Safety advisory for journalists covering Syria
July 31, 2012 Leave a comment
By Hannah Storm
Syria has become one of the biggest challenges facing news organisations the world over. Since the start of this year, at least 19 journalists and members of the Syrian and international news media have died there covering the news and many more have been detained, assaulted and threatened.
One of the key and recurring issues affecting the security and safety of both local and international journalists has been the paucity and sensitivity of reliable information.
The International News Safety Institute has been working with its members, who include some of the world’s leading media organisations, since the violence began in Syria last year, to share information that might impact on the safety of journalists and news crews covering the events there.
But because of the sensitivity of a lot of the information we have often had to do this by liaising directly with news organisations and individual journalists rather than publicly discussing issues that might compromise their safety. For this reason, we have not been issuing as frequent safety advisories as we did during the conflict in Libya.
However, as the focus of the fighting has moved to Syria’s second city, Aleppo, where the Syrian Army’s offensive has entered a fourth day, the concerns around the safety of news crews have exacerbated and we are issuing this guide for journalists about Syria.
SYRIA SAFETY UPDATE
On Monday, an Al Jazeera correspondent was hit by shrapnel covering the clashes in Aleppo. Omar Khashram was evacuated across the border and is now receiving medical treatment.
The BBC’s Ian Pannell, who has been inside Aleppo with his team described a “very confused” situation. Snipers are operating in many areas of the city, and the government troops appear to be shelling indiscriminately. News crews should be aware of this high level of uncertainty and volatility and have a solid evacuation plan.
News teams should also be aware that some of the fighters in Aleppo have been identifying themselves as belonging to Al Qaeda.
Meanwhile, thousands of Syrian people are fleeing the fighting in Aleppo and across Syria, heading for the borders with neighbouring countries Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey.
Turkey - There are signs that the number of news media travelling to the Turkish border with Syria is increasing.
Most foreign journalists are heading towards the Turkish border town of Antakya, where there are reports that prices for accommodation and other facilities are being inflated substantially.
INSI is concerned that some journalists travelling to the border have not built up contacts in Syria, and do not have a ‘point person’ in Turkey.
All journalists should have good, reliable and trustworthy contacts in place before they attempt to cross into Syria. INSI is concerned that without this preparation, the increasing number of journalists heading to the border could be risking their safety, or putting themselves in a situation where they are charged exorbitant rates by smugglers to get across the border and then left to their own devices.
All journalists should ensure they have a reliable and trustworthy translator if they are not Arabic speakers.
The FSA command structure now appears to be very fractured. FSA commanders do not trust each other and some journalists have reported being handed from one commander to another only to be told not to trust the second one. However as the insecurity increases, journalists must ensure they know who the local FSA commanders are as they may be reliant on them in an emergency.
In the past, journalists were able to rely to an extent on the activist network, but this now appears to be almost non-existent, although there is still some activist presence from the Turkish side.
There has been evidence of Al Qaeda, and other Islamic extremist groups working in the border regions. A British and Dutch photographer were released several days ago after being held by such a group for over a week.
Journalists should not assume that there is necessarily safety in numbers inside Turkey. There have been reports of PKK presence in the area of the camps, and Turkey has expressed concern about the influence of the PKK supported by the Syrians, though reports suggest that the PKK is unlikely to target Turkey from Syria.
Lebanon – The Lebanese border is extremely and increasingly challenging, with arrests reported of journalists and frequent shelling, and it is now becoming very difficult for news teams to operate on the Lebanese side. A number of crews have attempted to enter Syria this way, but have faced lengthy delays and some have turned back.
If crews are going from the Lebanese side, they should expect that the experience will be similar to an embed. Those trying to cross the border are very much reliant on smugglers, and there is the possibility that someone else may offer a greater price than the news teams and they might be ‘sold out’.
Communications remain a major issue, as they have been throughout the conflict. The Syrian authorities have a very powerful technological capability to jam, monitor and possibly track GSM and satellite communications, though its true reach and ability is not known for sure.
News crews are advised to act extremely cautiously to protect their technological equipment and all phones and laptops should be sanitised and journalists should be incredibly vigilant about sharing information on social media sites and of those with whom they make contact doing the same.
It has been very challenging for news teams to get lines of communication out of Syria and though some organisations say their Bgans and satellite phones are not working, others are able to get brief lines out.
Likewise, some teams have been able to file by internet and others have been able to text locally.
Aleppo is currently causing a number of issues with communications with some news crews unable to file at all.
INSI is coordinating a secure email forum for its members to share confidential and time sensitive information about issues affecting the safety of news crews and journalists covering events in Syria. For more information, please contact Hannah Storm, Hannah.email@example.com or +447766 814274