The Most Dangerous Place in the World for Journalists  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 2012/January 2013

The Most Dangerous Place in the World for Journalists   

Twenty-six media professionals have been killed covering the conflict in Syria and five remain missing. The government permits few correspondents to enter legally, forcing them to sneak into the war-torn country and travel with rebel forces. Yet some brave reporters are providing top-notch journalism. Wed., November 28, 2012.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     


To enter Syria, CBS News foreign correspondent Clarissa Ward has squeezed through holes in fences, waded across canals and slogged through muddy fields in the middle of the night, paying smugglers to help her sneak past government checkpoints.

Once inside, she works under the radar, dependent on ragtag bands of rebel fighters for food, shelter and safety. For locals caught helping a foreign journalist, "It would mean certain death," says Ward, who speaks "passable" Arabic and has been inside Syria six times in the past year.

These circuitous routes have become commonplace over the past 20 months because President Bashar al-Assad's government heavily restricts reporting in the war-torn country and issues visas sparingly to journalists.

They operate illegally and hope to avoid run-ins with Syria's heavy-handed security forces. This enter-at-your-own-risk strategy and the indiscriminate violence sweeping the country have taken a terrible toll.

Twenty-six media professionals have died covering the fighting and five others, including American freelancer Austin Tice, remain missing. Many others have been wounded and kidnapped. The Committee to Protect Journalists has labeled Syria the most dangerous place on Earth for the press.

What began as peaceful protests in March 2011 has become the longest and bloodiest uprising of the Arab Spring. The Syrian government insists opposition forces are "terrorists" supported by the United States and other foreign powers. Media reports out of the war zone tell a different story.

Eyewitness accounts verify the scorched earth policy Assad is carrying out against his own people, striking towns with warplanes, helicopter gunships, tanks and artillery. Nearly 40,000 have been killed and 2 million displaced by the violence. Middle East experts warn that Syria could become a tinderbox, igniting broader conflict in one of the world's most volatile regions.

For journalists, the assignment is a logistical nightmare. They steal across the border carrying whatever they need on their backs. In Baghdad, there were five-star hotels with blast walls and armed guards to protect them. In Syria, reporters sleep in farmhouses and private homes where rebel fighters stack guns by the door. Once inside this quagmire, journalists operate covertly, with a porous safety net.

In February, Ward and CBS News producer Ben Plesser lived for a week with a rebel commander and his family in the embattled northern town of Idlib.

On one occasion, the journalists followed Abu Ibrahim and his younger brother Azzu into battle. A video clip aired on CBS shows Ibrahim struggling to drag the limp body of a fallen comrade to safety under heavy gunfire. The rebels had no radio communications and Ibrahim "could not have known that on the other side of the road his brother Azzu also had been shot," Ward reported.

Five-foot-10 and blonde, she often appears before the camera in a black and brown abaya, a long loose garment worn by Muslim women, and a scarf.

Ward was in the room when women in the family learned of Azzu's death and collapsed in grief. His body, along with others killed in the fight, was placed in a hall below the house.

At breakfast the next day, Ward sat silently, watching as Ibrahim picked up a piece of traditional flatbread. "He was chewing and chewing, but he couldn't swallow. Suddenly, he just started to sob. I cried with him," she recalls. Later, the elder brother led the funeral procession.

Ward has covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, she says, "I never experienced anything like what I saw in Syria. It has been one of the toughest conflicts to cover for security and safety, but also emotionally. Logistically, it is unbelievably challenging." The journalist was in a Syrian refugee camp on the Turkish border when she learned she had won the 2012 Peabody Award for her reporting in Syria.

In this civil war, the front lines are fluid. A firefight can break out inside a mosque, an ancient souk or a quiet neighborhood. Al Qaeda fighters and other jihadists roam the countryside as freelance warriors determined to overthrow Assad. Black-shirted paramilitaries, described in one news account as "killers on steroids," serve as death squads for the government.

When journalists slip into Syria, they travel on horseback, on foot and in rickety vehicles with local drivers who double as translators for upwards of $100 a day. Cellphone and Internet access is spotty at best. The journalists use satellite phones sparingly, worried that government spies can track the signals.

In August, CNN senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman and his crew were jammed into a tiny van on their way to Aleppo, a commercial center and Syria's largest city, which had become a fierce battleground. They sped through "sniper alley" crouched in the back seat in their flak jackets and helmets. Just short of their destination, the van sputtered to a halt, the gas tank empty. Wedeman climbed out and pushed alongside the others.

In July, journalists got a break. The Free Syrian Army secured several border stations along the Turkish frontier, providing easier access to territory they control. But the ceremonial stamp on their passports doesn't make reporters legal in the eyes of government in Damascus.

The all-pervading danger in Syria weighs heavily on newsroom managers responsible for sending correspondents into harm's way. "Right now, we are very cautious about dispatching reporters inside Syria. For us, security is paramount," says Washington Post Foreign Editor Douglas Jehl. "Syria presents enormous dangers and challenges unlike most of us have ever seen."

The Post's Liz Sly covers the war from Beirut and has made trips inside Syria. Other Post reporters have gone in for short stints.

"We have not sent people inside for the kinds of extensive, ambitious stays Chris Chivers and before him Anthony Shadid and the great photographer Tyler Hicks and others have done for the [New York] Times," Jehl says.

"They have invested a lot of resources, shown a lot of courage and done some remarkable journalism. We haven't undertaken that ambitious effort, mostly because of the security concerns on our side." In February, Shadid, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his reporting in Iraq, died of an apparent asthma attack on his way out of Syria.

New York Times Foreign Editor Joseph Kahn did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Associated Press correspondent Paul Schemm had a near-death encounter just before his tour of duty in Syria ended.

In September, Schemm was in Tel Rifaat, a small city in the north, reporting on how the onset of winter would impact Syria's humanitarian crisis. He had just finished interviewing his driver's brother-in-law about people sleeping in fields at night in fear of artillery and airstrikes hitting their homes. The AP crew included a Jordanian photographer and Hungarian television journalist.

The group was ready to leave when, suddenly, bearded gunmen in camouflage uniforms drove up, surrounded Schemm and his colleagues and demanded to see identification. A heavyset man in a long brown robe who identified himself as Iraqi paged through Schemm's passport, then said to him in English, "We know all American journalists are spies. Now tell us what you are doing here and who you are spying for."

"Suddenly, all the focus was on me, the American," Schemm says. "I was singled out. I was being targeted. He took me aside and tried to get me to admit I was a spy. At one point he said, 'If I had a gun, I would shoot you.' "

What the man uttered next was even more chilling. "I really want to cut your head off right now," he told Schemm. The man flew into a tirade, accusing the United States of destroying Iraq and Afghanistan. He turned to his men and said, "This American kills Muslims."

The reporter says he stayed "very, very cool throughout the confrontation. I am not sure why. Some kind of survival mechanism must have kicked in."

The driver, a native of Tel Rifaat, began bargaining on the AP team's behalf. He argued that it was disrespectful for them to suggest that he would work for an American spy. In the end, the gunmen turned the foreign journalists over to the driver's care. "I don't think they wanted to kidnap me in front of everybody," says Schemm, who had reported out of Tel Rifaat before.

As they drove away, a flood of adrenaline and fear kicked in. He had been in Iraq and in Libya during the revolution, but "I never experienced anything like this. It was my first time in the hands of jihadists," says the correspondent, who is based in Rabat, Morocco.

Schemm wrote about the experience in a story for the AP. He reported that the gunmen clearly were not Syrians. Some appeared to have North African accents. The confrontation "underscored the unpredictable element that foreign fighters bring to the Syrian conflict," he wrote. He cited a United Nations warning that the rise in fighters from outside Syria "could radicalize the rebellion."

Does Schemm plan to return to Syria? "I have a three-and-a-half-year old son, and that is something to be considered. It's exciting to be part of a big story, but I want to be around for my child later on," he says.

Another AP staffer, video journalist Ahmed Bahaddou, also had a close call. In June, he was struck in the shoulder by a bullet while filming clashes between the rebels and the Syrian Army. The situation inside Syria is "totally unpredictable," says AP Vice President and Senior Managing Editor John Daniszewski.

The decision to send AP personnel into Syria passes through several layers of management, then ends up on the desk of Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll, who makes the call. Once a crew enters Syria, the AP stations a journalist near the border as a liaison, checking on his or her colleagues several times a day.

The AP is committed to a strong presence in Syria, Daniszewski says. "The journalistic questions we want to answer can only be answered by being there, opposed to what we can gather remotely from the outside." He says the AP sends journalists to Damascus and government-held areas with visas when the government grants them. But, he adds, in some cases AP journalists have had to enter without visas to reach rebel-held areas. He says that the wire service also has stringers reporting out of Damascus.

CBS News makes decisions to send personnel into Syria based on the security situation at the time and strength of the story, says Vice President for News Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews.

She says network news executives discuss possible assignments with the reporting team. "Everyone has to be comfortable with the decision," she says. "Ultimately, management makes the final call." The network's correspondent Elizabeth Palmer has gone into Damascus several times on an official visa.

Rebel forces have provided greater entrée to the fighting and a modicum of security to Western journalists. As a result, much of the reporting comes from the point of view of the rebels rather than the government. That provides a challenge for journalists.

"We do everything we can in our coverage to write fairly, responsibly and accurately, but the lack of access and lack of credible information from the government side certainly has complicated our efforts," says the Washington Post's Jehl. "It has been easier for American journalists to hear the accounts of rebels and activists than to talk to government supporters."

Veteran war correspondent Janine di Giovanni wanted to report from a different vantage point. Early in the uprising, she applied for a visa through official channels, saying she wanted to cover the United Nations monitoring mission in the country.

She was surprised when the request was approved, "especially given my track record writing about human rights," she said by telephone from her Paris home. She had returned from her third trip to Syria 10 days earlier.

"I'm not saying by any means that I'm supporting the government. I'm not. But I wanted to be inside Damascus and Homs [scene of some of the war's most intense fighting]. It's been fascinating for me. For one thing, I've never been on the side of the so-called bad guys – the Assad supporters. But to hear people explaining why they're supporting this regime gave rare insight," she says.

On October 17, di Giovanni, a contributing writer for the New York Times, had a front-page story about the realities of war creeping into Damascus, touted as the world's oldest continuously inhabited city.

The Syrian capital once was famous for its all-night party scene. "Now, few people venture out after dark, and kidnappings are rampant. Gasoline is increasingly scarce, and as winter approaches, people are worried about shortages of food and heating oil... Shelling and machine-gun fire are so commonplace, children no longer react," di Giovanni wrote. She explored Syrians' fears over what might follow if Assad falls. Gossip about foreign jihadists and religious fanatics taking over the country is endemic.

On October 24, the Times ran a page-one piece by di Giovanni on the besieged city of Homs, a glimpse into the lives of government soldiers, "bleary-eyed men, worn down by months of combat."

After the stories appeared, she wrote in an e-mail, "So many enemies on Twitter (who think I am pro-government) that you can't believe it. As if I would ever be pro-regime of anything!"

During the last trip, she worked with a female fixer who doubled as driver and translator. When they approached checkpoints, the reporter wrapped a scarf around her head. The two became friends, and di Giovanni was glad for the company. In Damascus, she found no press clubs or fellow journalists. "No one was there," di Giovanni says.

The storytelling coming out of Syria has been powerful, with strong "show, don't tell" components – meticulous scene-setting, true-to-life characters and intricate plots of survival, despair and heroism.

In August, the New York Times' C.J. Chivers, a former Marine, spent five days traveling with commander Abdul Hakim Yasin and his Lions of Tawhid, a group fighting against Assad. Chivers' stories, rich in detail and nuance, shed light on how guerrilla cells are formed and how they operate. Yasin began fighting with fewer than 10 other residents, four shotguns and hunting rifles, Chivers reported.

He described accompanying Yasin's fighters through Aleppo toward a city block that was on fire from the shelling. Here's an excerpt:

As they approached, gunfire ripped by. The convoy turned into an industrial compound, and the fighters hopped off the trucks, parking them against the warehouses, and fanned out.

Mr. Yasin watched, silhouetted by the orange blaze. His enemies, trapped nearby, lobbed mortar rounds at the compound. Each exploded with crunching blasts. He did not flinch.

Another jet showed up and circled overhead. It was invisible in the almost moonless night sky; only its engine could be heard. Soon it attacked, too, diving toward the compound and firing air-to-ground rockets in pairs.

It pulled out, circled, returned, dived and released rockets again. They slammed to earth at the compound's edge...

After each explosion, Mr. Yasin, an accountant leading a life and role delivered to him by war, keyed his two-way radio, and checked on his men. All around him they crouched in the smoky darkness, weapons ready, waiting for orders or for more action against a government they consider already dead.

Blogger Noah Chestnut posted a comment about Chivers' piece on the social networking site Branch. "This story about The Lions of Tawhid was more gripping than any spy thriller (novel or movie)," Chestnut wrote, "I can not name another reporter who would be given this level of access and who could pull this off. Better than Hemingway in Spain."

Due to the extreme danger and poor access, many editors are not scrambling to rush personnel into Syria. Instead, news outlets have turned to secondary information to keep a spotlight on the worsening civil war.

Since the revolt started, citizen journalists, activists and bloggers have played a major role using social media like Twitter and Facebook to provide on-site reports. Amateur filmmakers have used smartphones to produce thousands of video clips uploaded to YouTube. Many operate under assumed names and move from place to place to avoid detection.

They have taken on this role of messenger at great personal risk.

According to CPJ, "dozens of journalists; Syrian reporters, bloggers, and activists are regularly followed, arrested, and tortured. Ordinary citizens who came into contact with international journalists are also targeted."

In May, a Syrian court sentenced citizen journalist Mohammed Abdel Mawla al-Hariri to death on a charge of "high treason and contact with foreign parties" after he gave interviews to Al Jazeera TV about conditions in his hometown, CPJ reported. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders noted that al-Hariri was subjected to "horrific torture" after his arrest on April 16.

Human Rights Watch reports that Syrian security forces "have arrested hundreds of activists since protests erupted in mid-March, often merely for communicating with media." Five citizen journalists were killed in May, including three who worked for the citizen news organization Shaam News Network that has posted thousands of videos documenting the violence in Syria.

In May, cyber-security expert Eva Galperin wrote a guest blog for CPJ titled, "Don't get your sources in Syria killed." "The al-Assad regime's surveillance of telecommunications – cell phones, text messages, email and Internet traffic – is remarkably extensive. Using equipment built in the West by companies such as BlueCoat, the Syrian government censors the Internet, blocks websites, and snoops on traffic using Deep Packet Inspection," Galperin wrote.

Blue Coat Systems, a Web security and management company in Sunnyvale, California, has denied selling equipment to Syria. Assad's regime might have obtained the technology through the gray market for surveillance and monitoring devices. Deep Packet Inspection is a process that enables eavesdropping and Internet censorship.

The organization Galperin works for, the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, helps Syrians avoid government snooping. Dlshad Othman, a Syrian activist in the United States, works with Galperin to identify malicious software used by pro-government forces to do electronic spying. "The situation is not improving," Galperin says.

In March, the New York Times profiled Rami Jarrah, a Syrian activist who fled after being stalked, threatened and imprisoned by Syrian security forces. He settled in Cairo and, along with other self-imposed exiles, founded the Activists News Association to chronicle government atrocities and connect mainstream journalists with sources inside Syria.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights and Local Coordination Committees of Syria are often cited as sources in Western media.

Even when furnished with the best intentions, second-hand information, by its very nature, carries obvious risks to credibility and truthfulness. The blog A Gay Girl in Damascus is a constant reminder of the need for caution and triple-checking.

Old-fashioned reporting methods could have defused that Internet hoax. The fabricated blog of Amina Arraf, supposedly a lesbian living in Syria, fooled the likes of CNN, London's Guardian and many other news outlets. Tom MacMaster, an American studying at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, made Amina up.

How do news organizations avoid another hoax?

When a video clip showing missing American journalist Austin Tice alive and in the hands of masked gunman turned up on YouTube in September, the news media proceeded with extreme caution.

From the beginning, reporters raised suspicions the video might have been staged to give the impression he was in the hands of Islamists. Some news organizations sought out experts on terrorism to evaluate its authenticity. Stories quoted State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland saying, "We continue to believe that, to the best of our knowledge, we think he is in Syrian government custody."

Many stories and images provided by contacts inside Syria carry this disclaimer: "This information could not be independently verified."

It's become standard procedure to seek multiple sources to check the veracity of claims about atrocities and other war-related events in Syria. "There certainly have been times in the last 20 months when we have learned that accounts put out on Twitter and elsewhere are not true," says the Washington Post's Jehl.

In June, the New York Times' Chivers reported on a video that announced the formation of a Special Forces brigade joining the opposition. He described images of "11 men dressed in black..posing with what appeared to be modified MP-5 submachine guns..declaring the fight 'in the service of God' against Mr. Assad's 'criminal regime.' "

As Chivers noted, there was just one problem. An analysis by a British arms expert found the men were holding a Chinese-made toy replica of the gun marketed for children.

At the beginning of the hostilities, Syrians hailed Western journalists as heroes for braving danger to spread the word about the horrors unfolding in their homeland. With the steady stream of reporting, the world community could not claim it didn't know. Twenty months later, a diplomatic stalemate over what to do about Syria continues, the violence continues unabated and the view of media as savior has dimmed.

CBS' Ward has seen definite changes in the attitude toward the press over the months she has moved in and out of Syria. At first, people thanked her for being there. Women came up and kissed her on the cheek and gave her presents. Then disillusionment set in.

"On my most recent trip, I suddenly was hearing, 'You must be CIA,'" Ward says. "There's an increasing sense of bitterness and mistrust. They are convinced America is working against them."

The correspondent noticed another difference. When she first went into Syria, she heard gallant conversations about freedom and democracy. She met impassioned young activists and ordinary people who had taken up guns to free Syria from 40 years of Assad family dictatorship. When she returned this fall, she heard more talk of jihad.

"I saw hardened rebel fighters who are increasingly fragmented and increasingly under the influence of extremist Islamic groups," she says. "The waters have been very muddied."

All sides in the conflict have attempted to silence local and foreign media.

Many journalists have died at the hands of government forces, but attacks by rebels against media workers and news outlets viewed as loyal to the Assad regime are on the rise, according to CPJ. In October, a journalist for a pro-government TV station was killed and a Ukrainian reporter who filed stories to several Russian news outlets disappeared. Anhar Kochneva was known as an Assad supporter and frequently criticized the opposition.

The fate of kidnapped American journalist Tice, 31, remains a mystery. The Georgetown University law student and former Marine contributed to McClatchy, CBS News and the Washington Post, among others. He disappeared in August.

One American has died covering the bloodshed. In February, Marie Colvin, a noted war correspondent who was reporting for the Sunday Times of London, was killed when a direct strike from a rocket-propelled grenade hit a makeshift press center in the city of Homs. French photographer Rémi Ochlik also died in the explosion. Other journalists were wounded and smuggled out of Syria for medical care.

Is serving as eyewitness in Syria worth the risk?

On August 20, award-winning Japanese video journalist Mika Yamamoto was fatally shot during an ambush by government troops in Aleppo. Her longtime companion and colleague Kazutaka Sato saw gunmen firing in their direction, and the journalists fled in opposite directions. Both worked for the Tokyo-based news agency Japan Press and had been traveling with the Free Syrian Army.

Sato went before cameras and explained why they had placed themselves in such extreme danger: "Because we want to show the whole world what is happening in Syria," he said, displaying Yamamoto's bullet-torn flak jacket. She had been shot nine times.

Back in Tokyo, he hand-carried a letter to the Syrian Embassy demanding an investigation. An embassy official told Sato the government had no responsibility for the journalists. His reason? They were operating in Syria without proper visas.

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