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The targeting of local journalists

The targeting of local journalists

With the barbaric killing of James Foley and Steven Sotloff highlighting the dangers facing journalists in the Middle East, we must not forget the region's local journalists who are being targeted in great numbers alongside their international colleagues.

Covering the Middle East has always had its challenges for journalists, with many countries in the region practicing tight censorship and other reporting restrictions. However, since the Arab uprisings it has become a particularly dangerous place to be a journalist.

When a western journalist is killed, it rightly attracts extensive media coverage and reminds us of the very real dangers facing conflict journalists today. For instance, in Syria - currently the most dangerous place to be a journalist - 13 international journalists have been killed. More than 40 have been kidnapped since the beginning of the conflict in May 2011, the majority of whom were later released.

Those killed have included veteran Sunday Times correspondent, Marie Colvin who, with French freelance journalist Remi Ochlick, was among the first to die covering the conflict in January 2012, when the Bab Amr media centre they were staying in was shelled by pro-regime forces. And most recently, and horrifically, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two freelance journalists working in the region, were murdered by the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) on 19 August and 2 September respectively.

The threats to local journalists

While it is right and proper for the world to feel shocked and horrified when an international foreign journalist is killed for doing their job, it is important to remember that the vast majority of those killed every year in the Middle East are journalists working in their own countries. Many are working as freelancers; they are always the most vulnerable, with less opportunity to leave when their reporting becomes too dangerous or disliked by governments, groups or regimes.

52 Syrian journalists have been killed reporting on the conflict in their country - more than four times the number of foreign journalists. But their deaths do not generate the same amount of international media attention. For instance, who remembers freelance video journalist Rami Al Sayed, who was killed the same day and in the same place as Colvin and Ochlik? Or who recalls the death of his cousin, video journalist Basil Al Sayed, who was killed in a checkpoint shooting in Homs a few months earlier?

Local Syrian journalists have taken great risks to cover events since the start of the conflict, and they have continued to do so even as the news cycle moves on to other world events. Many have been detained, tortured, and killed by the Assad regime. Many others have died in indiscriminate aerial bombardments of civilian areas, or have been killed in cross-fighting between opposition and regime forces, like Molham Barakat a freelance photojournalist who was killed during a rebel assault on Kindi Hospital in the northern city of Aleppo last December.

Not just Syria

Syria is not the only place in the Middle East where it's dangerous for local journalists to work.  The Ministry of Information in Gaza has put the death toll of journalists at 17 since the beginning of the most recent Israeli military offensive in early July.  Iraq has consistently been a perilous beat for local journalists since the US invasion in 2003.  This year, four have been killed there, and 22 have been killed in the same period of time as the time span of the Syrian conflict.  Egypt, too, has made an appearance in lists of dangerous places to be a journalist.  Six journalists were killed last year, three in one day as they covered the clashes between Egyptian security forces and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi, in August 2013.

It's not just Western journalists who have become the targets of extremist groups such as IS. In Syria and Iraq, the majority of journalists who have been kidnapped by these groups are local.  Some have been released after being held captive for several months, enduring torture and interrogation, being accused of being spies or traitors for working with foreign press. Many remain missing. Syrian journalist Rami al-Razzouk who was working for local media outlet, Radio ANA, has been missing since since October 2013.  With the advances IS have made in Iraq in recent months, including the taking of Iraq’s second largest city Mosul, we have seen local journalists targeted and abducted by them because of their work.

Life in exile

Another issue that affects local journalists and does not get reported widely is the number that have had to flee into exile because of the intimidation and violence that they face. On World Refugee Day this year The Committee to Protect Journalists documented 44 Syrian journalists who have been forced into exile since the start of the conflict. This is the second highest worldwide after Iran, which has consistently topped the league tables since the disputed presidential elections of 2009 when it comes to arresting and intimidating local journalists, forcing many to leave their work, family and homes to seek safety elsewhere.

And many are also forced to leave the industry as they struggle to settle in an alien country.

Understandably foreign media outlets are very reluctant to send their own journalists into places like Syria because of the danger in operating inside the country. Yet we still see images and reports coming from inside Syria. In Syria, and places like Gaza, Iraq and Egypt, local journalists - many of them freelance - continue to play a vital reporting role. So it is important to remember that journalists in these countries and throughout the Middle East face considerable risk and danger as they bring stories, images and information to the world.

Sarah is RPT's Programme Officer for the Middle East and North Africa. This piece was originally posted in the Middle East Eye and has been republished here (with minor udates) with their permission.

Image: Basil al-Sayad, a Syrian video journalist who was killed in Homs in December 2011.


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