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Syria's war continues to wreak heavy toll on journalists

Journalists who enter Syria do so at their own peril – is the coverage worth it?
Japanese journalist Kenji Goto was captured and later executed by the Islamic State group (AFP)

It was early afternoon when the news first began to filter in that one of Middle East Eye’s contributors, Abo Bakr al-Haj Ali, had been injured in Syria.

The information was sketchy at first, but the pieces soon fell into place.

Haj Ali had been working out of a makeshift regional office used by a small group of local stringers working for Al-Jazeera for the last few months.

The room in Deraa in southern Syria was simple. Old desks were adorned with a few computers and cameras. Rough beds were laid across much of the floor, with the journalists often sleeping there when travel on the roads became too dangerous.

But at around 11:30 am local time (09.30 GMT) on Monday, this little haven was shaken by a helicopter hovering up above. Fearing the worst, the two men inside ran for their lives. A barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad soon followed, sending waves of deadly glass and shrapnel flying through the air.

The office was badly damaged, but Haj Ali managed to escape with only moderate injuries. Ordinance hit his torso and arm, but missed all major arteries and organs. He was quickly taken to a local field hospital – the very same one from which he had been reporting days before the strike – and patched up. He was the only person injured in the attack, just one of thousands of attacks in this bloody civil war that has killed more than 200,000 people and made millions more homeless.

“I am certain that the Syrian regime deliberately target[ed] us because this is not the first time that I have seen the targeting of journalists and the crew of Al-Jazeera in particular, which has been targeted many times before,” Haj Ali said.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a US-based watchdog, the conflict in Syria has been the world’s deadliest for journalists for the last three years in a row. In the last four years, at least 80 have been killed – Japanese journalist Kenji Goto being the latest to lose his life earlier this month.

The consequences of the risk journalists take – and to which one in every three journalists killed globally this year have succumbed - are grave: the world’s worst humanitarian crisis continues and only a fraction of what is going on locally in understood. Misinformation, understandably, often rules the day.

Syria holds the second worst record in terms of journalists killed, second only to Iraq, CPJ MENA programme coordinator Sherif Mansour told the Middle East Eye. “And that was a 10-year conflict. The amount of kidnappings has been unprecedented in our count.”

Over this period, more than “90 journalists have been kidnapped, including 20 that we think are still being held,” he added.

In some respects, Al-Jazeera might be seen as a special case, and the Qatar-based channel has been widely criticised for its portrayal of the conflict, in part due to Doha’s open support for the opposition.

The roaming office, which was relocated regularly to avoid detection, had been attacked before and was all but blown to smithereens last year. Haj Ali, too, had been hit before, in 2013, by a sniper while clearly wearing a press jacket and holding camera equipment. In December 2014, an Al-Jazeera online journalist Mahran al-Deeri was killed while covering clashes between Syrian government troops. But the issue is by no means confined to one organisation or one side.

“For domestic journalists, the official ones working for the regime or the various opposition and rebel factions, are strictly censored and biased toward their sides,” said Edward Dark, an Aleppo-based journalist who has been covering the war under a pseudonym.

“It’s closer to propaganda than real reporting.”

It’s this polarisation that has, he said, helped fuel the targeting of journalists.

“There have been many cases of rebels bombing state media offices, and regime shelling media centres in opposition areas, or snipers shooting at them. In the Syrian conflict, journalists for the other camp are seen as legitimate military targets,” Dark said.

“Any independent media activists wishing to maintain their safety and unbiased reporting do so anonymously and try to hide their identity. In Syria, words and ideas can and do get you killed very easily.”

Western organisations and journalists are also stuck in the middle, seen as pro-opposition by Assad supporters, but often criticised by opposition groups for not doing enough. In recent years, they have also become highly-prized targets for groups like Islamic State and the Nusra Front that see them as bargaining chips.  

“Journalists - and others like aid workers and foreign nationals - have become high-value targets. IS have instructed people to be on the lookout for journalists, not just in Syria but also in the border areas,” said Mansour.

“It is a very big threat. Most of that is happening more recently because of the overall targeting of the Islamic State by the coalition that was announced in August.”

As media attention has focused on the cases such as American journalist James Folley and Steven Sotloff, who were publically beheaded by the Islamic State last year, the stakes have become higher.

Reports have long been emerging of militants befriending journalists and promising to take them to Syria and act as guides, with the intent of capturing them or passing them on to another group once inside.

Abo Bakr al-Haj Ali receiving medical treatment after the attack (MEE / Haj Ali)

Even when the offer of help is genuine, the rules inside Syria are alarmingly hazy with the CIA believing there to be some 1,500 groups operating inside the country.

“It has been dangerous for journalists from day one, but things have deteriorated. It reflects the situation on the ground which is highly fragmented - there are so many different groups and that it is extremely difficult to plan and prepare for (?),” said Sarah Giaziri, MENA programme officer at the Rory Peck trust, an organisation working to improve working conditions for war journalists.

This has helped to escalate uncertainty as journalists have previously braved entry, only to be caught out.

“The case of Theo Padnos [the American journalist captured by Nusra in 2013] underlines this trend that IS and al-Nusra are now the top dogs,” said Joshua Landis, director of Oklahoma University’s Centre for Middle East Studies and the author of the Syria Report.

Padnos, who was released last year has since written about his ordeal, recalling how he managed to escape his captors twice, only to seek refuge and aid from groups deemed more moderate by the west but who swiftly returned him to Nusra.

“Weaker groups, although they claim independence, are no longer independent. They all have to curry favour with Nusra because if they don’t and they are allowing potential Nusra prisoners to escape – they will be punished,” said Landis.

The vast majority of the victims, however, have been local journalists. According to the CPJ, 87 percent of the killed journalists have been Syrians. This falls slightly below the worldwide average, and globally about 90 percent of all journalist killed are local nationals, but this nonetheless illustrates the high toll of the Syria conflict.

Major news organisations have long stopped sending in foreign or more prominent staff into rebel-held parts of the country, with the very vast amount of coverage now being datelined in Beirut. The outcome is that today, Haj Ali - just like the three other men he works alongside – are all Syrian.

“The local journalist may know the local terrain and situation, but they often have not had professional safety training, which puts them more at risk,” said Giaziri who works to provide support for injured reporters.

“It can be especially difficult for them as they are often reporting on their neighbourhoods, their families could be in danger… It’s their colleagues and friends who could be dying.”

Moreover, the journalists have to deal with a whole myriad of issues, like frequent electricity blackouts, food and water shortages and the safety and wellbeing of their families, Giaziri explained.

“No major news organisation will let their top people go… but they are more than happy to use stringers. Everyone does this because they are not really responsible for them,” said Landis. “They are already there and they are already working for someone else. There are a thousand ways to rationalise this because you need the news.”

A lack of proper information has, some would argue, made it all the more difficult to understand the war. Over the years, we have seen heinous reports of killings emerge, only to be countered or denied. With each side blaming the other, the only thing that is certain is the unbridled destruction that has been unleashed on the Syrian people. Nor, is there any end in sight, prompting many to wonder if it is worth the risk.

“You can make the argument that you are in fact serving humanity by getting the news, which you are. That’s the eternal trade off. Do you endanger the life of one person if it means that you can cover an atrocity?,” said Landis. “But it endangers those people and no one should be reporting from Syria. It immediately puts a price on your head and everyone hates you.”

Yet, with the stakes so high, some still insist they will keep doing it – be it out of out of a sense of responsibility or out of economic desperation.

“I’ve continued working despite all the dangers and difficulties and will continue to press on with my work because this is my duty to convey the truth, and the event and the daily suffering of the people in the war,” said Haj Ali. “I live with the people here and feel what they feel.”

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