People's Stories Freedom

350 US newspapers issue coordinated rebuke of Donald Trump for attacks on press
by AP, NYT, RSF, CPJ, OHCHR, agencies
16 Aug. 2018
350 US newspapers issue coordinated rebuke of Donald Trump for attacks on press. (Reuters/AP)
350 US newspapers have launched a coordinated defence of press freedom and a rebuke of Donald Trump for denouncing media organisations as enemies of the American people. All of the newspapers ran editorials.
"A central pillar of President Trump''s politics is a sustained assault on the free press," said the editorial by the Boston Globe, which coordinated publication among more than 350 newspapers.
"The greatness of America is dependent on the role of a free press to speak the truth to the powerful.. To label the press ''the enemy of the people'' is as un-American as it is dangerous to the civic compact we have shared for more than two centuries."
The first amendment of the US constitution guarantees freedom of the press.
The Portland (Maine) Press-Herald said a free and independent press was the best defence against tyranny, while the Honolulu Star-Advertiser emphasised democracy''s need for a free press.
"The true enemies of the people — and democracy — are those who try to suffocate truth by vilifying and demonising the messenger," wrote the Des Moines Register in Iowa.
In St Louis, the Post-Dispatch called journalists "the truest of patriots".
The Chicago Sun-Times said it believed most Americans knew Mr Trump was talking nonsense.
The Fayetteville Observer said it hoped Mr Trump would stop, "but we''re not holding our breath".. "Rather, we hope all the President''s supporters will recognise what he''s doing — manipulating reality to get what he wants," the North Carolina newspaper said.
Mr Trump has frequently criticised journalists and described news reports that contradict his opinions or policy positions as fake news.
In its editorial, the New York Times wrote there was nothing wrong with being critical of the media but said there was a line.
"Insisting that truths you don''t like are ''fake news'' is dangerous to the lifeblood of democracy. And calling journalists the ''enemy of the people'' is dangerous, period."
The US Senate unanimously adopted a resolution on Thursday, affirming the "vital and indispensable role" played by the news media and declared, "the press is not the enemy of the people".
July 2018
Trump attacks on media violate basic norms of press freedom, human rights experts say. (OHCHR)
UN and Inter-American experts on freedom of expression have condemned U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the free press and urged him and his administration to cease efforts to undermine the media’s role of holding government accountable, honest and transparent.
“His attacks are strategic, designed to undermine confidence in reporting and raise doubts about verifiable facts,” said David Kaye and Edison Lanza, the Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression for the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, respectively.
The President has labelled the media as being the “enemy of the American people” “very dishonest” or “fake news,” and accused the press of “distorting democracy” or spreading “conspiracy theories and blind hatred”.
“These attacks run counter to the country’s obligations to respect press freedom and international human rights law,” the experts said. “We are especially concerned that these attacks increase the risk of journalists being targeted with violence.”
Kaye and Lanza said that, over the course of his presidency, Mr. Trump and others within his administration have sought to undermine reporting that had uncovered waste, fraud, abuse, potential illegal conduct, and disinformation.
“Each time the President calls the media ‘the enemy of the people’ or fails to allow questions from reporters from disfavoured outlets,” the experts added, “he suggests nefarious motivations or animus. But he has failed to show even once that specific reporting has been driven by any untoward motivations.
“It is critical that the U.S. administration promote the role of a vibrant press and counter rampant disinformation. To this end, we urge President Trump not only to stop using his platform to denigrate the media but to condemn these attacks, including threats directed at the press at his own rallies.. “We stand with the independent media in the United States, a community of journalists and publishers and broadcasters long among the strongest examples of professional journalism worldwide. We especially urge the press to continue, where it does so, its efforts to hold all public officials accountable.”
The experts encouraged all media to act in solidarity against the efforts of President Trump to favour some outlets over others. “Two years of attacks on the press could have long term negative implications for the public’s trust in media and public institutions,” Kaye and Lanza said. “Two years is two years too much, and we strongly urge that President Trump and his administration and his supporters end these attacks.”
* (In July, A.G. Sulzberger, Publisher of The New York Times met with Donald Trump at the Whitehouse. Following Mr. Trump’s subsequent tweets, Mr. Sulzberger decided to respond to the president’s characterization of their conversation).
Statement of A.G. Sulzberger, Publisher, The New York Times:
''My main purpose for accepting the meeting was to raise concerns about the president’s deeply troubling anti-press rhetoric. I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous.
I told him that although the phrase “fake news” is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists “the enemy of the people.” I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.
I repeatedly stressed that this is particularly true abroad, where the president’s rhetoric is being used by some regimes to justify sweeping crackdowns on journalists. I warned that it was putting lives at risk, that it was undermining the democratic ideals of our nation, and that it was eroding one of our country’s greatest exports: a commitment to free speech and a free press.. I implored him to reconsider his broader attacks on journalism, which I believe are dangerous and harmful to our country and the world''.
* The Boston Globe: The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom: NYT: Politico:
* The Washington Post reports President Trump has made 4,229 false or misleading claims in the last 558 days:
* Joel Rosenthal, President of the Carnegie Council on Mr. Trump’s Assault on Ethics:
May 2018
Rising Hostility to Media threatens Real Democracy, Emma Daly. (Human Rights Watch)
“Enemy of the people” is how more than 50 percent of Republicans see the media, according to a US poll. Two reporters are detained in Myanmar for investigating a massacre, one of two independent daily newspapers in Hungary closes, and in Afghanistan, nine journalists are killed covering a bombing. Animosity toward journalists is growing worldwide as we mark World Press Freedom Day.
Governments the world over want to control the media – without an inconveniently free press, officials find it easier to do what they want. They can claim almost 100 percent literacy rates, squander national assets on mansions abroad, forcibly disappear opponents, and hide infectious disease outbreaks or critical health data.
There are many ways to suppress the media, all of which encourage self-censorship. Dozens of countries jail journalists on dubious grounds of protecting national security, with Turkey atop this dismal league. Others use overbroad laws to silence criticism, including imprisoning journalists and bloggers for “defamation” which resulted in a Myanmar poet being jailed after writing, “On my manhood rests a tattooed/portrait of Mr President.”
In many countries it’s unlawful to insult the leadership, be it the president, the king, the “father of the nation,” or the military.
Singapore bans “scandalizing the judiciary” and Bahrain punishes “offending a foreign country.” Bureaucratic tactics also include burdensome regulations on pesky outlets and threats to withhold government advertising or limit license approvals. The countries with the tightest media controls are North Korea and Eritrea, say press freedom groups.
If legalistic strategies don’t work, governments try threats, violence, imprisonment, or murder.
We know autocrats target the media; what’s especially disturbing today is that democratically elected leaders are following suit. US President Donald Trump’s expressed disdain for the media is so severe that press freedom groups created the US Press Freedom Tracker to monitor legal and physical threats facing journalists in the land of the First Amendment, which reads “Congress shall make no law.. abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
Trump’s characterization of any reporting he doesn’t like as “fake news” has been seized upon and echoed by authoritarian circles in Syria, Venezuela, Libya, Somalia, and beyond. The Russian Foreign Ministry has a “fake news” web page that denounces critical foreign coverage and promotes conspiracy theories about “the Western media.” Malaysia has just convicted the first person charged under its new “fake news” law.
It’s not only in war zones and dictatorships that journalists take risks to hold those in power to account. And independent media are fundamental not only to a well-functioning democracy, but to anyone who wants to know whether tap water is safe for your kids to drink, if veterans are getting proper medical care, if the women in your life face sexual harassment at work or sexual assault on campus, or if the land you live on has been poisoned by industry. So today, stand up for a free press.
The 2018 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), reflects growing animosity towards journalists.
Hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies.
The climate of animosity is steadily more visible in the Index, which evaluates the level of press freedom in 180 countries each year.
Hostility towards the media from political leaders is no longer limited to authoritarian countries such as Turkey (down two at 157th) and Egypt (161st), where “media-phobia” is now so pronounced that journalists are routinely accused of terrorism and all those who don’t offer loyalty are arbitrarily imprisoned.
More and more democratically-elected leaders no longer see the media as part of democracy’s essential underpinning, but as an adversary to which they openly display their aversion.
The United States, the country of the First Amendment, has fallen again in the Index under Donald Trump, this time two places to 45th. A media-bashing enthusiast, Trump has referred to reporters “enemies of the people,” the term once used by Joseph Stalin.
The line separating verbal violence from physical violence is dissolving. In the Philippines (down six at 133rd), President Rodrigo Duterte not only constantly insults reporters but has also warned them that they “are not exempted from assassination.”
In India (down two at 138th), hate speech targeting journalists is shared and amplified on social networks, often by troll armies in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP Hindu nationalist party. In each of these countries, at least four journalists were gunned down in cold blood in the space of a year.
Verbal violence from politicians against the media is also on the rise in Europe, although it is the region that respects press freedom most.
In the Czech Republic (down 11 at 34th), President Milos Zeman turned up at a press conference with a fake Kalashnikov inscribed with the words “for journalists.” In Slovakia, (down 10 at 27th), then Prime Minister Robert Fico called journalists “filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes” and “idiotic hyenas.”
A Slovak reporter, Ján Kuciak, was shot dead in his home in February 2018, just four months after another European journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, was killed by a targeted car-bombing in Malta (down 18 at 65th).
“The unleashing of hatred towards journalists is one of the worst threats to democracies,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Political leaders who fuel loathing for reporters bear heavy responsibility because they undermine the concept of public debate based on facts instead of propaganda. To dispute the legitimacy of journalism today is to play with extremely dangerous political fire.”
Norway and North Korea, first and last again in 2018
In this year’s Index, Norway is first for the second year running, followed – as it was last year – by Sweden (2nd). Although traditionally respectful of press freedom, the Nordic countries have also been affected by the overall decline. Undermined by a case threatening the confidentiality of a journalist’s sources, Finland (down one at 4th) has fallen for the second year running, surrendering its third place to the Netherlands. At the other end of the Index, North Korea (180th) is still last.
The Index also reflects the growing influence of “strongmen” and rival models. After stifling independent voices at home, Vladimir Putin’s Russia (148th) is extending its propaganda network by means of media outlets such as RT and Sputnik, while Xi Jinping’s China (176th) is exporting its tightly controlled news and information model in Asia. Their ongoing suppression of criticism and dissent provides support to other countries near the bottom of the Index such as Vietnam (175th), Turkmenistan (178th) and Azerbaijan (163rd).
When it’s not despots, it’s war that helps turn countries into news and information black holes – countries such as Iraq (down two at 160th), which this year joined those at the very bottom of the Index where the situation is classified as “very bad.” There have never been so many countries that are coloured black on the press freedom map.
It’s in Europe, the region where press freedom is the safest, that the regional indicator has worsened most this year. Four of this year’s five biggest falls in the Index are those of European countries: Malta (down 18 at 65th), Czech Republic (down 11 at 34th), Serbia (down 10 at 76th) and Slovakia (down 10 at 27th). The European model’s slow erosion is continuing.
Ranked second (but more than 10 points worse than Europe), the Americas contain a wide range of situations. Violence and impunity continue to feed fear and self-censorship in Central America. Mexico (147th) became the world’s second deadliest country for journalists in 2017, with 11 killed. Thanks to President’s Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian excesses, Venezuela (143rd) dropped six places, the region’s biggest fall. On the other hand, Ecuador (92nd) jumped 13 places, the hemisphere’s greatest rise, because tension between the authorities and privately-owned media abated.
In North America, Donald Trump’s USA slipped another two places while Justin Trudeau’s Canada rose four and entered the top 20 at 18th place, a level where the situation is classified as “fairly good.”
Africa came next, with a score that is slightly better than in 2017 but also contained a wide range of internal variation. Frequent Internet cuts, especially in Cameroon (129th) and Democratic Republic of Congo (154th), combined with frequent attacks and arrests are the region’s latest forms of censorship. Mauritania (72nd) suffered the region’s biggest fall (17 places) after adopting a law under which blasphemy and apostasy are punishable by death even if the accused repents.
But a more promising era for journalists may result from the departure of three of Africa’s most predatory presidents, in Zimbabwe (up two as 126th), Angola (up four at 121st) and Gambia, whose 21-place jump to 122nd was Africa’s biggest.
In the Asia-Pacific region, still ranked fourth in the Index, South Korea jumped 20 places to 43rd, the Index’s second biggest rise, after Moon Jae-In’s election as president turned the page on a bad decade for press freedom. North Asia’s democracies are struggling to defend their models against an all-powerful China that exports its methods for silencing all criticism. Cambodia (142nd) seems dangerously inclined to take the same path as China after closing dozens of independent media outlets and plunging ten places, one of the biggest falls in the region.
The former Soviet countries and Turkey continue to lead the worldwide decline in press freedom. Almost two-thirds of the region’s countries are ranked somewhere near or below the 150th position in the Index and most are continuing to fall. They include Kyrgyzstan (98th), which registered one of the Index’s biggest falls (nine places) after a year with a great deal of harassment of the media including astronomic fines for “insulting the head of state.” In light of such a wretched performance, it is no surprise that the region’s overall indicator is close to reaching that of Middle East/North Africa.
According to the indicators used to measure the year-by-year changes, it is the Middle East/North Africa region that has registered the biggest decline in Media freedom. The continuing wars in Syria (117th) and Yemen (down one at 167th) and the terrorism charges still being used in Egypt (161st), Saudi Arabia (down one at 169th) and Bahrain (down two at 166th) continue to make this the most difficult and dangerous region for journalists to operate.
* Published annually by RSF since 2002, the World Press Freedom Index measures the level of media freedom in 180 countries, including the level of pluralism, media independence, the environment and self-censorship, the legal framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information. It does not evaluate government policy:
World Press Freedom Day: A brief history, by Joel Simon. (Columbia Journalism Review)
In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly came together to declare May 3 World Press Freedom Day. The date was chosen to commemorate a UN-hosted conference held in the south African country of Namibia at which participants expressed support for “independent and pluralistic media.”
If you’re yawning at this point, I forgive you. Even as someone who has devoted my career to defending the rights of journalists around the world, I find it hard to get excited each year when World Press Freedom Day rolls around. Governments that routinely violate the rights of journalists emit solemn proclamations. UN agencies host international conferences at which everyone speaks and nothing gets done.
Then there is the chilling data. More than 260 journalists were in prison around the world at the end of last year, the highest number ever recorded by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Earlier this week, at least nine journalists were killed in a suicide attack carried out by the Islamic State in Kabul that appeared to deliberate target the media. In a separate attack that same day, a reporter for the Pashto service of the BBC was gunned down in Khost province.
This record of murder and repression is why World Press Freedom Day matters, certainly this year when the international consensus about the importance of press freedom and independent media has begun to disintegrate. For a quarter century, that consensus helped define critical global free expression policies, including those that facilitated the creation of the World Wide Web. Without it, the future of global free expression is in jeopardy.
To understand why, we need to take a historical look at how the consensus emerged. Free expression, is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a founding document of the United Nations, created in 1948. It declares that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
In the 1970s, UNESCO, the UN agency responsible for press freedom, commissioned a report which concluded that news agencies based in New York, Paris, and London were setting the global information agenda. This was undoubtedly true. But for the Soviet Union, it was also a political wedge. The solution the Soviets proposed was for governments to step in to regulate the media and establish ethical standards.
International media organizations and Western governments, including the United States, opposed the proposal, which would have gravely undermined press freedom. In 1984 the US withdrew from UNESCO in protest.
Five years later, the Soviet Union began to unravel. The Russian media, given latitude to work more freely under Glasnost (the term for Mikhail Gorbachev’s more lax government rules), challenged the historical myths at the heart of the Soviet Union and exposed corruption and incompetence that had been hidden from the public. By the time the hammer and sickle was lowered over the Kremlin in 1991, a global consensus had emerged that a free and open media could be an engine for accountability and democratic empowerment.
This notion was ratified when World Press Freedom Day was declared two years later. Over the next decade, the world witnessed an unprecedented expansion of press freedom as authoritarian leaders moved away from state control and direct censorship. It’s no coincidence that the global internet emerged during this period, as there was little ideological opposition to the creation of a shared global resource.
The trend began to reverse with the onset of the war on terror. To put it into numbers, 81 journalists were in jail around the world at the end of the 2000. By the end of the following year it jumped to 118, and it’s been an upward trajectory ever since. Today, around, the world, nearly three quarters of all journalists jailed are being held on anti-state charges. Of course, the actual war on terror has been been deadly for journalists. A record 185 journalists have been killed in Iraq by both terrorists themselves and the governments fighting them.
The next round of backsliding followed the Arab Spring in 2011. The toppling of entrenched regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, celebrated by democracy advocates, was interpreted differently by authoritarian leaders around the world. They recognized the need to control information in order to retain power, and that the internet posed a threat to this control. A new wave of online repression ensued across north African and Middle Eastern countries.
Russia, too, responded not just by restricting its own media, but by developing an offensive capability that it could deploy against countries like the US that it believed were using information to destabilize Russia.
At the moment when information is being weaponized, the historic defenders of press freedom, the US and Europe, are failing to step up. The EU is having a hard time finding its voice, perhaps because it is grappling with a press freedom crisis in two of its member states, Poland and Hungary, which are challenging democratic norms by imposing restrictions on the media through punitive media laws and control of government advertising. In Malta and Slovakia, two leading investigative journalists have been murdered.
Meanwhile, the president of the United States is engaged in permanent war with the media and declares journalists to be enemies of the American people. Donald Trump shows no interest in defending the international system that has supported press freedom for the past two decades.
Without global leadership, there is little consequence for countries that violate press freedom norms–whether it’s the Turkish government jailing journalists in record numbers or Israeli snipers shooting reporters as they cover the ongoing protests in Gaza, or a suicide bomb in Kabul targeted at journalists
In this context, I will take every World Press Freedom Day proclamation that I can get. Every public protest, every UN-hosted panel discussion, bolsters, however slightly, the global norms that for several decades supported the expansion of press freedom around the world. While it’s easy to roll your eyes at a UN-designated holiday, without a shared consensus about the value and importance of press freedom this fundamental right will fade into oblivion.
* Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Digging deeper into corruption, violence against journalists and active civil society - Transparency International
To mark the release of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2017, we analysed corruption levels around the world and looked at how they relate to civil liberties – specifically, the ability of citizens to speak out in defence of their interests and the wider public good.
Fraying civic space
As journalists and activist groups are coming under mounting pressure from governments around the world, evidence sheds new light on the vital importance of civil society organisations (CSOs) and independent media in anti-corruption efforts. Yet, CSOs working on governance and human rights issues are subject to ever-greater restrictions on their operations, while attacks on journalists are on the rise in many parts of the world.
Such crackdowns are not only deeply concerning in their own right, but they also add to an environment in which corrupt public officials, shady businesses and organised criminals are able to act with impunity.
Freedom of association and expression in the fight against corruption
As Transparency International marks its 25th anniversary this year, our experience over the last quarter-century shows that curbing corruption requires more than just introducing well-designed laws. Corrupt individuals have proven very adept at finding ways to get around formal constraints, which is why grassroots and bottom-up approaches to fighting corruption tend to be more sustainable in the long run than isolated institutional and legal reform.
Often, well-intentioned laws are poorly enforced and institutions lack the ‘teeth’ to make anti-corruption efforts truly effective. Civil society and media are essential in applying pressure and keeping governments honest and accountable.
Specifically, freedom of association, including the ability of people to form groups and influence public policy, is vital to anti-corruption. CSOs play a key role in denouncing violations of rights or speaking out against breaches of law. Similarly, a free and independent media serves an important function in investigating and reporting incidences of corruption. The voices of both civil society and journalists put a spotlight on bad actors and can help trigger action by law enforcement and the court system.
Civil liberties in retreat? What the data shows
To further examine these relationships, we explored how four leading measurements of press freedom and civil society space relate to our index of public sector corruption. In doing so, we found evidence to suggest that those countries that respect press freedom, encourage open dialogue, and allow for full participation of CSOs in the public arena tend to be more successful at controlling corruption. Conversely, countries that repress journalists, restrict civil liberties and seek to stifle civil society organisations typically score lower.
The relationship between press freedom and corruption is further underlined by data provided by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which documents cases where journalists are killed while reporting on a story. Since 2012, 368 journalists died while pursing stories and 96 per cent of those deaths were in countries with corrupt public sectors. Moreover, one in five journalists killed worldwide were investigating corruption-related stories.
The relationship between civil liberties and corruption cuts both ways. Academic research points to a vicious cycle, where widespread corruption chips away at remaining civic space and targets groups that pose a challenge to authority. At the same time, the inability of citizens to hold their governments accountable contributes to even greater abuse.
Our experience of working with more than 100 chapters around the world shows that CSOs, grassroots movements and journalists are vital for improving the quality of governance. However, respect for civil liberties, such as freedom of expression and association, is only one component of an effective anti-corruption agenda. These elements prove all the more powerful when combined with genuine political will on the part of governments to tackle problems at their root.
* Global Witness on exposing corruption:


Russia’s Responsibility in the Syrian Reconquest of Idlib
by Kenneth Roth
New York Review of Books
14 Aug. 2018
Statement by Panos Moumtzis, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, on Civilian Casualties in Northwest Syria. (OCHA)
I am appalled over the reported deaths of at least 116 civilians, many of them women and children, in Idleb and Aleppo governorates over the weekend due to ongoing violence and hostilities.
This extreme violence is completely unacceptable. I remain deeply concerned for the safety and protection of the millions of civilians living in this area, many of them displaced multiple times, and am alarmed such incidents are part of a further escalation of the conflict in the area.
A military operation in Idleb and surrounding areas similar to what was seen in other parts of Syria will not only endanger many of the more than 3 million civilians in this densely populated area, but will likely severely impact humanitarian partners’ ability to deliver life-saving assistance.
On Friday alone, heavy airstrikes on Big Orem town in western rural Aleppo Governorate reportedly killed at least 37 people, over half of whom were children, and injured dozens more.
Separately, at least nine people were reportedly killed and at least 40 people were injured, including women and children, after shelling on the town of Khan Shaykun in southern rural Idleb, while two people reportedly lost their lives after barrel bombs were dropped on the village of Tah and one person was killed in shelling on the village of Tahtay in southern rural Idleb.
On Sunday, at least 67 civilians lost their lives, 17 of them children, when a weapons and ammunition depot in a residential building near Sarmada town in northern rural Idleb Governorate exploded, injuring dozens more. Seventeen people were rescued from under the debris.
The UN condemns these horrific attacks directed against civilians and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and schools. UN-sponsored peace talks should prioritize gaining the commitment of all parties to stop attacks on such infrastructure which are essential to the civilian population.
It is imperative all parties to the conflict and those with influence over them to come to a genuine and inclusive agreement to settle the conflict in Syria in a peaceful manner, to prevent the further suffering of the Syrian people. Civilians should not and must not be a target.
The humanitarian community reminds all parties to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law to protect civilians and to spare no effort to prevent civilian casualties.
24 July 2018
Russia’s Responsibility in the Syrian Reconquest of Idlib, by Kenneth Roth.
The endgame of the war in Syria is likely to come down to the northwestern province of Idlib, on the Turkish border, where some 2.3 million people are now trapped. As Russian-Syrian forces now finish retaking the smaller southwestern province of Daraa, Idlib will be the last significant enclave in anti-government hands. If Russian-Syrian forces resume pummeling the city and surrounding area from the air, its civilians could face the horrible choice of bunkering in place or desperately trying to cross the Turkish border, which has been effectively closed since 2015.
Recently, however, there is some evidence that Russia might be willing to act more constructively. Russian officials have been seeking reconstruction aid for Syria from Western donors. According to sources close to United Nations-brokered negotiations among the parties to the Syrian conflict, Russia has floated the idea of stopping the military advance on Idlib, and perhaps handing over to Turkey a degree of control similar to that now exercised by Turkey over the neighboring region of Afrin, in return for a major Western commitment to help reconstruct Syria’s devastated cities and infrastructure. That may give the West new leverage to stop the atrocities taking place in Syria. The question is how to use it.
The Syrian war has been so extraordinarily ugly because Russian-Syrian air forces have been attacking civilians indiscriminately—and in some cases directly targeting them along with schools and hospitals. Syrian forces—with Russian backing—have also regularly used prohibited weapons such as cluster munitions, incendiary devices, and chemical weapons. There is compelling evidence that Russian forces themselves have used incendiary bombs.
The laws of war flatly prohibit these attacks, declaring them war crimes, but Presidents Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Vladimir Putin of Russia have, by their actions, ripped those laws up. This military conduct is a major reason why an estimated half a million people have been killed and more than 50 percent of Syria’s pre-war population has been displaced.
The Russian air force, in particular, has been an indispensable partner in creating this carnage, fighting alongside Syrian aircraft since 2015 and significantly bolstering the effectiveness of pro-government forces. It is a crucial reason why Assad, whose battlefield position had been tenuous, now looks likely to prevail.
Russia had an important part, for example, in the Syrian government’s aerial bombing campaigns, which led to the recapture, in 2016 and 2018 respectively, of Eastern Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta—two of the most populous enclaves once held by anti-government forces. Airstrikes killed hundreds of civilians in each area. Meanwhile, pro-government forces on the ground used crippling sieges to keep humanitarian supplies and aid workers from reaching civilians. The suffering and death toll were sufficient to force both enclaves to fall.
Russia’s official arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, is the biggest weapons supplier to the Syrian military. Russian diplomats give Assad overt political support, vetoing efforts to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court and trying to block, ultimately unsuccessfully, official investigations to identify which forces are using chemical weapons. Russian state-affiliated media such as RT and Sputnik have been at the forefront of whitewashing atrocities committed by the Russian-Syrian military alliance.
Until now, Idlib has provided a refuge for some Syrians. As anti-government enclaves fell, Syrian forces gave survivors the choice of the indignity of boarding the government’s notorious green buses to be dumped in Idlib or living in government-controlled areas where they would face the risk of reprisals—detention, torture, and execution—if they were suspected of being government opponents. For obvious reasons, many chose Idlib.
Roughly half of Idlib’s civilian population today is displaced from elsewhere in Syria. They are joined by a collection of anti-government militias that are themselves often abusive—committing summary executions, mistreating detainees, restricting humanitarian aid, and kidnapping for ransom. Now that Idlib is squeezed by pro-government troops on the ground and bombed from the air by the Russian-Syrian military alliance, there are few places left in Syria to flee.
In the past, civilians seeking to escape Russian-Syrian attacks might have crossed Idlib province’s border with Turkey, where some 3.5 million Syrian refugees now live. Since October 2015, however, Turkish security forces have routinely intercepted hundreds, and at times thousands, of asylum-seekers at the border and summarily deported them to Idlib. Fences line the border, and Turkish security forces have been firing at asylum-seekers trying to cross it irregularly, killing many and wounding others.
Whether Turkey will continue to keep its border closed to newcomers if thousands of Syrians are being slaughtered on the other side remains to be seen. But if Turkey were to experience a large new influx of asylum-seekers, few of whom would be eager to return to life under the Assad government, Ankara could face pressure from inside the country, where anti-refugee sentiment is growing, to suspend the deal it made with the European Union to curtail the flow of asylum-seekers across the Aegean Sea to Greece. Preventing a massacre in Idlib to begin with is a far better option.
Still, the Russian reconstruction proposal is controversial for several reasons, even if European governments could be persuaded to pay to rebuild cities that Russian and Syrian forces were largely responsible for destroying. There are significant concerns that, rather than allocating reconstruction aid on the basis of need, the Syrian government will prioritize areas where it perceives the residents remained loyal to it during the war. It has also divulged little about how reconstruction and recovery funds are being spent—a problem compounded by its insistence on restricting access to areas it has retaken for independent private humanitarian organizations. Syrian military and intelligence forces have already diverted large sums of humanitarian aid to line their own pockets and fund their operations, so there is every reason to fear that they would similarly divert reconstruction assistance.
What’s more, Russia has been silent about restrictions imposed by the Syrian government on the return of displaced residents to certain neighborhoods, even those that were retaken several years ago. Nor has Russia publicly opposed urban-planning schemes such as Law 10 of 2018, which allows the Syrian government to confiscate and redevelop residents’ property without due process or compensation. And Russia has done far too little to end Syria’s lawless and deadly detention practices—an enormous obstacle to return for the millions of Syrians who have fled the fighting.
In any event, the lives of Syrian civilians shouldn’t depend on payoffs and backroom deals. The alternative is to call out Russian complicity in Syria’s criminal military strategy and to vigorously press the Kremlin to end these atrocities.
Russia clearly has the necessary leverage over the Assad government to avoid a bloodbath in Idlib. Its aircraft could refuse to participate in joint offensives that indiscriminately bomb civilians and civilian infrastructure. Russia’s arms exporter could stop supplying weapons until the atrocities are halted. Its diplomats could stop shielding Syrian officials from international prosecution for their war crimes.
The key is getting Russia to use that leverage. Assad’s reputation is beyond repair—his main aspiration is to stay in power and avoid prosecution—but Putin still aspires to be treated as a respected global leader. He must be persuaded that he will fail in that quest so long as he continues to underwrite Assad’s atrocities.
This is not something that the US government under Donald Trump has shown any inclination to do, as illustrated recently by President Trump’s courting of Putin’s favor at the summit in Helsinki. The European Union is in a better position to act. If Russia wants better relations with the EU—any prospect of easing sanctions and improving its economic outlook—it should show a real willingness to end the bloodshed in Syria. It could start by protecting the 2.3 million Syrians in Idlib.
* Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch

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