By Zeina Karam
BEIRUT: Behind a veil of secrecy, at least 30 journalists have been kidnapped or have disappeared in Syria — held and threatened with death by extremists or taken captive by gangs seeking ransom.
The widespread seizure of journalists is unprecedented, and has been largely unreported by news organizations in the hope that keeping the kidnappings out of public view may help to negotiate the captives’ release.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said at least 30 journalists are being held and 52 have been killed since Syria’s civil war began in early 2011. The group also has documented at least 24 other journalists who disappeared earlier this year but are now safe. In a report this week, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders cited higher figures, saying at least 60 “news providers” are detained and more than 110 have been killed.
The discrepancy stems from varying definitions of what constitutes a journalist because much of the reporting and news imagery coming out of Syria is not from traditional professional journalists. Some of those taken have been activists affiliated with the local “media offices” that have sprouted up across opposition-held territory.
Only 10 of the international journalists currently held have been identified publicly by their families or news organizations: four French citizens, two Americans, one Jordanian, one Lebanese, one Spaniard and one Mauritanian. The remaining missing are a combination of foreign and Syrian journalists, some of whose names have not been publicly disclosed due to security concerns.
Groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists are alarmed by the kidnappings.
While withholding news of abductions is understandable in many cases, especially with lives at stake, the organization said, this has also served to mask the extent of the problem.
“Every time a journalist enters Syria, they are effectively rolling the dice on whether they’re going to be abducted or not,” said Jason Stern, a researcher at CPJ.
Jihadi groups are believed responsible for most kidnappings since the summer, but government-backed militias, criminal gangs and rebels affiliated with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army also have been involved with various motives.
By discouraging even experienced journalists from traveling to Syria, the kidnappings are diminishing the media’s ability to provide unbiased on-the-ground insights into one of the world’s most brutal and combustible conflicts.
And those who do go into the country from outside appear often to be among the less-prepared and less-protected — which in turn increases the chances of capture.
The kidnappings have helped shift the narrative of the war in a wider sense: What might have at first seemed to many like an idealistic rebellion against a despotic ruler now is increasingly viewed as a chaotic affair in which both anti-Western extremists and criminal gangs have gained dangerous influence.
“It is vital that journalists witness and tell the story of the Syrian civil war,” said John Daniszewski, senior managing editor for international news at the Associated Press. “However, the impunity with which journalists are attacked and kidnapped in this conflict means that we must be doubly cautious. It is not an arena for novices, and extreme care needs to be exercised to obtain the news. At the same time, actors in the civil war must acknowledge and protect the right of journalists to cover it fairly and accurately as a basic human right.”