With press workers trapped between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and a wide array of armed rebel groups, Syria was the deadliest country in the world for journalists last year, according to the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders’ annual report.
As the violence is Syria continues unabated, journalists suffer from intimidation and threats, as well as the risk of being kidnapped or even killed. Islamic State captured international headlines with videotaped executions of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, along with the killings of several international aid workers.
Yet Syrian journalists continue to pay the highest price as they risk their lives to document the war. “Global attention has focused on the abductions and murders of international journalists in Syria, but even as the environment has deteriorated for foreign correspondents, local media have suffered tremendous losses,” María Salazar-Ferro, coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Journalist Assistance program, said in a press release.
Muhammad al-Asfar, a 19-year-old cameraman for Al Jazeera Arabic, was killed by shelling fired by regime forces in the Daraa province of southern Syria in late June.
Throughout the last five years, Syria became the country from which the most journalists flee into exile, according to a recent CPJ report.
Syria Deeply spoke to Jason Stern, an associate researcher at CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa division, about the risks Syrian journalists face both in their homeland and once displaced abroad.
Syria Deeply: More than four years into the uprising in Syria, what are the biggest risks Syrian journalists face today?
Jason Stern: Every year since the revolution began in 2011, Syria has become more dangerous for journalists. That trend continues until today, in 2015. What’s different, though, is that the number of journalists reporting from Syria is going down. That includes both international journalists coming to Syria and local journalists reporting from their own neighborhoods and areas. As a result we are actually seeing fewer journalists being killed, kidnapped or imprisoned – which is a good thing – but it also shows you how dangerous the country has become. It shows you that Syria is so dangerous that journalism is no longer possible in many areas.
Syria Deeply: What kind of conditions are the Syrian journalists who continue to report working in? What kind of threats do they face?
Jason Stern: Journalists in Syria face all the threats that Syrians in general are facing – whether it’s the arbitrary bombing and shelling of neighborhoods; whether it’s the lack of food and electricity. They face [those risks] like every other Syrian. Yet on top of that, they face specific threats. Journalists are more likely to be on the front lines and more likely to be injured. They are more likely to be targeted, and they’re being targeted by all groups. They are targeted by the regime, which has arrested many journalists, some of whom have died in jail. They are being targeted by Islamic State, for sure. We all know some very obvious examples of that which will forever remain seared in our memories. And they’re being targeted by other armed groups operating in Syria, including some of the rebels who fight both the regime and Islamic State.
The Kurdish forces are very concerned with how they look [in the media] and the information coming from the territory they control, like any other group in Syria right now. So we have also seen journalists being detained by Kurdish forces and interrogated, as well.
Syria Deeply: A new report published by CPJ lists Syria as the country from which the most journalists have fled into exile throughout the last five years. What is it that has driven at least 101 Syrian journalists and press workers into exile?
Jason Stern: Our report shows all the journalists who CPJ has actually helped as they went into exile. When I say that 101 journalists have fled Syria in the last five years, that is just the number of journalists we have helped. Obviously the number is much larger than that. Even so, that number is almost twice as many as fled from the second country on the list [Ethiopia]. The reasons are myriad. These are only the journalists we believe have fled for reasons specifically related to their work as journalists; not just because Syria as a whole is facing a mass refugee problem. There is a mass exodus of journalists coming from Syria and it’s because they are being targeted.
To touch on kidnapping, there are approximately 20 journalists missing right now. Almost all of them are local Syrian journalists and they haven’t gotten the same attention as international journalists who were abducted [in the past].
Syria Deeply: What avenues of support do Syrian journalists have access to as they continue face mounting risks?
Jason Stern: The main thing we do at CPJ is help them get from an emergency situation to a controllable situation. That means making sure that whatever threats they’re facing as journalists in their hometowns or areas can be solved by helping them go somewhere where they are physically safe from immediate harm. That can mean various things, including providing financial grants so that they can find somewhere to stay, have food to eat and have medicine they need for them and their families. It also means advocating on their behalf in front of host nations and in front of the U.N. to make sure that they can find some sort of refuge or asylum, as well. That’s only the first step.
The main thing we are doing right now in Syria is trying to help individual journalists directly and in practical ways. The U.N. is facing an unprecedented refugee crisis all across the world right now. We are always working with the U.N. to show that exiled journalists not only face all the same threats as other refugees, but that they face the added danger of being targeted for their work. Therefore, they deserve extra attention whenever they go through official channels, such as at the UNHCR.
Only 17 percent of journalists who go into exile worldwide can continue their work as journalists. We always try to encourage and help journalists find work as journalists and continue their reporting wherever they go. This is a big problem that Syrian journalists in exile are facing. They’re being denied press credentials in their host countries and therefore cannot work legally in those countries and face risks as a result.
They face a double-edged threat. They face the threat that any journalist operating in those host countries face, and they also face the secondary threat of being a refugee in those countries and therefore more vulnerable than the local population.
Syria Deeply: What are the most pressing risks faced by Syrian journalists who have stayed in ISIS-controlled areas?
Jason Stern: There is no doubt that the Islamic State group is one of the most brutal and oppressive when it comes to journalists and activists. We see that crackdown every day. Just last week, the Raqqa branch of ISIS released a video showing the forced confession of two supposed activists who were working for the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a network of citizen journalists reporting anonymously from Raqqa. They were forced to confess that they worked for the group and then tied to trees before being executed, shot to death. The group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently has said they didn’t know who the two individuals were and that they were not working for the group. But it shows you the great extent Islamic State is willing to go to in order to censor these voices. They are willing to murder people accused of questioning the official Islamic State line.
The most important thing to remember, though, is that this is actually a special case. In most cases when Islamic State executes journalists, they don’t even bother releasing a video. The life of a local journalist is so worthless to Islamic State that they don’t even speak about it.
One thing I want to point out is that as much attention as Islamic State gets for its press violations, it is still the Assad government that is responsible for the majority of journalists’ deaths in Syria. The prisons, for instance, are disastrous from a human rights perspective. At least three journalists have died in the prisons [since the uprising began] in conditions that remain unclear. There is arbitrary shelling and bombing of entire neighborhoods and there are also general attacks on journalists.