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The most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist

January 23, 2014 at 4:46 am

Over the last two years, the Syrian conflict has claimed 70,000 lives and displaced one million people. It has also claimed the lives of a significant number of media workers and journalists. These include high profile foreign correspondents: the Sunday Times’ Marie Colvin, New York Times’ Anthony Shadid, and freelance French photographer Remi Ochlik, to name but a few.

Estimates of the total number of journalists killed vary. Last week, the Union of Syrian Journalists told Al-Arabiya TV that 153 journalists and media activists have been killed in the country since the uprising began in 2011. In October 2012, the Doha Centre for Media Freedom put the number around 72. Across the board, these are very high numbers, which encompass both foreign correspondents and domestic journalists. A significant number of journalists are also being detained, by both government and rebel forces. Human Rights Watch’s annual report for 2012 noted that hundreds of activists were detained simply for communicating with the media, and noted that the Syrian government detained many journalists trying to report on the crackdown against protesters. Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Syria as the most dangerous country in the world to be a member of the press.

In January this year, French military correspondent Yves Debay was shot by a sniper in Aleppo. Soon afterwards, Al-Jazeera reporter Mohamed al-Mesalma was also killed by a sniper, in Daraa. Speaking after these deaths, the CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Programme Coordinator, Sherif Mansour, noted a disturbing pattern. “The killing of these two journalists by snipers is part of an alarming trend in which the combatants in Syria are targeting the press. Civilians, including journalists, are protected under international law and may not be targeted.”

Why does the killing of journalists matter, when so many other lives are being lost? The answer lies in the importance of objective and clear reporting to any conflict. Due to the grave dangers of operating within Syria, coverage of the conflict has frequently been patchy. International outlets, particularly pan-Arab networks, have been forced to hire local activists as correspondents, and then rely heavily on their reports as verification is impossible. Information posted on Facebook has also been used as the basis for news reports, leading to a significant amount of inaccurate reporting. The Qatar based Al-Jazeera and Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya, which are both staunch supporters of the opposition, have been particularly criticised for this.

“The major pan-Arab networks have lost a great deal of credibility on the Syria story,” Marc Lynch, director of the Middle East studies program at George Washington University, told the New York Times earlier this month. He told the newspaper that Al-Jazeera, the must-see channel throughout the Arab Spring, had taken a particular knock. “Al-Jazeera has lost its ability to be the neutral ground where Arabs who disagree about things can argue.” Indeed, reports circulating in the Arab press go so far as to suggest that Al-Jazeera reporter Ghada Owais had offered a reward for the assassination of Bashar al-Assad, in response to a Syrian businessman’s offer of remuneration to anyone who detained Al-Jazeera staff. Owais strenuously denies the allegation, but the case demonstrates how far the image of objectivity has been damaged.

Of course, while it is the deaths of international correspondents that make the headlines, the vast majority of media workers killed have been Syrian nationals. Amid the sea of misinformation, many have taken up journalism for the first time since the conflict. A whole host of new Syrian titles have been launched in recent months as Syrians try to disseminate accurate information about the pain their country is enduring. It is a tragedy that in doing so, they face such a grave risk to their lives.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.