Silencing global coverage, Syria detains, expels reporters

New York, July 14, 2011–The Syrian government has detained a local journalist who contributes to pan-Arab news outlets and expelled an international reporter, according to news reports, continuing a crackdown designed to silence global news coverage of the nation’s political crisis.

Omar al-Assad, a Syrian online journalist and blogger who works for multiple news organizations, was detained on July 3, according to local and regional news outlets. His condition and whereabouts are unknown. Al-Assad contributes to the Lebanese daily As-Safir, the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, and the broadcaster Al-Jazeera, news reports said.  

Maarten Zeegers, a Dutch national who writes for the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad and the Belgian Flemish-language daily De Standaard, was detained on Monday in Damascus when he went to renew his residence permit, Radio Netherlands Worldwide reported. Zeegers was informed his name was on a list of “undesired foreigners,” he told the radio station. He said he was held for about five hours before being expelled to Turkey.

Zeegers, who had been living in Syria for two and a half years, had been studying Islamic jurisprudence at Damascus University and anonymously writing news reports for the two newspapers. Zeegers’ articles were labeled as having been written by a “staff writer” in an effort to obscure his identity and prevent authorities from harassing him. Since mid-March, when civil unrest erupted throughout the country, the government has expelled more than a dozen international journalists, leaving a void in global news coverage, CPJ research shows.    

 “The Syrian authorities are systematically detaining local journalists and expelling foreign reporters in a ruthless attempt to stifle coverage of political protests,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “We are concerned for the wellbeing of Omar al-Assad who has disappeared into the black hole of the Syrian security apparatus. We call on the government to release him immediately.”