In the crosshairs of reporting Syria – Channel 4′s Alex Thomson reflects
June 29, 2012 Leave a comment
An attack on a pro-government Syrian television station, in which seven staff were killed and 11 kidnapped, was a stark reminder, if one were needed, that journalists are high-value targets in conflict.
It is unclear who was behind the attack, which the Syrian government called “a massacre against freedom of the press”, but rebel or renegade army forces were top of the list of suspects.
Veteran British television correspondent Alex Thomson experienced the deadly dangers of covering Syria first hand – and learned some life-saving lessons about trust and treachery.
He believes members of the rebel Free Syrian Army set up him and his crew to be shot because “dead journos are bad for Damascus”.
“Journalists have high value as targets, there’s no getting away from that,” he said in an interview with INSI.
“Damascus got huge flack out of killing (American journalist) Marie Colvin. It was wrong, it was unfortunate, it was unforgivable – but I think both sides are capable of doing that.”
Thomson, Chief Correspondent for Britain’s Channel 4 News, said the international outrage directed at the Syrian government following the deaths of Sunday Times correspondent Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik in Homs last February was a strong motivator for the FSA’s attempt on his life.
In his blog, he wrote:
“I’m quite clear the rebels deliberately set us up to be shot by the Syrian Army. Dead journos are bad for Damascus.”
“In a war where they slit the throats of toddlers back to the spine, what’s the big deal in sending a van full of journalists into the killing zone? It was nothing personal”
He described how he was led into a free-fire zone by the FSA after reporting from rebel-held al Qusayr.
After crossing from government to FSA territory with the UN, some of the rebels seemed suspicious of his Damascus-issued accreditation. He shot some footage and was preparing to leave when rebel escorts suggested they take him out via a different route.
“They took us in a completely opposite direction to the way we came in and dumped us off in a no man’s land shooting gallery. We had a perfectly safe way out of there and they chose to take us into a death trap,” he said.
His controversial view has been met with disbelief, but Thomson said that in civil war, where both sides are desperate to gain backing from the international community, this is completely plausible.
“I’m the first journalist who dared to suggest these people (Syrian rebels) aren’t saints. I’m just saying what I see through my own eyes.
“It’s a nasty conflict. No conflicts are worse than civil wars, and bad things happen on both sides.”
“We made a mistake”
Syria is the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist, according to INSI figures. Seventeen news media personnel and several citizen journalists have been killed, most of them targeted in defiance of Geneva conventions.
There is no doubt that targeting the press gets international attention. The Human Rights Council in Geneva last week examined joint reports by UN experts calling for the special protection of journalists because of the increasingly dangerous nature of their work.
Thomson’s story adds yet another dimension to the dangers journalist should be aware of while reporting conflict.
“We made mistakes. We trusted the rebels, and we shouldn’t have,” he said. “We should have said, ‘you must be joking, this was not the way you led us in, this was not the deal’ – it was totally the wrong thing to do.
“We were all far too trusting … (now) by God you’d be sceptical about anything they say.”
But he said he does not take the attempt on his life personally.
“Everyone lies in war. Everyone lies in everything. Too many people only see Syria through this very controlled prism – or should I saw prison. It’s very difficult to maintain any objectivity,” he said.
“Grown-up journalism needs to wake up and reflect on that, instead of jumping on the cavalcade and saying, ‘plucky little fighters taking on awful nasty regimes supported by awful China and awful Russia’.
“It is a nasty regime, but that doesn’t get you very far. It’s like going to the North Pole and doing a piece for the camera, saying ‘there’s lots of snow and it’s cold’. Turns out there are different kinds of snow.”
“I don’t think it will happen to me – how can I?”
Thomson is preparing his next trip to Syria. He was promptly issued another visa after his blog which was well received by the Syrian government.
Even after 22 years as an international correspondent, witnessing 20 wars, Thomson said that he could have been better prepared for his trip to Syria.
He said experienced war reporters could even be at more risk, ironically because of their experience.
“I feel it is important to say, you send the most experienced people to the most horrendous places. That’s a sensible policy but you develop a sense that nothing can happen to you,” he explained.
“Of course I get scared, but I don’t think about it. I don’t think it will happen to me – how can I?”
This time around he hopes to be embedded with the Syrian army. He believes his would be the first western television crew to do so.
“I just want to see these guys who are shelling Homs and ask them why they’re doing it and what they hope to achieve,” he said.