Journalism in Syria is no easy task. With access for foreign journalists becoming increasingly difficult, much of the newsgathering falls to local reporters and citizen journalists – but the situation for them, too, is hazardous.
The advocacy group Reporters Without Borders has warned that Syrian government troops are targeting media headquarters and news providers. On Tuesday, journalist Mohamed Ahmed Taysir Bellou was shot dead by a sniper while covering clashes between President Bashar al-Assad's troops and rebels in Aleppo. According to RWB, the army also attacked the offices of the Aleppo News Network and the Aleppo Media Centre "within the space of 48 hours".
The deliberate targeting of media institutions and reporters by the military is a worrying development; but it is far from the only threat faced by journalists in Syria. Kidnap – perpetrated by different armed groups – is also a risk. Jihadi groups are believed to be responsible for most kidnappings since the summer, but government-backed militias, criminal gangs and rebels affiliated with the western-backed Free Syrian Army also have been involved. News providers deliberately try not to draw too much attention to kidnap, to prevent endangering hostages, but the problem is on a wide scale. RWB says that at least five Syrian citizen journalists have been kidnapped in the past three weeks, while more than 20 Syrian news providers and 16 foreign journalists are being held hostage or missing. On top of this kidnap risk and assaults by the regime, journalists critical of jihadi groups face the threat of violence from al-Qaeda affiliated rebel groups such as al-Nusra, the Levant and the Islamic State of Iraq.
Since the start of the war, at least 52 reporters in Syria have been killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). This year alone, at least 17 have lost their lives. There are some discrepancies in the exact figures of deaths and hostages collated by different organisations – RWB puts the number of deaths much higher, at 110 since the beginning of the conflict. This is because of the flexible definition of what constitutes a journalist in Syria: much newsgathering is being carried out by "citizen journalists", or non-professionals who have taken up reporting during the war. Some of these may be activists, meaning that there is a blurred line between reporting and propaganda. What different monitoring organisations do agree on, though, is that Syria is the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist of any description. It was ranked as such in both 2012 and 2013, which is no surprise, given the double threat from government and opposition forces.
There is no doubt that this intense danger for reporters is affecting the quality of journalism coming out of Syria. The regime does not grant visas, which means that foreign correspondents must enter illegally, and only get to see one side of the conflict. The high threat of death or kidnap is discouraging international reporters from entering the country at all, which in turn undermines the likelihood of unbiased, on-the-ground reports. Richard Engel, the chief foreign correspondent for US TV channel NBC, was kidnapped by pro-Assad militia and held for five days in 2012. He warned that "if you go into the rebel-held or contested areas in northern and eastern Syria, there is a very high chance you're not going to make it out alive."
This difficulty with access means that over the months of the conflict, international news outlets have frequently had to rely upon reports coming from citizen journalists and activists in Syria – such as YouTube videos – which are often unverified and unverifiable. A blog by a correspondent for the news agency AFP noted that: "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."
Of course, as in any conflict, it is domestic journalists who have borne the brunt of the violence. Of the 52 deaths documented by the CPJ, all but five were Syrian. A recent report by RWB asked whether journalism in Syria is becoming an impossible task. With the threats from both the regime and the opposition steadily increasing in intensity, it seems that it is not far off.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.