Syria: A dangerous assignment for journalists

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Covering the war ravaging Syria for more than two years has become one of the world’s most dangerous jobs, with reporters not only facing injury or death during fighting but also the rising risk of kidnapping.

As the United Nations marks International Press Freedom day on Friday, at least seven journalists are missing inside Syria, including American journalist James Foley, a video contributor to AFP who has not been heard from since last November.

The last journalist reported missing is Domenico Quirico of the Italian daily La Stampa, who entered Syria secretly and was declared missing by his employer after failing to make contact for five days.

The Syrian regime’s reluctance to hand out visas, and its insistence on controlling the reporting of those it allows into the country, have left reporters with no option but to enter without government permission, often from Turkey.

But with a growing number of rebel groups, and increasing lawlessness in rebel-held areas, travel inside the country has become more dangerous.

Kidnappers have sought to abduct journalists for ransom, while jihadist groups have accused reporters of being spies and even threatened to kill them.

The regime is also suspected in the kidnap of several journalists, including Austin Tice, who disappeared on August 13, 2012 in Daraya outside Damascus, where the Syrian army was operating at the time.

The country has come to be the final resting place for a startlingly high number of journalists.

In just over two years, 23 reporters and 58 citizen journalists have been killed.

The latter -- Syrians who have taken up video cameras or posted news online -- were often the only conduit for news from places that foreign reporters could not reach.

“The work of journalists covering the conflict in Syria is becoming more complicated by the day and their working conditions are only getting worse,” Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Sans Frontiers, told AFP.

“While at the beginning of the conflict in March 2011, the danger was ‘only’ from the government army and while journalists continue to be targeted in attacks by the regime of (President) Bashar al-Assad, today armed opposition groups are also responsible for numerous abuses, particularly against foreign journalists. Kidnappings are becoming commonplace,” he said.

Deloire added that coverage of the conflict is also inherently flawed because of the regime’s refusal to grant visas.

“Very few are able to go to areas still under regime control. Journalists are forced to enter Syria illegally... and can’t go from one side of the front line to the other. This seriously affects coverage of the conflict,” he said.

AFP has been forced to send different journalists to either side of the front line in places such as Aleppo, the main city in the north, in a bid to gain the most complete and accurate assessment of the situation on the ground.

On the eve of Press Freedom Day, AFP reaffirmed its determination to cover the conflict on the ground, as it has done since the beginning, and issued new guidelines on covering the fighting with the aim of improving safety for those working for the agency inside Syria.

These guidelines include extending hostile environment training to regular stringers, something that is already a prerequisite for staff journalists covering conflict.

The Syria conflict, in which social media such as Facebook and Twitter and video sharing website YouTube have become primary means for journalists to get updates and information, has posed new challenges.

Such sources mean reporters often have to work almost like detectives to separate fact from fiction and verify news of everything from regime defections to the alleged use of chemical weapons.

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