I was holding my breath.
The 11 Syrian journalists I had escorted to the airport were lined up at the Passport Control office in the Istanbul airport. This was the last step, the last hurdle, before they could board a plane to Madrid, to safety, to freedom. But I knew not to get too excited. The sleepless nights, the endless misunderstandings and miscommunications, and the never-ending discussions with Turkish migration officials had taught me better. And the plane was leaving in 15 minutes.
One at a time, I watched as each journalist left the office. And then I got a text message: Everyone was on the plane!
This was it. This was the end of 10 months of tireless work by our staff at the Committee to Protect Journalists and our partners to help relocate nearly 70 journalists. All of the journalists and their families had been stuck in Syria, stranded and fearing for their lives. Now, they were on their way to France, Germany, and Spain, thanks to our relentless petitioning to allow them entry. The United Nations was indispensable too - they helped us coordinate these diplomatic efforts.
I had brought these 11 journalists to the airport so they could fly to Spain. Some of them were on tenterhooks, besides themselves at the prospect of seeing their families again. Nour al-Rifaai was one of them. He was a reporter for the Syrian broadcaster Al-Jisr and had spent a month in an Idlib jail run by the militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. He was accused of spying for foreign powers simply because he had my name in his cellphone. His colleague, Mohamad Rajaai, a stringer for The Intercept and The Economist who had survived the siege of Madaya and the relentless shelling by forces aligned with Bashar al-Assad, was also on the flight. He, too, was headed to Spain.
It was a good day. But it was just one day.
The ongoing military offensive on Idlib by Assad-aligned forces has left the Syrian journalists with nowhere to turn
We know a majority of journalists’ lives are in danger in Syria. They report the news while facing threats from all sides of the war: the Syrian Army and its allies, neighboring countries like Turkey, and opposition groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Kurdish security forces or the Free Syrian Army. Today, they are scattered across the northwestern Syrian governorate of Idlib, the last and rapidly dwindling stronghold of the Syrian opposition that hosts 3 to 4 million people who are now fleeing to the Turkish border. The ongoing military offensive on Idlib by Assad-aligned forces has left the Syrian journalists with nowhere to turn. And it has put them in mortal danger.
We must not turn our backs on them now. For years, the world has relied on news about the war, in recent years disseminated by Syrian citizen journalists as fewer and fewer international journalists reported from the country. This was especially true following the emergence of the militant group Islamic State and the cruel beheadings of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
Europe must do its share by opening its borders to journalists at imminent risk
But, as Yara Bader, director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, points out, “after nine years of conflict, there is ‘Syria fatigue’ and a lack of international interest in the fate of Syrian journalists and media workers.”
The decision announced yesterday by Turkey to allow border crossings in Idlib for 72 hours, essentially allowing Syrian refugees free passage to Europe, is a step in the right direction. This would ease the dire humanitarian situation in Idlib. But more needs to be done. Europe must do its share by opening its borders to journalists at imminent risk, those who risk being deported if they fail to reach Europe.
If there’s one thing CPJ learned from its unprecedented, year-long effort to relocate the Syrian journalists, it’s this: cooperation between countries, international organizations, and press freedom watchdogs can literally keep journalists alive. We must all do our part. It is literally a matter of life or death.