cried as his coffin was lowered into the grave. "Now you will have the peace that you wanted."
From Salamia, a town near the restive city of Hama, Jerf was a filmmaker and newspaper editor who had joined the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad from its early, more innocent, days in 2011. He was an example of the idealistic activists who tried to spark in Syria what had happened elsewhere in the region but who now find themselves sidelined in a vicious, multi-sided conflict that rages with no end in sight. A war too often reduced now to a simple Assad versus Isil narrative.
"It is terrifying that there are Syrians who have dedicated so much for principle and stood against tyranny and extremism yet (with) no real recognition," Rami Jarrah, another Syrian journalist and friend of Jerf's, wrote on his Facebook page. "It is lost in this mess of misinformation that says that there are two sides fighting (Assad and Isil) with little mention of those that oppose both wrongs. Those like Naji."
Jerf helped document Isil's abuses inside Syria and had recently broadcast a documentary on the militants on a major Arab satellite channel. The film, which examined Isil's activities in Aleppo and its deadly campaign against anti-Assad activists there, prompted several death threats against him.
Jerf also worked with Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a network of activists seeking to chronicle, at great risk, abuses in the self-proclaimed "capital" of Isil's so-called caliphate.
If it is confirmed that Isil sent assassins to shoot Jerf dead, it would be the third such case of a Syrian journalist killed on Turkish soil, and yet another chilling message to those dedicated to revealing what Isil is doing inside Syria. Isil recently claimed it had assassinated two Syrian journalists - Ibrahim Abdel Qader and Fares Hamadi - who were found decapitated in the southeastern city of Sanliurfa.
Like Jerf, the two were members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, a spokesman for the network, says he believes Isil targeted Jerf because of his link to it.
As a result of these killings, fellow activists and citizen journalists increasingly believe they are in danger in Turkey, once considered a haven from the horrors of the war over the border.
"Syrian journalists who have fled to Turkey for their safety are not safe at all," said Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
"We call on Turkish authorities to bring the killers of Naji Jerf to justice swiftly and transparently, and to step up measures to protect all Syrian journalists on Turkish soil."
A total of 69 journalists across the world were killed because of their work in 2015, according to figures collated in a CPJ report published this week.
Of those, 40pc died at the hands of militant groups such as al-Qa'ida or Isil. More than two-thirds were deliberately targeted, and more than half, like Jerf, had received threats before they were killed.
Syria is widely considered the most dangerous story of all, with the risk of kidnapping or death deterring most journalists from reporting on the ground there. The resulting vacuum of proper information was something that Jerf and his colleagues sought to address.
That vital work has now become even more risky, with the dangers following them all the way to Turkey.