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Bombed, beaten and trapped: Syrian journalists swept up in Assad's Idlib assault

As Damascus advances, reporters and photographers find themselves working in impossible conditions
A man evacuates a young bombing casualty after a reported air strike by regime forces and their allies in Maaret al-Numan, Idlib (AFP)
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Idlib City, Syria

As Syrian government air strikes continue to pound the last rebel-held stronghold in Syria, international and domestic journalists have come under fire - seemingly intentionally.

Mustafa Dahnon, a reporter for a local channel in Idlib city, was struck along with a number of colleagues by a rocket on Friday while attempting to document the impact of Russian and Syrian government forces air strikes.

"I put my hand on my shoulder, felt bleeding, then started screaming, looking for my colleagues and ordering an ambulance," he told Middle East Eye.

Dahnon, who survived with shrapnel wounds, said he believed they had been spotted by Russian "reconnaissance planes" and deliberately targeted.

In northern Syria, locals are able to identify planes based on their sound, the type of missiles they use and the extent of the damage they cause.

The targeting of journalists has been a repeated theme of Syria's eight-year-long civil war.

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On Thursday, a Sky News crew said it was deliberately targeted and attacked by Syrian government forces using military drones to pinpoint their location.

American journalist Bilal Abdel Karim, who was with them at the time, was also wounded.

"The Sky News crew - clearly identified as journalists - was deliberately targeted and attacked by Syrian regime forces using military drones to pinpoint our location before launching a series of strikes," Alex Crawford, a Sky News correspondent who was with the targeted team in Syria, wrote on Thursday.

Abdel Kareem, who runs On the Ground News, has previously worked with the BBC, Channel 4 News and CNN, and had told MEE that the crew was purposely "targeted" by the Syrian government.

"We were all together when the attack happened," Kareem said. "I could see it being the case that we were targeted because they have never been friendly to journalists."

The attack followed shortly on from the wounding of journalist Ayham Mohammed al-Bayoush on 18 May, as a result of another aerial attack by the Syrian government in the town of Maarat al-Numan, in the south of Idlib.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights activist group, 695 journalists were killed in Syria from March 2011 to May 2019, while 1,136 others have been arrested by various factions in the conflict.

In early 2012, Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin and French journalist Remi Ochlik were killed by Syrian government shelling on the Baba Amr neighbourhood in the city of Homs.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government was found responsible for her death in a landmark US court decision earlier this year, and was ordered to pay $300m in punitive damages.

Beaten at the border

The Syrian government has, with help from its ally Russia, managed to regain control of most of the country. The remaining rebels have been displaced to Idlib province and its environs, home to some three million civilians.

The government has repeatedly branded the journalists and media workers embedded with the Syrian opposition "terrorists" and they have faced arrest, torture and unfair trials.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Syria is ranked 174 of 180 in the press freedom list of the year 2019.

Over the past two months, pro-Syrian government forces offensives on Idlib have killed more than 105 civilians and displaced about 200,000 civilians, according to the UN, and destroyed about 18 hospitals.

Rebels have lost around 100 square kilometres of territory, and the Sochi agreement, a pact signed in late 2018 between the Turkish and Russian presidents to spare Idlib a bloody attack, appears on the verge of collapse.

With the prospect of a major government assault on the horizon, many journalists have been attempting to flee Idlib for Turkey - something which has become increasingly difficult.

A meeting of the Media Workers Association of Eastern Ghouta (Harun al-Aswad)
A meeting of the Media Workers Association of Eastern Ghouta (MEE/Harun al-Aswad)

The Syrian-Turkish border is surrounded by a wall and Turkish border guards, and attempting to cross it is extremely dangerous, regularly leading to deaths.

Although Turkey hosts about four million displaced Syrians, domestic pressure has pushed the government to limit further inflows. While some Syrian journalists are lucky enough to work with media companies based in Turkey - and can therefore legally cross the border - options for others are limited.

Mazen al-Atrash - also known as Mazen al-Shami - was arrested on Friday by Turkish border guards while trying to cross the border illegally, and was severely beaten with his two sons in front of his family.

“When I told them I am a journalist, I was subjected to torture and severely beaten by the border guards," he told MEE.

Atrash was originally displaced from the central Syrian city of Homs after 2012 to the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, and from there to Idlib in early 2018.

"I'm sick - I tried to communicate with all the press organisations and with the Syrian interim government to help me get out," he said.

"I sold my equipment and borrowed money from my friends for expenses [to] escape illegally, and to get out and get safety and treatment, but I failed."

Protection for journalists

Two local organisations exist in northern Syria to defend journalists, the Union of Syrian Media and the Media Workers Association of Eastern Ghouta, of which Atrash is an administrative member.

The Media Workers Association of Eastern Ghouta issued a statement deploring Atrash's beatings and called on international organisations to come to the aid of Syrian journalists.

The statement called on Reporters Without Borders and the Turkey-based political Syrian opposition to find a mechanism to ensure the safety of members of the association, who have worked for nine years in the midst of sieges, shelling, attacks and displacement.

Abu Al-yusr Baraa and Mazen al-Atrash and a number of journalists during a meeting of the Media Workers Association of Eastern Ghouta (Harun al-Aswad)
Abu al-Yusr Baraa and Mazen al-Atrash, and a number of journalists during a meeting of the Media Workers Association of Eastern Ghouta (MEE/Harun al-Aswad)

“The association was established in 2014 through local efforts to standardise media work professionally," Abu al-Yusr Baraa, the association's director, told MEE. "We organise training courses for 140 members, and provide assistance and advice for them."

He said his organisation had been helping journalists escape northern Syria to Turkey, but that options were limited.

“Many journalists have been arrested in northern Syria, we can only help them by appealing to the authorities concerned, or through the media and social media, to release them," he said.

MEE contacted two Syrian media organisations - The Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of expression (SCM) and the Syrian Journalists Association - based outside Syria for comment, but neither responded by the time of publication.

Journalists in Syria also have to contend with attacks by militant factions, including in areas under the control of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army and in areas under the control of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), al-Qaeda’s former Syrian branch.

Late last year, activists and journalists Hamoud Jneed, and Raed Fares - director of Radio Fresh - were subjected to a series of threats before being shot dead by HTS.