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Journalism in Syria is fast becoming a one-way ticket to death

Journalists report the news - but who reports on their safety?

Atul V Mohan
16 September 2013

When an area becomes lined with conflict, internal strife and resonates with constant fire fights and bombings, the citizens flee, shops close and the area gets deserted. Even when the situations are so intense that the Red Cross or volunteers from similar organizations leave, there will still be journalists on the scene. They will still be covering the news for readers worldwide, including the hazard of interviewing various political or military leaders in conflict zones. We have seen great journalists like Robert Fisk, John Wiener, Peter Arnett etc who were able to do their jobs exceedingly well because of an unwritten gentleman’s agreement that during a conflict or a war, unarmed personnel not involved in the conflict shall not be harmed, least of all a deputed volunteer from organizations like the UN or a journalist. But lately, we have seen atrocities committed and injustice meted out at journalists in such areas. Syria has reigned top of the list since the crisis began.

Journalism in Syria is quickly becoming a one-way ticket to death. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent organization founded for the betterment of journalists worldwide maintains that at least 36 journalists have been killed in 2013, out of which a whopping 17 were reporting the news in Syria, making Syria the only country whose journalist mortality rate is in the two-figures. Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), a France-based international nonprofit organization estimates the figure being above 25, the most recent deaths being those of Yara Abbas, a 26 year old War Reporter who was shot by a rebel sniper on May 2013 and Fidaa al Baali, a citizen journalist who passed away due to injuries sustained from government shelling on July 5, 2013.

The total death toll of reporters is said to be around 150 since the Syrian crisis began nearly two and a half years ago. The only comparison that can be drawn are with the Iraq war and Vietnamese wars, but they lasted respectively four and ten times longer. 

Syria is now officially the most dangerous place for a journalist to be; hugely tampering with the quality of news reporting from there. The dearth of talent has of course paved the way for citizen reporters whose popularity diminished after the death of Fidaa al Baali.

The Government, as opposed to providing protection to journalists, has now turned hostile towards them to the extent of jailing or detaining them for ‘doing their job’. In February 2013, 13 Syrian journalists were arrested in a raid of their office at the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression in Damascus, out of which 5 still remain incarcerated.

There has been similar oppression by the government against journalists in Pakistan, Iran, and Israel etc. The Philippines military said it would issue arrest warrants for Baker Atyani, a veteran Jordanian journalist who was filming a documentary on Abu Sayyaf, one of several military Islamist separatist groups based in and around the southern Philippines. But, he disappeared along with his crew in June 2012 and is presumed dead or kidnapped. Hundreds of journalists continue to be jailed in Turkey and around 800 face charges. Journalists were put on trial on terrorism charges for interviewing members of the KCK (Koma Civakên Kurdistan), an alleged terrorist organization in Turkey. Ertugrul Mavioglu, an investigative journalist based in Turkey told the Guardian that "The government wants to set an example; it wants to intimidate”. He added "Journalists are being told: there are limits on what you are allowed to say.”

The biggest danger a journalist in Syria faces is the possibility of getting killed, either by mistake or by a planned assassination. While most of these deaths could be attributed to bad luck, being at the wrong place at the wrong time, there have been instances where journalists were assassinated for political reasons. Death of journalists has led to few professionals willing to relay eyewitness accounts of the crisis. All that remain are citizens reporting and as well as being killed, they could be heavily infleuenced or corrupted by government or rebel forces. Even with organizations like the UN, the International Press Institute (IPI), Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) etc. there is no way of guaranteeing the lives of journalists in Syria.

Journalists are needed to help keep a balance of power and freedom of speech and expression. For them it is not just a job; it is their duty. They must not be harmed. A countermeasure could be to set up an international organization supported by the UN, with jurisdiction to try countries for their use of force against reporters. Reporters should also be given some amount of immunity, not different from the one diplomats enjoy. Only then can the profession of journalism be kept true to its purpose.

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