Journalists in Syria Face Dangers of War and Rising Risk of Abduction
By Rick Gladstone, NY Times, August 9, 2013
Abductions of journalists inside Syria have increased sharply this year as the ravages of the conflict have worsened and the insurgency has turned more jihadist and chaotic, making the country one of the most hostile conflict zones for news gatherers in recent memory, according to news media advocacy organizations, rights workers and veteran correspondents.
Some appear to have been carried out by armed insurgent extremist groups and criminal networks seeking ransom in cash, weapons or both. But others have no declared motive.
Foreign journalists are particular targets, mostly Europeans who have ventured into Syria, usually without the permission of the Syrian government, to cover a conflict now well into its third year. Syrian journalists have been taken, too, as have Syrians working with foreign news organizations.
Foreign reporters were initially welcomed by many insurgents and Syrian civilians, taken for advocates who could publicize grievances against President Bashar al-Assad. Now they are sometimes viewed as interlopers who have no stake in the outcome of the conflict, which has left more than 100,000 people dead.
Spreading economic desperation in Syria has increased the possibility of betrayal, extortion and abduction, according to news media advocacy and rights groups. Some translators, drivers and local guides have reported that criminal groups or jihadists have tried to recruit them to lure journalists into Syria with promises of scoops.
"There have been more abductions and there have been nastier abductions," said Donatella Rovera, a senior investigator for Amnesty International who has spent long periods traveling in Syria to document rights abuses in the conflict. "There is no denying that the fragmentation of armed groups, and the increased visibility of radical groups, have coincided with an increase in abductions," she said. "It’s fair to assume there is a relationship there."
Jonathan Alpeyrie, a French-American photojournalist for the Polaris agency, was abducted by Islamist fighters near Damascus on April 29 and released nearly three months later. He said a $450,000 ransom had been paid on his behalf.
"The rebels are so desperate they don’t care about their reputation abroad," he said in an interview published on Wednesday by the Paris-based Journal de la Photographie. "They see guys like us as an opportunity."
Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, a photojournalist and cameraman who has spent more than 13 months in Syria over multiple trips since the conflict began in 2011, said he had sensed a new mistrust toward the foreign news media on his most recent visit. He said many Syrians who opposed Mr. Assad resented the Western military reluctance to intervene.
Peter N. Bouckaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said overall abductions began to increase when fighting broke out last year in Aleppo, the country’s once-flourishing commercial hub.
The abductions have increased as the insurgency’s reliance on jihadist groups, like the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has grown. “They try to kidnap wealthy Syrians and some journalists for ransom,” Mr. Bouckaert said in an interview in June with Syria Deeply, an independent blog about the conflict. “The kidnappers tend to know the wealth of their victims,” he said.
Mr. Bouckaert said a second category of abduction, in which Sunnis and Shias kidnap each other in tit-for-tat hostilities, has also increased. Unexplained disappearances have proliferated as well, he said, “where people are taken by unknown gunmen and never seen again,” as in the case of two archbishops from Aleppo who vanished in April.
"In general, instability is on the rise in Syria, and these kidnappings are part of this instability," he said. "Kidnappings are a part of the dangers that civilians in general face in this conflict."