A vigil for victims of the Syrian conflict is held in Rome as the civil war enters its third year. Since 2011, 79 journalists have been killed while covering the war. (AFP/Tiziana Fabi)
A vigil for victims of the Syrian conflict is held in Rome as the civil war enters its third year. Since 2011, 79 journalists have been killed while covering the war. (AFP/Tiziana Fabi)

In Syria, fewer journalist deaths but danger has never been greater

For the third year in a row, Syria ranks as the deadliest country in the world for the press, research by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows. At first glance, the research offers good news: less journalists were killed, imprisoned and kidnapped this year in Syria than in 2013. A deeper look at the numbers and how we arrived at them however, show Syria has never been more dangerous for journalists.

Since the start of the conflict in 2011, CPJ has documented the cases of 79 journalists killed in relation to their work, making Syria the second deadliest country after Iraq since CPJ began keeping comprehensive records in 1992. This year, 17 journalists were killed, compared to 29 last year.

The way the journalists were killed has changed as the war becomes more brutal. Since the start of the war, the majority–about 75 percent–were killed in crossfire or combat situations. But this year there was an increase in targeting of journalists, with the percentage of murders rising from 10 percent last year to 18 percent this year.

The calculated brutality against journalists that we witnessed with the murders of freelancers James Foley and Steven Sotloff will be seared in our memories of 2014, but they were not the year’s only murder victims. Al-Moutaz Bellah Ibrahim, a Syrian correspondent for Shaam News Network, was also kidnapped and murdered by Islamic State militants. CPJ documented many more cases where journalists were likely targeted, including the killing in December of three Orient News journalists–correspondents Rami Asmi and Yousef El-Dous, and cameraman Salem Khalil–who were hit by what the station said was a guided missile fired by the government.

In this way Syria exemplifies a global trend of journalists being targeted and killed, often simply because of the profession they pursue. Out of journalists killed in relation to their work worldwide in 2014, 43 percent were targeted for murder. There was a time that journalists had a reasonable expectation that their non-combatant status would offer protection. But increasingly in Syria and elsewhere the phrase “I am a journalist” increases the risk of becoming a target.

The Syrian government has long targeted journalists through imprisonment. As of December this year, at least 12 journalists were imprisoned by the Syrian regime, the same number as last year. But the stories behind the numbers illuminate how conditions for the press have worsened. At least three died while in government custody, and two of their families and local rights groups said they were tortured. Their claims were given credence when thousands of graphic pictures leaked by a defector last year showed the bodies of prisoners that, had they been in black and white, could easily be mistaken for Auschwitz. The U.S. and European authorities have said they believe the images are authentic, according to news reports.

Many of the journalists who initially appeared on our prison census have not been heard from since their arrests two, even three years ago. In some cases, rumors have spread that they may have died in custody. The pain of not knowing what has happened to these prisoners is a feeling too well-known by the families of journalists who have been missing for years, such as freelancer Austin Tice and Al-Hurra television’s Bashar Fahmi. Both went missing in 2012 and the families have not heard of their whereabouts or safety since.

CPJ estimates that about 20 journalists are currently missing in Syria, compared to 30 at the same time last year. It is a miracle that some of the abducted journalists were able to return home safely but while the release of every hostage is a cause for celebration, it is bittersweet to know millions of dollars in ransom have been handed to terrorists.

It was primarily these abductions that led to swaths of Syria becoming no-go zones for journalists. Several international outlets have said they will no longer accept the work of freelancers in Syria and, while CPJ does not keep track of the number of journalists working in Syria, anecdotally we have seen international journalists stop entering Syria and local journalists fleeing from it. It is perhaps this reason more than any other that explains why CPJ documented less violations there this year.

Since the start of the war, it has been difficult for CPJ to confirm reliable information from Syria, and the challenges increased this year as the country became an information black hole. CPJ compiled a list of more than 110 cases of journalists, media activists, and workers reportedly killed this year, of which only 15 percent fell within our mandate of journalists killed in direct relation to their work. And while many other cases researched by CPJ did not fall within our mandate, they spoke directly to how the war in Syria has grown darker.

There were journalists who joined the long list of arbitrary victims of barrel bombs and armed checkpoints, and those who were reported dead but turned out to be held captive or forced into exile. There were many cases where CPJ found more pictures of the deceased journalists holding weapons than cameras–or even wielding both, and there were media activists working for extremist groups who were killed amid militant infighting. And then there was the teenage boy who the Islamic State crucified for selling pictures.

In the face of such darkness, is difficult to remember how it all began in the spring of 2011. But for many of the journalists who died this year, if you scroll far enough back in their Facebook timelines, it’s there for you to see. You can watch the videos of the protesters. You can hear their chants. You can read their demands. And you can feel their hope. But soon enough the protests give way to funerals, and security raids give way to military clashes.

We have seen versions of this story of crushed hope throughout the Middle East and North Africa, which journalists have covered courageously and at great cost for the past four years. Since 2011, one in three journalists who have died were killed covering the Syrian civil war. The Middle East and North Africa as a whole accounts for more than half of the journalists killed in that same time period.

It is at such times of tumult where journalism becomes so necessary–and perhaps when people are most inspired to become journalists. But with the danger of death, arrest, and abduction at record highs from Libya to Iraq, from Egypt to Bahrain, the fear is that journalists may decide it is simply no longer worth the risk. If they do, the region will fall further behind the shroud spread out by all who fear the free exchange of information.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: CPJ strives to independently verify every case of journalists killed in Syria and elsewhere. We are able to do this thanks to the help of the MENA interns who in 2014 included Rowaida Abdelaziz and Lori Baitarian.