Syrians shout slogans in support of protesters in Deraa. (Reuters)
Syrians shout slogans in support of protesters in Deraa. (Reuters)

Syria cracks down on press; attacks in Libya, elsewhere

New York, March 28, 2011–Facing the nationwide spread of political unrest, Syrian authorities barred three Reuters journalists from reporting, blocked journalistic access to a hotbed of political dissent, censored a critical satellite station, and detained a political blogger. The widespread repression in Syria came on the same weekend that Libyan security agents forcibly barred a woman in Tripoli from giving journalists her account of being raped and abused by militiamen loyal to leader Muammar Qaddafi. Attacks on the press were also reported in Iraq, Mauritania, and Jordan.

“The rate and gravity of attacks against journalists in the Middle East and North Africa are staggering,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “This has never been a region friendly to independent reporting, but with upward of 300 separate attacks on the press documented by CPJ in less than three months, one begins to see just how dire the situation has become for journalists in the region.”

Syrian authorities today expelled Reuters producer Ayat Basma and cameraman Ezzat Baltaji, both Lebanese nationals, after detaining them for two days. A Syrian official said the two journalists were arrested near the Lebanese border because they were not authorized to work in the country and were filming “in an area where filming is not permitted.”  On Friday, Syrian authorities revoked the press credentials of Reuters senior correspondent Khaled Oweis for “false” coverage and directed him to leave the country, the news agency reported. Reuters said it stood by its coverage.

On Friday, security forces prevented local and foreign journalists from accessing the southern city of Daraa, the birthplace of the political unrest now sweeping Syria, effectively preventing news coverage of ongoing protests and the government’s heavy-handed response. Assaf Abboud, a BBC Arabic service correspondent, said on the air that authorities had asked journalists who had made it into the city to leave it before the conclusion of midday prayers on Friday. Throughout the region, protests have been most intense after Friday prayers. Journalists returned to Damascus, the BBC correspondent said. Syrian authorities had blocked access to Daraa on the previous weekend as well, CPJ research shows.

The signal of Orient TV, a private, Dubai-based satellite channel, has been jammed in Syria since Friday, according to Ghassan Abboud, the station’s director and owner. Orient has extensively covered protests in Daraa. Last week, the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Quds al-Arabi reported that Syrian officials have made harassing and threatening phone calls to Orient TV employees, suggesting the journalists could be treated as spies and their families persecuted.

Syrian blogger Ahmad Hadifa, known online as Ahmad Abu Al-Kheir, was arrested by security services in Damascus on Thursday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and regional news websites. Hadifa had been previously held without charge for six days in February, according to a post on his blog.

Buthaina Shaaban, a senior presidential adviser, took a hard-line stance regarding news media coverage during a press conference on Thursday. “The problem is with some media organs who wanted to exaggerate the figures, who wanted to exaggerate what happened,” said Shaaban, referring to protests in Daraa. “There was a lot of exaggeration and many unspecified things that were said by news media. And we could see that they were not willing to take the news as it exactly was.” Shaaban added: “Syrian state television tells the truth; no one else.”

In Libya on Saturday, a visibly bruised and agitated woman entered the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli, where most foreign reporters are staying, claiming that she had been tortured and raped by 15 Qaddafi militiamen over a two-day period. She was forcibly restrained by government minders and hotel staff, who drove her away to an undisclosed location. When journalists tried to intervene to hear the woman’s story, they were “punched or knocked to the ground,” The Washington Post reported. A government minder pulled a handgun, and a CNN camera that recorded the mayhem was smashed in an effort to destroy the footage, according to numerous news accounts. Despite the agents’ efforts, some of the footage made its way onto newscasts across the globe.

Elsewhere in the region:

In Jordan on Friday, journalists and bloggers were attacked as security forces used violence to disperse a reform-oriented demonstration in the capital, Amman. Al-Jazeera cameraman Ahmad Najeeb was hit while filming the demonstration and an ensuing crackdown by security forces. His camera was briefly seized and the footage deleted, Najeeb told CPJ. Al-Arabiya correspondent Saad al-Silawi was pushed while he and his crew were filming a live segment and were forced to stop their recording midway, al-Silawi told CPJ. Blogger Mohamad Omar was beaten by security forces, resulting in a broken arm, Omar told CPJ. It was not clear to him whether he had been beaten simply because he was a participant in the demonstration or if he was targeted in reprisal for his critical online writings. Aziza Ali, a reporter with the daily Al-Ghad, was beaten by security forces as she was reporting and taking pictures of the demonstration and the government’s response, she told CPJ. She suffered from a broken pelvic bone and was taken to a hospital. Mutaz Naawash and Mohamad Abu Eid, both reporters for Hayat Radio, were also assaulted during the demonstration, Ali told CPJ. She said that both had been hurt but could not be certain of the extent of their injuries.

On Friday, Nidal Mansour, the executive director of the local press freedom group Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists, condemned the anti-press attacks in an interview with Al-Jazeera. In a letter to the interior minister, dated Sunday, Mansour said he received a threatening phone call following his interview with Al-Jazeera.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, three journalists were fired upon in separate episiodes, according to news reports. Barqi Islam, a reporter for the satellite television station Speda in Amedi, Dohuk province, was attacked while driving home on Tuesday, news reports and local journalists said. Unidentified gunmen in a vehicle opened fire on his car, which was hit several times, but Islam was unharmed. Hangaw Hashm, a reporter for the opposition weekly Rojname, was driving out of a shopping center in Arbil on Wednesday when unidentified gunmen in a vehicle also opened fire on his car. Halgurd Qader, editor-in-chief of Zanar, a weekly magazine close to the Kurdish Democratic Party, was shot on Friday in his home in Sulaymania, according to Rahman Gharib of the Metro Center, a local press freedom group, and news accounts. Unidentified gunmen entered Qader’s home, shut down the electricity, and shot him twice in the abdomen. Qader was hospitalized and was in stable condition today.

Hashm told CPJ that attacks and intimidation attempts against journalists have increased since antigovernment protests started in Iraqi Kurdistan in mid-February. “We have received many threats through mobile text messages and phone calls asking us to refrain from reporting on demonstrations or face death and expose our families to attacks.”

In Mauritania, police attacked five journalists covering antigovernment protests on Friday, El-Housseine Ould Meddou, president of the Mauritanian Journalists’ Syndicate, told CPJ. Hoeba Ould Cheikh Sidati, a reporter for the news website Akhbar; Ahmed Ould Wadia, a reporter for the independent daily Siraj; Chenof Ould Malouks, a reporter for the news website Tawari; Samekh Ould Naji, a reporter for independent weekly Al-Hurriya; and Sayid Ould Mahmoudi, a reporter for the news website Atlas were beaten and had their materials confiscated by the police. Later that day, the city’s police chief apologized to the journalists and issued orders that their equipment and footage be returned. The syndicate lodged an official complaint with the police to investigate the incident and hold the perpetrators accountable.