Conflict & Justice

Syria: Journalists' deaths send chills through media on the ground


Khaled al-Khatib, editor of Suria Al-Hurra (Free Syria), posing with an issue of the month-old weekly newspaper which he runs with a small group of journalists in Syria's rebel-held territories. Pictured here on Jan. 6, 2013 in Aleppo, northern Syria.


JM Lopez

IDLIB, Syria — The death of two journalists in separate incidents in Syria yesterday has sent a new wave of dread through the media world covering the long-running conflict.

The deaths of Belgian reporter Yves Debay as he reported from the Aleppo frontline and Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Al-Massalma who was shot by sniper fire in Daraa Friday, mark the first two journalist fatalities this year.

Syria holds the 2012 title for the deadliest country in the world for journalists. Last year alone, 33 journalists lost their lives while reporting in Syria. This figure does not include Debay and Al-Massalma who died this year or Ferzat Jarban and Basil al-Sayed killed in Homs in 2011.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recorded 15 arrests and at least 21 journalist abductions in country last year. More than a third of that number remains missing, including James Foley, an American freelancer that reported for GlobalPost, who was abducted at gunpoint eight weeks ago.

Dozens more have been injured or expelled from the country. It is unknown how many other cases have gone unreported.

More from GlobalPost: US journalist missing in Syria

As the dangers rise, the number of journalists venturing into Syria slowly decreases. In order to keep journalists coming in and the flow of information coming out, many opposition groups are pooling their resources in an effort to reduce the risks of reporting in their areas.

“As the Free Syrian Army, our mission is to protect everyone in our area; this includes any journalist coming here,” said FSA fighter Muhamad Raslan after posting a YouTube declaration on behalf of the Syrian Martyrs Brigades announcing the establishment of an office to protect reporters. “They come so far to show the people the reality of what is happening here.”

Over the past year, Raslan had assisted Foley, hosting him in his home in Frkir, Jabal al-Zawia.

“After James [Foley]’s capture and the NBC group, I approached Jamal Marouf,” Raslan said in reference to the head of the Syrian Martyrs coalition who commands around 22,000 rebel fighters. “I told him we have the ability to help protect journalists from this. But we need cars, soldiers. He was very happy about this."

On Dec. 18, the Islamic opposition group Alhurra al-Sham freed five from the US-based television news channel NBC, including repoter Richard Engel, as they were being smuggled through a checkpoint in the Idlib district. The team had been abducted, supposedly by government militia, five days before.

Since the early days of the conflict, reporters have relied on opposition forces that have willingly provided transport and protection on an informal basis.

In response to the increase in kidnappings, the Syrian Martyrs Brigades are now in the process of setting up an official office dedicated to providing accommodation, translation and armed transport in both Jabal al-Zawia and Aleppo.

“Circumstances here now are very bad. We are ready to bring journalists to dangerous areas where they cannot travel alone,” said Marouf during an interview in his home in Jabal al-Zawia last week. “If every reporter that comes to Syria comes with us, Inshallah, there will be no more kidnapping.

More from GlobalPost: "The War for Idlib" begins

As reporters become increasing reliant on one side of the conflict for protection, some argue that their neutrality may be comprised.

CPJ program coordinator Sherif Mansour reasoned that foreign journalists are left with no choice but to smuggle themselves into the country with the aid of opposition groups.

“I think that the essence of the problem is the Syrian government’s continuation of its media blackout by barring entry to most international journalists and controlling local news coverage,” Mansour said.

CPJ ranked Syria among the 10 Most Censored Countries in the world. According to their annual country report, Syria had more than double the number of journalist deaths than its nearest rival, Somalia.

Some of those killed, like Debay, have been caught in the crossfire or aerial bombardment by government forces. Others appear to have been deliberately targeted by sniper fire as was the case with Al-Massalma.

In the early days, just entering the country was a dangerous ordeal that often involved sneaking through military zones, government checkpoints and facing arrest, imprisonment or death if you chose the wrong path.

Now, as opposition forces gain in strength and territory, the threats have become more obscure. Heading into Syria’s third year of conflict, insecurity is now widespread and the threat of abduction has become a very real problem.

The motives and those behind them vary greatly.

Mansour said CPJ’s research has revealed an involvement by various sides of the conflict, including government or pro-government militias; rebel or rebel-affiliated groups; and non-Syrian Islamic extremist groups.

With so many possibilities, finding those missing is becoming increasingly difficult. Brigade Commander Ayachi Abdel Rahman is heading the search for four missing journalists on behalf of the Suquar al-Sham Islamic coalition, working alongside domestic and international groups.

"If it’s not the government that took them, it may be a criminal gang who just want money,” he said. “It may be an Islamist group who think, maybe in the future, they can use them as leverage.”

Rahman said there is also a risk from extremist groups who see journalists as spies.

“They don’t want the US and Europe to have eyes on them so they may capture reporters to send a warning to others,” he explained.

Rahman said among the opposition forces the groups that pose a threat to journalists are small in number. The majority sees foreign journalists as crucial in exposing the savagery of the Syrian government.

"They are to our advantage, not to the advantage of the regime or it would have allowed entry to journalists to cover the conflict,” Rahman said.

Many other groups within the Free Syrian Army have also joined the search for Foley and others.

Rahman said the only way to stop abductions like this is through better cooperation between the various opposition groups and pressure on any groups that might be tempted to commit this crime.

“We must make problems over these cases so they will stop and there will no longer be any interest in doing this again. These actions are damaging to the revolution on so many levels,” he said.