The situation for journalists around the world is getting tougher. Political leaders oppress, persecute and prevent reporters in their work and freedom of expression and democracy are threatened in many places. Rowa Alkhatib is one of the many vulnerable journalists who fled their country to save their lives.
Your hands are tied behind your back and your hearing is shielded with covers. Your eyes are covered and through a gap all you see is flickering light and shadows moving around you. An uncomfortable handcuff turns your arms behind your back and someone abruptly places you on a hard wooden chair. You are a journalist and have at a national border been taken to a threatening interrogation about your latest trip.
Imagine that during your journey as a journalist you met several people who gave you valuable information that you must report on, but first you must be released from the interrogation - with the information and life intact. To mislead the interrogator, you tell a lie about your journey, but his follow-up questions reveal more and more holes in your story. The pulse is pounding hard and stress makes it difficult to think rationally. Suddenly a painful ear file slams over your cheek and the sound of the palm hitting echoes. Whoever interrogates you knows that you are lying. The threats are getting worse and you realize that whether you are lying or telling the truth, you are completely powerless in the interrogation room.
I get the opportunity to try a fictional interrogation that imitates the situation above through Reporters without Borders Interrogation Room in Almedalen. I always know that I am really safe, but for more and more journalists around the world, uncertainty is instead the harsh reality. According to Reporters Without Borders Global press freedom index 2019 increased hostility to free media compared to previous years.
Rowa Alkhatib is a well-known Syrian journalist who fled her homeland as a result of threats, harassment and the difficult life that became her everyday life. I meet her in Almedalen after a captivating seminar on journalists and democracy where she told parts of her story. We sit down for a chat in a reasonably secluded tent to avoid the crowds that create a lively background murmur.
During the seminar, Rowa Alkhatib spoke about her tough working conditions as a journalist in Syria. Because she chose not to join the regime of the Al Bath party, her life was marred by precarious employment where her salary consisted of food stamps and a total lack of all rights as a journalist. According to Rowa, the Syrian regime did what it could to oppose the reporters who reported objectively or were outside the ruling party. When I ask why she decided to flee, she replies that it was not really a choice.
- Men in black uniforms and masks came into my apartment at night. I screamed and my father and sister came and tried to help, but the men put weapons against their heads. Seven hours later I moved, says Rowa.
The men took what they wanted from the apartment and beat Rowa all over his body with the back of their rifles. When the black-clad men, who came from the intelligence service, left the apartment, Rowa was told by a friend, a colleague who was a member of the Al Bath party, that she had to leave the country before 10 o'clock the next morning. The person who tipped Rowa was later murdered by the regime in Syria.
Joanna Kurosz, freedom of expression expert at Sida, says that the situation for freedom of expression, democracy and human rights in general is deteriorating in the world.
- Regimes that are not interested in having democracy in their country learn from each other how to oppose journalists. In Russia, for example, in recent years people have not only targeted journalists, but also people who do not perceive themselves as critics of the regime or opposition, says Joanna Kurosz.
Thanks to the warning from her friend, Rowa was able to get to Turkey, after first fleeing to Lebanon where she was robbed by the military at a checkpoint. I ask what was going on in her mind and what she felt during the escape.
- I have no idea, I do not know. I had no feelings then. I was shocked and you do not have time to think. I was in a lot of pain during that time because of all the weapons I got, she answers.
After a difficult time in Turkey, Rowa decided to travel across the Mediterranean like so many other Syrian refugees. The trip finally took her to Sweden where she currently works as a journalist. Rowa tells me about the freedom she now experiences in her work.
- It is fantastic! From the first day I worked here, I had the opportunity to be a member of the Swedish Journalists' Association, she says with a radiant smile.
Rowa hopes to get another chance to work as a TV presenter, which she did in Syria and misses a lot.
- I hope that the journalists who come to Sweden get a chance, that the Swedish media opens the door, she says.