The killing on January 11 of a French TV reporter has sent a chill through the international press corps trying to cover the violence in Syria. Gilles Jacquier, 43, who was on assignment for the French public service channel France 2, was a seasoned journalist and the laureate of France's most prestigious journalism prizes. As a special reporter for "Envoyé special," France's equivalent of "60 Minutes," he had covered dozens of wars, from Kosovo to Afghanistan, and was considered one of the most professional French war correspondents.
On Wednesday he had travelled with a group of French, Swiss, Belgian, and Dutch journalists to the Western city of Homs, the epicenter of the rebellion, where they had been put under the tight supervision of members of the Syrian security forces.
How could such a tragedy have happened? "The Nouzha neighborhood is entirely Alawite (President Assad's community) and it is totally controlled by the army and the chabiha, the armed civilian militias in the pay of the regime," Christophe Ayad observed in Le Monde.
On Thursday, citing a source close to President Nicolas Sarkozy, the Paris daily Le Figaro went further and wrote that French authorities were "suspecting a manipulation on the part of the Syrian government." "The Syrian officials were the only ones to know that a group of Western journalists were visiting Homs on this day and in which neighborhood they were," the high-level source said, according Le Figaro. "You can of course think of an unhappy accident. But it comes rather well for a regime that tries to discourage foreign journalists and to demonize the rebellion." Claims of government manipulation of media, often bolstered by video footage, have long been made by the protesters and their supporters.
In the tense and confused moments that followed the attacks, Gilles Jacquier's companion, photographer Caroline Poiron, refused to hand the corpse over to the Syrian security services and only agreed that a limited autopsy be practiced in Damascus. Keeping control over the autopsy was deemed crucial: "A serious forensic examination might help identify the nature of the shells that hit Gilles Jacquier," Philippe Gelle noted in Le Figaro. "If the insurgents are known to use RPG rocket-launchers, it is not sure that they have or know how to use mortars to the point of being able to concentrate four shells on the same target."
Similar press trips had been organized earlier by Sister Agnès-Mariam de la Croix, abbot of the former monastery of Qara and a Lebanese citizen of Palestinian origin with close relations to the Assad regime and connections to Christian circles in Western Europe, particularly in France and Belgium. The trips seemed to provide at least some access to the violence in Syria and a measure of safety.
These invitations, however, had triggered a contentious debate among journalists on the ethics and propriety of being embedded with Syrian security forces accused of massacring civilians. Sister Agnès-Mariam de la Croix was clearly pushing the official line that the "terrorists" were Islamic extremists bent on overthrowing a regime that she described as a protector of Christian minorities in Syria.
Some journalists had refused the invitation because they feared they would get a slanted view of the violence or would be used as stooges for the government's propaganda in Syria. Others went, convinced it was a rare opportunity to get into the country and cover the troubles, at least from the official side. Since the beginning of the revolt international journalists have tried to enter Syria, but soon after the first signs of unrest redolent of a revolution, the government had imposed a nearly complete blackout on the media and rejected most visa applications from Western journalists. (Local journalists, meanwhile, have been detained, gone missing, or turned up dead). The only alternatives were sneaking into the country either on a tourist or business visa, or crossing from Lebanon and going underground or "embedding" with rebel units. Only recently did Damascus start issuing short-term visas for a limited number of journalists, who are allowed to move around only when escorted by official minders.
In any case, most European journalists came to Syria with a deep suspicion of the government. They knew that the Assad regime was waging a crude propaganda war, brandishing the specter of al-Qaida, accusing the West and Israel of subverting the country, stage-managing public events, manipulating video images, and relaying its positions on the Web via so-called "re-information" sites like Infosyrie or "anti-imperialist organizations" denouncing the "international plot against Syria."
Western reporters were also aware that some of the bombings sowing death in pro-Assad neighborhoods in Damascus recently were rumored to have been carried out by the government's own undercover forces.
In such context, were foreign journalists the victims of the regime's dirty tricks? Nick Robertson, a CNN reporter who was with another group of journalists in Homs on the day of Gilles Jacquier's killing, stated that the "bombing is a military operation."
"Rather curiously," adds Alain Lallemand, an international investigative journalist with the Brussels daily Le Soir, "some reporters have pointed out that Sister Agnès did not take part in the trip and stayed away in Damascus. Even more worrying, although they were in Damascus, journalists from countries supportive of the Syrian regime were not invited on this trip."
Dutch photographer Steven Wassenaar, who was lightly wounded in the Homs bombing, confirmed that Sister Agnès had not joined the group. "We were effectively on our own until we arrived in Homs where we were taken charge of by the security services," he said.
"There is no hard evidence," Le Soir Middle East editor Baudouin Loos wrote on Thursday, "so there can be no definite accusations. But if we wonder about who benefits from the crime, we should turn inquisitively to the regime: Damascus will be able to refer to this act to show to the face of the world 'the ignoble methods committed by these barbarians that attack innocent journalists.' Meanwhile the very few colleagues that succeeded in entering Syria will certainly think twice before returning. Syrian authorities do not like witnesses."
On Friday, France Télévisions news director Thierry Thuillier added to the suspicions when he said in an interview that Gilles Jacquier and his cameraman "had not wanted to go to Homs" and had been told they would have "to leave Syria immediately if they refused to go there."
"For us, this scenario raises many questions about the origin of the shots, the target aimed at," added Thuillier. "These journalists were part of a convoy under an escort - very tightly contained. When the firing started, the Syrian soldiers backed away, leaving the journalists exposed and alone. Why? I don't have the answer. The editorial staff, France Televisions (and) the families want this answer."
The French authorities are determined to know what happened. On Friday, a Paris prosecutor launched a preliminary murder investigation into the killing. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé asked for a thorough and independent probe, and received the full backing of Sarkozy, who in a strong and emotive address paid tribute to Gilles Jacquier and highlighted "the importance of having, in regimes and situations like these, courageous people that are committed to tell the truth of what is happening."
UPDATE: On July 17, Le Figaro, referring to sources close to the French ministry of defense and secret services, wrote that Jacquier had been hit by a mortar shell launched by rebel forces from a position located in a Sunni neighborhood. This thesis, noted Georges Malbrunot, the author of the article, "confirms the information published by Le Figaro one week after the incident, on the basis of a declaration of a human rights activist in Homs who said, 'We made a big blunder,' as well as the conclusions of a senior official of the Arab League, which had at that time observers on site in Homs." According to Le Figaro, a more detailed dossier has been written by the Arab League, but has not been made public.
The newspaper added that the Paris prosecutor in charge of the judicial enquiry quickly adopted the thesis of a "blunder" by the rebels. However, the prosecutor has not been able to travel to Syria to carry out its own investigation and, according to Le Figaro, has not had access to the notes of the French secret services.
Asked for an official reaction, the French Foreign and Defense Ministries have declined to make any comment, and the French government spokesperson, Najat Vallaut-Belkacem, said she had "no confirmation of Le Figaro's information."