An Islamic State militant stands with the Islamist flag in Iraq. (AFP/Welayat Salahuddin)
An Islamic State militant stands with the Islamist flag in Iraq. (AFP/Welayat Salahuddin)

James Foley’s killers pose many threats to local, international journalists

New York, August 20, 2014–The Committee to Protect Journalists is extremely concerned for all journalists, most of them Syrians, still held captive by the Al-Qaeda splinter group Islamic State, which has repeatedly kidnapped, killed, and threatened journalists in the territories over which it holds sway. President Barack Obama confirmed today that the group is responsible for the barbaric murder of U.S. freelance journalist James Foley.

“Local and foreign journalists already knew that Syria was the world’s most dangerous place to be a reporter before the beheading of James Foley brought that knowledge to the general public,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “The members of the Islamic State who murdered him use violence and intimidation to silence all independent reporting in the areas they control. Despite that, Syrian and foreign reporters like Jim Foley are prepared to put their lives at risk, in an attempt, in the words of another U.S. journalist killed in Syria, Marie Colvin, to ‘bear witness.'”

Syria has been the most dangerous country in the world for journalists for more than two years. In addition to Foley, at least 69 other journalists have been killed covering the conflict there, including some who died over the border in Lebanon and Turkey. More than 75 percent of the deaths came in crossfire or combat situations, but journalists have also been directly targeted by all sides of the conflict. More than 80 journalists have been abducted in Syria, an unprecedented number since CPJ’s founding in 1981. CPJ estimates that approximately 20 journalists, the majority of whom are Syrians, are currently missing in the country.

Given the restricted and dangerous reporting conditions in areas controlled by Islamic State and the number of cases that go unpublicized, usually at the request of family, it is difficult to provide an exact number of journalists killed or held captive by the group. But through Islamic State’s repeated targeting of journalists, the group has proven to be one of the most dangerous forces for the press across the region.

In a video showing Foley’s murder, the Islamic State group threatened to kill another captive, American freelance journalist Steven Sotloff. Sotloff, who has written for outlets including Time and Foreign Policy, was abducted in August 2013 near the Syrian-Turkish border, according to news reports. CPJ has previously not publicized his case at the request of his family. Seven other examples of journalists and media workers believed to be held by Islamic State, detailed below, demonstrate the danger of reporting in areas under its control.

Islamic State has been implicated in the murder of a number of journalists and media workers in both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, Iraqi freelance cameraman Yasser Faisal al-Jumaili was executed in Idlib on December 4, 2013, after being abducted by gunmen who he told Al-Jazeera were from Islamic State, the broadcaster reported. In Iraq, armed gunmen stormed the offices of the Salaheddin TV station in Tikrit on December 23, 2013, and killed five staff members, according to an executive at the station who did not want to be named for security reasons. News reports cited a post on jihadi media forums in which Islamic State, then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham or ISIS, declared responsibility for the attack. The statement accused Salaheddin of distorting the facts and warring against the Sunni people.

Islamic State uses its reputation for brutality to frighten journalists into self-censorship. Just three weeks ago, after the group made military advances around the city of Deir al-Zour, it ordered journalists and media workers to pledge allegiance to the group, and some complied, according to the Syrian Journalists Association. Journalists were ordered to refer to the group using its official name, refrain from doing television interviews, and send reports for pre-approval by the group’s media office.

CPJ continues to investigate a number of other work-related murders in Iraq of journalists that may have been carried out by one of Iraq’s numerous insurgent groups, including Islamic State, which have previously targeted any journalist that cooperates with the Iraqi government. At least four journalists in Iraq have also died while covering ongoing violence in the insurgency spearheaded by Islamic State against Iraqi government and Kurdish forces this year, according to CPJ research.

Seven of the many journalists CPJ believes to be held by Islamic State:

Aboud Haddad, a freelance photographer who worked for the Syrian opposition TV station Orient News, was kidnapped in the city of Atma in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border, on June 26, 2013. Obaida Batal, correspondent for Orient News, broadcast engineer Hussam Nidham al-Deen, and assistant engineer Aboud al-Atiq were taken hostage on July 25, 2013, when armed men raided the station’s office in the countryside north of Aleppo. Mohanad al-Sayed Ali, the station’s head of news reporters, told CPJ today that the station believes all four are being held by Islamic State.

Another Orient correspondent, Muayad Saloum, was kidnapped by Islamic State near Aleppo in November 2013, according to news reports. There is disagreement within Saloum’s family whether he is alive or dead. As Orient News reported, Saloum’s brother Yahya, who was kidnapped with Saloum, says Saloum was killed by Islamic State while another brother, Mohanad, says that information has not been confirmed. Orient’s Ali told CPJ today he has no confirmation that Saloum had been executed.

Rami al-Razzouk, a journalist for the local news outlet Radio ANA, was abducted by Islamic State gunmen at a checkpoint outside of the city of Raqqa on October 1, 2013, the station reported. Gunmen raided Radio ANA’s office shortly after and again on October 15, confiscating the station’s radio and communications equipment, the station said. Radio ANA’s founder, Rami Jarrah, told CPJ today that al-Razzouk was still being held by Islamic State.

Shahba Press correspondent Yassir al-Sattouf, also known as Abu Ahmed al-Dir Hafiri, was kidnapped in in the suburbs of Idlib by Islamic State forces on November 20, 2013, after criticizing the group’s takeover of government buildings, according to news reports. Shahba Editor-in-Chief Ma’moun Abu Amr told CPJ today that he received a tip that al-Sattouf was killed three months ago, but he could not verify those reports.