WASHINGTON — For the second year running, more journalists have been killed in Syria than anywhere else in the world, according to a report released Monday by the Committee to Protect Journalists. In 2013, 29 were killed there in the course of reporting; in 2012, the grim toll reached 31.
Reporting from within a war zone is always a risk, but Syria stands out for a couple of reasons. First, from a baseline of relative safety, the security situation for journalists deteriorated rapidly once the conflict began. (In the two decades before the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad, CPJ had not documented a single journalist death in the country; the following year, it ranked No. 1 in journalist deaths). Second, both sides of the conflict have specifically singled journalists out for violence.
Assad’s regime — already notorious for suppressing media freedom — was the first to target journalists reporting on the civil war. In the early days of the uprising, Syrian authorities began arresting local reporters covering the anti-government protests. Then, in 2012, when Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in a rocket attack carried out by the Syrian army, the Telegraph reported that the Syrian Army may have specifically targeted the journalists after tracking their satellite phone signals to a particular building. Soon after, CPJ confirmed that satellite phone tracking was being widely used by military and security forces, and that it presents a real risk to journalists covering Syria and other conflict zones.
The peculiar nature of the violence against journalists in Syria prompted Robert Young Pelton, writing for Foreign Policy, to draw parallels between the Syrian conflict and the second Chechen war, in which "journalists were specifically targeted to prevent sympathetic or embarrassing reports from escaping the killing zone." Pelton speculated that Assad "studied the success of the last Chechen war before launching his own assault on the restive city of Homs ... The crackdown in Homs carries a grim echo of Grozny, both in its use of signals intelligence to track down and silence the regime’s enemies and in its bloody determination to obliterate any opposition, including Western journalists."
Iraqi cameraman Yasser Faysal al-Joumaili was the first foreign journalist executed by ISIS fighters.
Journalist abductions are also increasingly a problem in Syria. According to CPJ, 60 journalists have been kidnapped since the start of war — most likely taken by opposition groups — with 30 still missing. In most cases, the kidnappers don’t ask for ransom, but are looking to mete out their version of "justice."
Elsewhere in the world, the CPJ report notes, the numbers of journalist deaths has decreased slightly; In 2013, 70 journalists died globally, down from 74 in 2012. Of those 70, two-thirds occurred in the Middle East, most of them in Syria, Egypt and Iraq. "The Middle East has become a killing field for journalists," CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney said in a statement. "The civil war in Syria and a renewal of sectarian attacks in Iraq have taken an agonizing toll."
CPJ only counts deaths of journalists who are "killed in direct reprisal for his or her work; in combat-related crossfire; or while carrying out a dangerous assignment." The organization is still investigating the deaths of 25 other journalists who died in 2013.