Syrian regime continues its crackdown on journalists

New York, April 27, 2012–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns Syria’s continued detention of at least 13 journalists and press freedom activists–and perhaps several more–and calls on authorities to release them immediately. In many instances, authorities have not disclosed the health, whereabouts, or charges filed against the detainees.

“Ever since the uprising began a year ago, the Syrian government has attempted to suppress coverage by sweeping up domestic journalists and excluding foreign reporters,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “The government must immediately release all journalists in its custody.”

Many of those now held were arrested when authorities raided the offices of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) in Damascus on February 16, according to news reports. SCM was instrumental in reporting the killing and detaining of journalists since Syria’s uprising began last year.

Mazen Darwish, president of SCM, and Hussein Ghrer, a prominent blogger, have been held in solitary confinement during their detention despite their deteriorating health, according to news reports citing the newly founded Syrian Journalists Union and international press freedom groups. The journalists are being held by Air Force Intelligence, according to news reports, and have been tortured and denied basic legal rights, according to human rights groups. Details of their condition or any charges against them have not been disclosed.

Three other journalists who were arrested in the February raid on SCM are now facing trial in front of a military tribunal, news reports said. The journalists, who include Darwish’s wife Yara Badr, the U.S.-born blogger Razan Ghazzawi, and freelance journalist Hanadi Zahlout, are being held in Damascus Central Prison and will be charged with “publishing and distributing forbidden tracts under Clause 148 of the military penal code,” Anwar al-Bunni, a prominent Syrian human rights lawyer, told local reporters.

Citizen journalists are also being targeted by the Syrian government. Ali Mahmoud Othman, who ran the makeshift media center in the besieged neighborhood of Baba Amr where two international journalists were killed in February, has remained in detention since his arrest in early April. The international media has heavily relied on footage shot by Othman and other citizen journalists since the effective ban on international journalists in Syria, according to CPJ research. Authorities have not disclosed Othman’s condition or any charges against him.

The Syrian regime has also cracked down on international journalists who sneak into the country to report on the violent unrest. Turkish journalists Adem Özköse and Hamit Coşkun have been missing for more than a month and are believed to be in government custody, news reports said. Authorities have reported that the journalists are alive but have not disclosed their condition, whereabouts, or any charges against them.

At least five other journalists remain in prison after being arrested in 2011, according to CPJ research.

Eight individuals, who were also arrested in the raid on the SCM offices, remain in either Damascus Central Prison or in a military base outside Damascus under the de facto command of President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad. CPJ is investigating to confirm whether the individuals, who are all affiliated with SCM, are journalists.

At least nine journalists have been killed while covering Syria since November, making it the most dangerous place for journalists in the world right now, CPJ research shows.