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Syria: Journalists deliberately targeted as country becomes most dangerous in world for reporters

At least 36 journalists killed in targeted attacks so far

Opposition forces have mounted online campaigns against journalists, labelling them ‘media shabiha’

Scores of journalists reporting on human rights abuses in Syria have been killed, arbitrarily arrested, detained, subjected to enforced disappearances and tortured over the last two years, Amnesty International said in a report released today, World Press Freedom Day.

Abuses against journalists have been carried out both by the Syrian authorities and armed opposition groups, turning Syria into the deadliest country in the world, according to media monitoring organisations. Journalists are not the only civilians under threat in Syria, but so far at least 36 have died in what are believed to have been targeted attacks.

Amnesty’s 56-page report, Shooting the Messenger: Journalists targeted by all sides in Syria , details dozens of cases of journalists and media workers attacked or detained since the 2011 uprising began in an attempt to prevent them from reporting on the unfolding situation in Syria, including their reports on human rights abuses.

It also details the crucial role played by “citizen journalists”, many of whom have risked their lives to ensure information about events in the country reaches the outside world. Like their professional colleagues, this group has faced reprisals to prevent them carrying out their work.

Amnesty has recorded at least 17 incidents where armed opposition groups have deliberately targeted journalists and media workers - including deliberate attacks on buildings where they work - because they’ve been perceived as allied to the Syrian authorities or have produced pro-government reports. Some opposition forces have also mounted online campaigns against individual journalists, labelling them “media shabiha”.

Those targeted include Ali Mahmoud Othman, a citizen journalist from Homs who was arrested by government security forces in March last year. Othman was part of a network of media activists which ran the “Homs Media Centre” during the Syrian army’s siege of the Baba ‘Amr district of the city in February 2012. He facilitated the movement of foreign journalists in and out of Homs, including British journalist Paul Conroy and French reporter Edith Bouvier after they were injured in shelling. Speaking about Othman, Paul Conroy told Amnesty:

“He was one of the activists who just made things happen at the media centre. He would take journalists to the front line or to field hospitals, or anywhere where they would be able to get a good camera shot.”

No-one has heard from Othman since he appeared a state television in April last year, though his family has reportedly received word from an unofficial source that at one stage he had been transferred to the infamous Saydnaya Military Prison near Damascus.

In another case featured in the report, state television presenter Mohamad al-Sa’eed was abducted from his home in Damascus in July 2012 and summarily killed by Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist armed opposition group. In a statement published on their website on 3 August, Jabhat al-Nusra said they had “abducted the media shabih Mohamad al-Sa’eed on 19 July 2012, and killed him after he was interrogated”.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Ann Harrison said:

“Deliberate attacks on civilians, including journalists, amount to war crimes for which the perpetrators must be brought to justice.

“We have once again documented how all sides in this conflict are violating the laws of war, although the scale of abuse by government forces remains much greater.

“We have been calling for over two years for the international community to take meaningful steps to ensure those responsible from all sides are held to account for international crimes and other abuses and for victims to receive reparations, but the Syrian people are still waiting.

“How much more evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity does the UN Security Council need to see before it refers the situation in Syria to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court?”

Independent newspapers and radio and television stations have not been permitted to operate freely in Syria for decades. A state of emergency, in force from 1963 to April 2011, has now ended, but journalists continue to be persecuted for reporting a wide range of subjects, including human rights violations carried out by the authorities. New laws ostensibly providing greater freedom of expression have done nothing to improve the situation in practice, said Amnesty.

In 2011 the Syrian authorities stepped up their repressive tactics to prevent media coverage of the then mainly peaceful uprising by introducing a virtual news blackout on mainstream media outlets between March and December. The heavy restrictions placed on the mainstream media have led to a surge in citizen journalism in the country, with people who are not professional journalists posting information about the conflict on social networking sites.

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