Syrians carry banners during an anti-government protest in the coastal town of Banias, Syria. (AP)
Syrians carry banners during an anti-government protest in the coastal town of Banias, Syria. (AP)

Syria holds at least five journalists in custody

New York, May 10, 2011Syria is holding at least five local and foreign journalists as part of its ongoing repression of the media, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. CPJ also called on the Syrian government to make public the names of all journalists currently in detention and to release them without delay.  

The government began detaining journalists reporting on the country’s popular uprising weeks before March 15, when sustained daily protests began sweeping the country, CPJ research shows. Since then, CPJ has found that about 20 local and international journalists have been physically assaulted, detained, or expelled from Syria since social unrest erupted close to two months ago.

Dorothy Parvaz, who is an online reporter for Al-Jazeera English, arrived in Syria on April 29 and has not been heard from since, her fiancé, Todd Barker, told CPJ. Parvaz, a U.S., Canadian, and Iranian national, was held incommunicado by an unidentified security service for six days, before Damascus acknowledged that she was in custody on May 4. In spite of the statement, the government-aligned daily Al-Watan, owned by business mogul and cousin of President Bashar al-Assad Rami Makhlouf, quoted an unnamed security official as saying that “Parvaz left Syria after authorities denied her entry, because she carried a tourist visa while her equipment indicated that she wished to engage in journalistic work, a matter that requires different procedures.” The unnamed official added that Parvaz left Syria on May 1, after authorities denied her permission to enter the country. Al-Haqiqa, an online publication issued by an opposition group in exile, the National Council for Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation in Syria, reported that Parvaz attempted to enter Syria on an Iranian passport, which would preclude any need for a visa, since Iranian nationals can enter Syria without one.

“The Syrian government has, in the span of a week, given contradictory details about Dorothy Parvaz’s whereabouts,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “Damascus must account for all detained journalists and release them immediately.”

Ghadi Frances, who writes for the Lebanese daily As-Safir, was detained in Damascus on Saturday, multiple Syrian and Arab online news outlets reported. According to the same sources, Frances had been sent to Syria in the opening days of May to cover mounting demonstrations throughout the country. In her last article, which ran in Friday’s issue of As-Safir, Frances wrote an exposé about the uprising in Syria’s third-largest city, which has turned into a hotbed of anti-government demonstrations.

Fayiz Sara, a prominent contributor to the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat and As-Safir, among several other publications, was arrested on April 11, CPJ research shows. Sara was taken from his home in Damascus and his whereabouts remain unknown. The arrest followed a meeting between Sara and a then recently dismissed editor-in-chief of the state-owned daily Tishrin, the pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported in mid-April.

Mohamed Zayd Mastou, a correspondent for Al-Arabiya, was detained by Syrian officials on April 6, his wife, Karen Fausto, told CPJ. Al-Arabiya initially reported that Syrian authorities gave no reason for Mastou’s arrest and have not issued any additional information about him since early April. CPJ research strongly suggests that Mastou continues to be held incommunicado in a Damascus facility.

Akram Darwish, a freelance photographer, was detained in Qamishli in Northeastern Syria, as he covered a demonstration on May 3, United Press International reported, citing local human rights groups. No further information was available.

Also in Syria, Ghassan Saoud, a contributor to the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar and the Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas, was detained on Friday in central Damascus, local and regional media reported. Saoud was beaten on the street by a large number of plainclothes police who placed a canvas bag over his head and led him away, according to local and regional news reports. Saoud has since been released and resumed writing, CPJ research shows.