HTS says it will loosen its grip on press, albeit with ‘constraints’

AMMAN: Hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) announced on Monday that the rebel faction will take new steps to secure a “free and independent” press in opposition-held Idlib amid complaints from local journalists of harassment, torture and kidnapping in the province.

The HTS statement called on local authorities and Idlib civilians to assist and cooperate with reporters, while stressing the importance of journalism in opposition-held areas within “Islamic and professional constraints.”

Monday’s announcement, released via Telegram, comes a day after the rebel coalition announced that it ended its controversial practice of requiring work permits for journalists operating in areas under its control in northwest Syria.

Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, led by former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra, is a coalition of primarily Islamist rebel factions in Idlib province. The group controls Idlib’s provincial capital as well as other major population centers in the countryside.

In a separate statement released by HTS on Saturday, the faction said it is now forbidding the arrest of journalists working with news agencies and media outlets, regardless of whether or not they have official permission to work as a journalist in Idlib.

Previously, journalists and photographers operating in Idlib had to apply for special permission from HTS before doing any reporting in areas it controls. Journalists applying for permission were subjected to long waits and probing background checks, an Idlib-based journalist named Husam told Syria Direct over WhatsApp.

Journalism training session in Idlib city, March 2017. Photo courtesy of Edlib Media Center.

Husam is an Aleppo native who relocated to Idlib when rebels evacuated the city’s eastern neighborhoods in December 2016. He said he has been arrested twice by HTS in recent months, and expressed pessimism that the hardline coalition would actually stop detaining journalists. 

“HTS is just looking to improve its image with this decree,” he said.

HTS spokesman Mujahid told Syria Direct on Tuesday that the decision to loosen HTS’s grip on the local press came after several journalists faced “harassment” while on the job. Mujahid did not elaborate on what kind of harassment they faced, or from whom.

Husam is one of several journalists who told Syria Direct for this report that since forming in January 2017, HTS has used regime-like tactics to restrict freedom of the press in Idlib province under the guise of security. Many journalists, like Husam, say that HTS has confiscated their cameras and cellphones before detaining them without charge.

“Journalists in Idlib face grave danger in their work,” said Husam. “Anything with even a hint of criticism towards HTS can’t be published—it could put us in danger.”

Protests against the rebel coalition or reporting near military buildings, checkpoints and areas with HTS fighters are off-limits for reporters, Husam said. The faction also warns journalists against reportage that can be considered harmful or contrary to the Syrian revolution—vague terms that push journalists like Husam into self-censorship.

HTS spokesman Emad Mujahid told Syria Direct last week before the decision was issued that there are “no restrictions” on journalists in Idlib. However, if one were to publish something deemed harmful, “he will be held accountable.”

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.