BEIRUT – Syria has become the most dangerous country in the world for journalists; more than a hundred journalists have been killed over the course of the conflict that is now in its sixth year.
The number of journalists kidnapped in Syria was unprecedented, reaching its peak in 2013 with almost one journalist kidnapped every week. Since then, the numbers of killed and kidnapped journalists in Syria have dropped, but these figures are misleading, Jason Stern, MENA senior associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent, non-profit organization that promotes press freedom, told Syria Deeply.
“There are simply less journalists left in the country to be killed or kidnapped,” Stern said, pointing out that most international journalists are afraid to go to Syria, and many local journalists have fled.
Syria Deeply spoke to Stern about how CPJ’s work has transformed to meet the needs of journalists reporting on Syria, in a country where it is increasingly difficult to find a space as a non-combatant.
Syria Deeply: Where do you think the balance lies between the need for critical and credible reporting on the conflict, and staying responsible and keeping journalists safe?
Jason Stern: We’ve reached what I would call a North Korea-ization of Syria. You’ll never see North Korea in the top 10 of our lists of journalists killed or imprisoned worldwide. Not because North Korea is such a great place for journalists, but because it’s so terrible that there are very few journalists at all to be imprisoned or killed to begin with. That’s the stage we are at right now with Syria.
It all brings up to your question, of, basically is it worth it?
That’s not a question I can answer, but what I can say is that it is a professional and moral obligation that news outlets do what they can to mitigate the risks, especially when they’re relying on freelancers to cover the most dangerous stories.
There was a spike in journalists being killed and kidnapped in Syria, and news outlets started to rely, even exclusively, on freelancers. The problem is if you were [with] ABC or CNN or an outlet that has the resources, you had security experts, flak jackets, health insurance, medical training, but freelancers weren’t given those tools, nor were they paid enough to buy them themselves.
In the past few years, several organizations have popped up to help fix that gap. CPJ and other organizations formed what’s called “Culture of Safety Alliance,” a coalition of press freedom groups and media outlets, and the goal is to try and get media outlets to commit to treating freelancers as they would treat their staff when it comes to these safety issues.
For CPJ, it’s a transformation because, historically, we saw things like training and payment as issues for journalists’ unions and syndicates, but it became crystal clear to us in Libya and in Syria, that these kinds of issues have direct links to press freedom and safety.
Syria Deeply: What would you say was the turning point for journalists’ safety in Syria?
Stern: When you think now about brutality and the spectacle of violence committed against journalists, you often think about ISIS. But they’re not the originators of these kinds of tactics; it was the government.
For me, the real turning point came in 2012, with the siege of Homs. When Marie Colvin [an American journalist who worked for the Sunday Times] snuck into Homs to cover the siege, I think only five or six journalists had been killed so far covering the conflict.
We are so immune now to the headlines from Syria about another war crime, another bombing, another dozen or two dozen victims, that we forget just how shocking that time was in Syria, to see just how far the Assad government would go to stay in power, just how much blood they were going to shed. The siege of Homs was that first real lesson about that.
Marie Colvin went to a cover a city where there was so much arbitrary violence, victims and shelling – and in that context her death was anything but arbitrary. In fact she was purposely targeted by the government, and that was a turning point, not just for the war but for journalism in Syria. [The Syrian government denied this accusation.] Since then more than 95 journalists have been killed. And if Marie Colvin, this veteran conflict journalist could be killed, what about that new freelancer getting his or her start?
Syria Deeply: How has CPJ’s work changed in Syria?
Stern: At our heart, we are a documentation and advocacy organization. We were founded by journalists with the idea that journalism in and of itself can protect journalism and journalists. That by reporting on press freedom violations and raising them publicly you can fight against violations and create new space for journalism.
But all over the world, we’ve seen a democratic recession, and things have gotten actually worse for civil society and for journalists. Governments have come up with new ways to counter advocacy, to become immune to international and political pressure.
Syria is very a good example of this. On one side, you have a government that can use chemical weapons on its own people and not bat an eye. You have ISIS which prides itself on flouting international law, and being totally indifferent or mocking international opinions of their actions. You have an opposition that’s increasingly desperate and has also resorted to committing war crimes. In this context, advocacy doesn’t work as well, so we had to look at other ways that we can have a positive impact in Syria.
Part of that is focusing more on journalist safety, mitigating risks so that there are fewer incidents to begin with. It is also helping individual journalists; we have a journalist assistance program where we intervene, when advocacy alone is not sufficient, by providing practical help. For example, covering medical bills if a journalist is injured working in Syria. We’ve helped over a hundred journalists who’ve been forced to flee Syria in the past five years.
Every Syrian is in danger to begin with, and we can only help the journalists who are especially in trouble, because their journalism has for some reason made them face extra threats.
Documentation is still key. Advocacy is not out in the open for us now, but it is my hope that eventually there will be tribunals and reconciliation processes. We have all these cases documented and one day this research can form the core of what will be an attempt to hold war criminals to account.
Syria Deeply: Do you have specific concerns for local journalists?
Stern: It’s the local journalists who always pay the greatest price: 90 percent of journalists who have been killed in Syria are local. For several years, many local journalists fled to Turkey as the main country they could go to from the northern parts of the country held by the opposition.
Recently, especially because of ISIS attacks inside of Turkey, they’re being displaced for a second time. And this time, there is no clear place for them to go. It’s so difficult for Syrian journalists, even the well-known ones who have a clear track of incredible journalism, to find a legal way to go anywhere else.
Time and time again in the past year, Syrian journalists have been attacked and even murdered inside of Turkey. The complete impunity of those attacks and, frankly, the way the Turkish government is fixated on censoring its own journalists, especially after the coup attempt, makes me worry for Syrian journalists there. The security forces and the government are not paying attention to the threats they are facing.
Some governments have done a better job than others in terms of giving refuge to Syrian journalists under threat. But there is no special mechanism in these countries to accommodate for Syrians facing the special kind of threat for their human rights or journalistic work. A Syrian journalist is just one of literally millions displaced Syrians.
Syria Deeply: With less journalists covering Syria now, what are your fears ahead?
Stern: A big concern right now is the militarization of the press in Syria. There are very complex reasons why this is happening, but increasingly, we’ve been seeing journalists who are either working for armed groups, or carrying weapons themselves.
The only protection journalists have in conflict zones is their noncombatant status. And when there are incidents of that line being crossed or being blurred, it puts all journalists in danger, putting to question the noncombatant status of all journalists working in a conflict zone. And that’s very disconcerting, when journalists constantly face accusations from both government and non-state actors of being fighters, spies or terrorists.
When people look at Syria there is a tendency to consider it as an exceptional case. But the changing media environment and economy, the democratization of technology allowing more people to do journalism, the ability to share information on a global scale and basically talk to anyone you want to, the democratic recession – these are major trends happening that will make the next conflict look like Syria. And so the main challenges that journalists face in Syria are not just for them alone to face, they’re for the world to face. As horrible as Syria has been, and as unique as it looks now, there will be another one somewhere else.