With risks multiplying, reporters stay out of Syria

Journalists in Syria have been killed by snipers, accused of spying, and kidnapped by gunmen, and with the threats growing, many say the conflict is now too dangerous to cover.

AFP reporter Sammy Ketz, takes cover from sniper fire in the ancient Syrian Christian town of Maalula, on September 18, 2013

The risks have increased the challenge of reporting from the country, which was already difficult because of violence, regime visa restrictions and propaganda on both sides.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says at least 25 professional journalists and 70 citizen journalists have been killed in the conflict.

But for many reporters, the bigger fear comes from abductions, which have been on the rise in the Syria conflict.

RSF says at least 16 foreign journalists are missing in Syria, although many cases have not been made public at the request of their families.

Among those kidnapped is James Foley, a US freelance journalist who worked for outlets including AFP and GlobalPost, and disappeared on November 22. He turns 40 on October 18.

Foreign aid workers have also been targeted, and Syrian journalists have been arrested by the regime or abducted by forces from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The conflict has been difficult to cover since it erupted with an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.

The government has handed out media visas sparingly, and movement is largely restricted to regime-held areas.

As a result, journalists covering the rebel side have entered the country through borders with Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Though journalists have been killed while reporting from the regime side, most deaths and kidnappings have been among those behind rebel lines.

Sherif Mansour of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the threat has evolved.

"In the beginning we only saw journalists being kidnapped by the government but later we began to see the opposition becoming increasingly involved," he told AFP.

"The kidnappings now are not just for political reasons, but also for financial reasons. We have also seen groups that are specifically targeting journalists, accusing them of being spies."

In recent months, jihadist messages posted online have warned that journalists are seeking to provide information "to their masters" about the types of weapons being used by Islamists.

The situation has got progressively worse, according to one freelancer who has been covering the conflict since December 2011.

"To enter (rebel-held) Syria now you need to move under the protection of a rebel battalion that has good relations with the radical Islamists," he said.

"Otherwise you could be kidnapped by any of the various groups operating in Idlib, Raqqa or Aleppo."

On his most recent trip, he and his colleagues worked under the protection of eight armed members of a rebel brigade, which allowed them to pass through ISIL checkpoints without being stopped.

They paid $300 a day to the men, who on two occasions intervened to protect them when they were approached by ISIL fighters.

He said there are also reports that ISIL is offering a reward to anyone who turns over a journalist to them.

The deteriorating conditions have prompted many international media organisations to suspend sending reporters to rebel-held areas.

"Most journalists are saying for now that it is too risky to go to Syria, though many of them want to go and feel that they should," said RSF's Soazig Dollet.

And some media groups now advise foreign reporters to stay out of Syria.

In August, the Rory Peck Trust, which works to support freelancers, issued a statement titled "Freelancers in Syria: Do you really have to go?"

"The situation for journalists in Syria is unprecedented, and it's getting worse," it said.

"This is a new situation where no amount of planning or preparation can reliably reduce the possibility of kidnapping or abduction."

Mansour says the CPJ does not advise journalists whether to cover a particular conflict, but points out the dangers of failing to deliver coverage.

"If no one is covering the conflict, it's a gift and a reward to those who are committing human rights violations," he said.

The problem is compounded by the threats to Syrian journalists, Dollet said, who face danger from all parties to the conflict.

"Syria is the worst country in the world to be a news provider," she said.

"We are now at a turning point. We need to wait and see what's going to happen with those who are kidnapped," she added.

"But it's not going to get easier, what we have to find out is whether it's going to get more difficult."

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Writer: AFP
Position: News agency