CPJ condemns effort to silence news coverage of Syria

New York, April 4, 2013–A Kuwait-based Syrian businessman has announced a monetary reward for any individuals who capture and turn over to security forces journalists affiliated with the pan-Arab channels Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, according to news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists called the announcement a deplorable effort to silence news coverage that is critical to the world’s understanding of the conflict.

In a phone interview with Syrian state television on March 30, the pro-regime businessman Fahim Saqr accused international journalists of misleading the Syrian and Arab people and said he would offer 10 million Syrian liras (about US$95,000) to anyone who helped journalists from Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya get arrested, news reports said.

Both broadcasters have reported extensively on the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the uprising in early 2011. The Syrian government has from the start sought to impose a blackout on news coverage in good part by expelling or denying entry to foreign journalists, CPJ research shows.

News accounts reported today that Syrian rebels have also begun to demand that international journalists working in the country use translators and drivers provided by the rebels themselves. Local journalists said they have noticed increased attempts by the opposition to restrict unflattering coverage.

“Our Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya colleagues face enormous risk in their coverage of the Syrian conflict, and this reckless announcement can further raise the danger,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “We call on Kuwaiti authorities to repudiate this announcement as an irresponsible attempt to choke off coverage of the war.”

Hassan Saeed, a news producer for the public liberties and human rights section of Al-Jazeera, told CPJ that the outlet would not “muzzle our mouths, and we will continue our work in Syria, regardless of these threats.” The outlet issued a statement today in which it reported receiving increased threats in recent weeks, and filed a complaint to the Kuwaiti General Prosecutor’s office accusing Saqr of “threatening and inciting against Al-Jazeera correspondents in Syria,” Abdalla al-Ahmed, a lawyer for Al-Jazeera, told CPJ.

Al-Arabiya has reported on the case but has not yet issued a public statement. The outlet did not immediately respond to CPJ’s messages requesting comment.

Faisal Qenaei, secretary general of the Kuwaiti Journalists Association, expressed solidarity with Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya correspondents in Syria and urged Kuwaiti authorities to launch an investigation against the Syrian businessman, according to news reports.

Journalists working in Syria face dangers on all sides, with freelance journalists confronted with even greater risks. At least 36 journalists have been killed in Syria since the start of the revolution in 2011, making Syria the most dangerous place in the world for journalists in 2012, according to CPJ research.