Lebanese journalist abducted by rebel group in Syria

New York, October 29, 2012–A rebel group abducted a Lebanese journalist in the northern city of Aleppo on Saturday, bringing to at least five the number of international journalists being held captive by various sides of the conflict. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on the journalists’ captors to immediately release them and stop targeting members of the press who are covering the unrest in the region.

Fidaa Itani, a reporter for the private Lebanese Broadcasting Cooperation International (LBCI) and several other Lebanese news outlets, was accompanying the Free Syrian Army and reporting on military operations in Aleppo when he was seized in the Aazaz neighborhood, according to news reports. A rebel militia called the Northern Storm Battalion of Aazaz reported on its Facebook page that the journalist was being held under “house arrest” and had been detained because “his work was not suitable with the course of the Syrian revolution and revolutionaries,” news reports said. The Free Syrian Army is not a single, unified organization but an overarching name for numerous local militias such as the Northern Storm Battalion that at times have conflicting agendas.

Itani’s employer, LBCI, reported that it had spoken to the group’s commander, Abu Ibrahim, who confirmed that the Northern Storm Battalion was holding Itani and that the reporter had been taking “suspicious” pictures of rebel military movements and locations. Ibrahim told LBCI that the journalist would be released soon.

“All sides of this conflict must respect journalists’ internationally recognized status as civilians and must end the continuous abduction of journalists for doing their job,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “The group holding Fidaa Itani must immediately and unconditionally release him.”

Itani appeared in a video posted by the rebel group on Sunday, saying he was in good health and that the rebel group had captured him in Aazaz, news reports said. The group holding the journalist is also responsible for the kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in May who were returning from a pilgrimage in Iran, news reports said. The pilgrims are still in captivity. Itani had also covered their abduction, the reports said.

A Lebanese ministerial committee is working on negotiating the release of Itani and the pilgrims, news reports said.

In an unrelated development, on Saturday, Insani Yardim Vakfi, a Turkish relief agency, obtained a picture of Turkish journalist Cüneyt Ünal, a cameraman for the U.S. government-funded Al-Hurra, who has been missing in Aleppo since August 20, according to news reports. The group posted the picture, saying it was told it was a recent image of the journalist and that it had obtained it during a visit to Damascus while trying to secure the release of detained civilians, news reports said. The group said it did not see the journalist in person.

Ünal had appeared in a video on the pro-government TV station Al-Ikhbariya six days after his capture, but did not specify who his captors were. Al-Hurra reporter Bashar Fahmi, a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian origin, was with Ünal when the two disappeared, but Fahmi’s condition and whereabouts remain unknown.

U.S. freelance journalist Austin Tice also disappeared in mid-August and is believed to be held in Syrian state custody, according to the U.S. State Department. Anhar Kochneva, a Ukrainian who has contributed to several Russian news outlets including the Moscow-based broadcast outlet Russia Today, disappeared on October 9 and contacted her colleagues a few days later to say she was being held by the rebel Free Syrian Army, according to news reports.

At least 23 journalists have been killed while covering the Syrian conflict since November, including one killed just over the border in Lebanon, making Syria the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, according to CPJ research.

  • For more data and analysis on Syria, visit CPJ’s Syria page here.