Syria: When reporting becomes a crime

Thursday, January 23, 2014
A poster calling for the release of French journalists Didier Francois, Edouard Elias, Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres hangs in Paris. Francois, Elias, Henin and Torres were abducted in Syria in June, 2013. PHOTO: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
by Blanca López-Bonet Every Wednesday, a group gathers outside the offices of Barcelona-based newspaper El Periodico de Catalunya at 5:00 p.m. chanting, “Freedom for Marc Marginedas” (ES). Marginedas is a veteran war correspondent for El Periodico, and was on assignment covering the Syrian conflict when he was kidnapped in September, 2013. Marginedas was last heard from on September 4. He had been working on an article about a village that had been attacked by Syrian government forces, but was captured by jihadists near Hama, in the west of Syria before he could file his story. A similar fate befell Javier Espinosa, a Spanish journalist for El Mundo newspaper, and Ricardo García Vilanova, a Catalan freelance photographer. They were reportedly kidnapped by members of a jihadist group, The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), while crossing the border from Syria to Turkey at the Tal Abyad checkpoint in Raqqah, on September 16. Their abduction was kept a secret until December 10, however, after their families were unable to make headway in private negotiations with captors. Unfortunately, the experiences of these veteran Spanish journalists are not rare in the Syrian civil war. On June 22, 2013, French journalist Nicolas Hénin and photographer Pierre Torres were abducted in Raqqa. Three Sky News Arabic journalists went missing on October 15, 2013. November, 2013, marked the one year anniversary of the kidnapping of James Foley, an American journalist working for AFP who was last seen in the northwestern part of Syria on November 22, 2012. While these are only a few examples, these cases illustrate that the frequency of journalist kidnappings and disappearances in Syria has reached a terrifying level. Recent figures estimate that 30 journalists are currently missing in the country, and over 60 have been killed since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. Furthermore, it is important to note that the apparent hostility against journalists in Syria is not restricted to foreign media; local Syrian journalists are being targeted as well. The estimated number of local journalists missing is 22 (ES). This disturbing trend gives rise to a number of questions. Why are journalists being targeted? Which groups are responsible for the disappearances? Are the captors hoping to use these journalists for political capital, or are they seeking to limit access to information about the atrocities they are committing? While the questions are many, the answers are devastatingly few. Reports have revealed that when Javier Espinosa and Ricardo García Vilanova were abducted, they were travelling with members of the Free Syrian Army. However, the members of the Free Syrian Army were released shortly after the group was captured, while the journalists remain in captivity. It has been alleged that ISIS unprecedented in other modern wars, with media workers being treated more like prisoners of war than chroniclers of conflict on the ground. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Syria was the most dangerous country for journalists in 2013. How should the international press community respond to this situation? This past December, 13 news organizations sent a letter to the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army and to individual armed groups, urging them to stop abuses against journalists. While conceding that journalists accept a certain amount of risk of death or injury when entering a conflict zone, the signatories asserted that the risk of kidnapping while on the job is unacceptable. Signatories to this document include editors of the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Reuters, The Guardian, and other notable international publications. While this collective action was an important step to address the situation, kidnappings persist and the future of foreign media work in Syria remains perilous. In addition to the urgent danger that this phenomenon poses to journalists currently working in the country, there is the added concern that the situation could set a precedent for how to silence the press in future conflicts. On December 14, the Supreme Military Council responded to the letter, asserting that it will do its best to protect journalists on assignment in the country and will work to secure the release of those already captured. Since then, there have been some positive signs: On January 8, Swedish journalists Magnus Falkehed and Niclas Hammarström were released after being abducted on November 23, 2013. Turkish journalist Bünyamin Aygün was also released in early January, after spending almost a month in captivity. Despite these positive signs however, dozens of journalists working in Syria are still unaccounted for. The Syrian civil war is widely considered to be one of the deadliest modern conflicts for innocent civilians and in horrific violation of their basic human rights. It is critical that the international community’s attention remain on the conflict. Journalists and media workers’ documentation of the Syrian civil war is one of the most powerful ways of increasing awareness of the situation, and thus their kidnapping is in many ways a means of restricting access to information about the war. The kidnapping of journalists is being used as a weapon of war against Syrian civilians, and must be dealt with accordingly.
Blanca López-Bonet is a Catalan journalist from Barcelona.

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