By: Massoud Akko
The Syrian Center for Press Freedoms, affiliated to the Association of Syrian Journalists, documented 485 abuses and violations against journalists during the Syrian Revolution—of which 282 were murder cases, 111 arrests, 22 of them died under torture, and 59 journalists were wounded. In addition, 31 organizations and media centers were subjected to various attacks by all the warring parties.
The Syrian regime is ranked first in the list of pepretrators targeting journalists and media centers; closely followed in the second place by ISIS. Journalists also have not been spared from the armed opposition targeting them. There have also been cases of assault, arrest, and expuldsion from the country by the [Kurdish] People's Protection Units, and the Kurdish Asayish militia.
International organizations working in the field of freedom of press and expression have annointed Syria as the most dangerous country for journalists. According to the reports of Reporters Without Borders [RSF], the Committee to Protect Journalists [CPJ], and the International Institute of Journalism [IIJ]; Syria is the most dangerous place in the world for the work of journalists. They are targeted by all the warring factions—particularly by the regime and ISIS.
The unrivaled courage by Syrian journalists and media activists, made them icons in the world of freedom of expression and the free word. Yet it has, at the same time, placed them squarely on the target lists of the Syrian regime; especially at the beginning of the popular movement in Syria. Many of them were directly targeted by snipers aiming at sensitive parts of their bodies with the express aim of shooting to kill—targeting the head, heart and chest.
Hundreds of them languish in the Syrian regime's prisons, such as colleague Mazen Darwish, head of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression; his colleague Hani Zitani; Hussein Ghureir and Hussein Issau; and Ibrahim Haji Halabi. The armed Syrian opposition is also detaining Razan Zaitouneh and her colleagues from the Violations' Documentation Center [VDC]. ISIS is also still detaining journalist Ferhad Hammo and photographer Massoud Aqeel. These are but few of many more such examples.
Syrian regime forces targeted a large number of media centers, as did armed opposition forces, in addition to recently banning the distribution of a number of newspapers in the areas under its control in both Aleppo and Idlib. However, the areas under control of ISIS and Al-Nusra Front—an arm of al-Qaeda in Syria—still top the lists in terms of the kidnapping of both local and foreign journalists.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) embarked in 2011 on an effort to formulate a plan of action for the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity; based on data contributed by civil society, non-governmental human rights organizations, journalists, and other parties interested in the issues of freedom of expression.
UNESCO felt that "with every journalist killed or prevented from exercising his profession through intimidation and terror, the world loses a witness to the humanitarian situation. Every attack distorts reality with the aim of broadcasting an atmosphere of fear." In addition, the International Network for the Exchange of Information on Freedom of Expression indicates that, in nine out of ten cases, the perpetrators of these crimes are not prosecuted. Impunity—being the failure to bring those responsible for human rights violations to justice—is thus leading to a continuation of the cycle of violence against journalists. This must be put to an end.
Although Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek information and ideas, receive and impart any media and regardless of frontiers;" ensures the safety of journalists and the fight against impunity of killers and their attackers from punishment; and is a declaration to which all countries of the world are signatories—those hunting down journalists remain immune from accountability. This is not only the case in Syria, but also in the majority of countries in the world.
UNESCO, in cooperation with other international organizations, attempts to help reduce of crimes committed against journalists. In cooperation with the RSF, it issued a practical guide for journalists workers in conflict zones, updated regularly. This guide is now available in ten languages.
In addition to those steps, UNESCO has undertaken a number of activities to raise awareness of the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity. Among these activities is the celebration of World Press Freedom Day on the third of May of each year; as well as the granting of the "Guillermo Cano" World Press Freedom Prize award—awarded this year to journalist Mazen Darwish, langushing in Syrian regime prisons since February 2012 with his colleague Hani Zitani and Hussein Ghureir. The absence of any legal mechanism and judicial institution—whether local or international—prosecuting war criminals in Syria, punishing violators of human rights, the perpetrators of various crimes against humanity and war crimes; places the assailants on journalists in the same category. Aggressors continue to freely commit their crimes, and remain free from accountability with a great risk of them escaping their crimes with impunity.
* This article is published in cooperation with the Syrian Journalists' Association