Saturday, February 18, 2012

Reporter's Death Puts Focus on Difficulties of Covering a Secretive Syria


February 17, 2012

Reporter’s Death Puts Focus on Difficulties of Covering a Secretive Syria


The conflict in Syria has become, for journalists, one of the most difficult and dangerous assignments in many years, with at least five having died while covering the uprising that began there last March.

The refusal of the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, to let foreign journalists move freely around the country has spurred some to sneak in through Lebanon or Turkey at great personal risk. Among them was Anthony Shadid, a foreign correspondent of The New York Times, who had spent nearly a week reporting covertly inside Syria and was on his way back to Turkey when he collapsed and died on Thursday, apparently of an asthma attack. He was traveling with Tyler Hicks, a photographer for The Times.

Journalists from the BBC, CNN, ABC, NBC, Al Jazeera English and a small number of other news organizations have managed to enter Syria without visas, like Mr. Shadid and Mr. Hicks did, and bear witness to the lopsided battles between the Assad government and opposition fighters and citizens. Along the way, journalists have confronted a unique combination of challenges, including tenuous cellphone and Internet connections, the absence of a clear front line and the constant threat of being caught by security forces loyal to the Syrian government.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” said Mark Whitaker, an executive vice president at CNN, which has two news crews working undercover in Syria this week. While other countries have restrictions on the press that are as severe as Syria’s — North Korea, Iran, Myanmar — “you don’t have live wars going on there,” Mr. Whitaker said.

“If you get stopped at a government checkpoint, it’s over not just for you, but for everybody in the car,” said Clarissa Ward, a CBS News correspondent, who followed a route similar to Mr. Shadid’s in and out of northern Syria from Turkey this month. Ms. Ward, a veteran of conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and elsewhere, said, “I have never experienced anything akin to what I saw in Syria.”

Some journalists have been given permission to enter Syria, mainly through its capital, Damascus, but they have reported being tailed by the secret police and being forbidden from touring some parts of the country.

Bill Neely, an international editor for ITV News in Britain who flew out of Damascus on Friday, described being in a government “security bubble” during a trip to Dara’a, where the uprising was born. When “I escaped from the bubble to talk to people,” Mr. Neely said, “it was clear they were afraid to speak.”

Mr. Shadid felt compelled to enter Syria with the help of smugglers for the same reasons that other journalists cited in interviews this week: a sense that the widespread killing and suffering there needs to be documented.

“It’s just nuts. I feel like no one there is telling the truth now,” Mr. Shadid wrote in an e-mail to editors at The Times as they weighed whether he should sneak back into the country. “We have to get the details.”

The first time he did so, in July of last year, he reported on antigovernment sentiments and sectarian tensions in the restive city of Homs. “Anthony was reporting from Homs when the rest of us could only dream of it,” said Jon Williams, the BBC world news editor, who joined others in expressing condolences to The Times on Friday.

Mr. Williams said that during the period of upheaval in the Middle East that began in Tunisia in December 2010, Syria “is by far the most perilous story we’ve covered.” Although there were many cases of harassment and violence affecting journalists in Egypt and Libya, “the intensity with which the Assad regime are contesting places like Homs raises the level of risk enormously,” he said.

When the BBC correspondent Paul Wood and his cameraman, Fred Scott, snuck into Syria from Turkey this month, Mr. Williams said that he insisted they travel with a contractor who could act as a paramedic “in case something went wrong.” This was prompted by the death of Tim Hetherington, a photographer and filmmaker, in Libya last year. “He essentially bled to death because nobody with him knew how to stem the bleeding,” Mr. Williams said.

Some other news agencies have sent security contractors into Syria with their news crews. Eason Jordan, who was CNN’s chief news executive until 2005 and helped coordinate security for television networks in Iraq, said, “It’s certainly prudent to have someone with experience, including paramedic experience, in the traveling party, but it’s not always practical to do that for logistical reasons and sometimes monetary reasons.”

Mr. Shadid and Mr. Hicks elected to travel without a security consultant. The Times sometimes uses such consultants, but weighs each situation individually.

Representatives for some news agencies, including The Associated Press and Reuters, declined to comment on the methods used by their staff members to cover Syria, citing safety concerns.

The reporting dangers have had a suppressing effect on Syria coverage, at least in the United States, where there was not a significant spike in coverage until the week of Feb. 6. Many television segments and articles have had to rely heavily on secondhand information — what Mr. Shadid called “remote-control reporting” in an NPR interview last December. For some of the journalists involved, it has been deeply frustrating.

“I would hate to think that the Assad regime has been successful in their very cynical calculation that keeping journalists out of the country will mean that the world forgets about the story,” Ms. Ward of CBS News said.

CNN executives said they had tried to put a spotlight on the strife in Syria because they anticipated that, without easy access to professional-quality video, other news outlets would pay less attention to it. “If we could see as much of what is happening on the ground as we were able to see in Egypt and Libya, this would be leading the news broadcasts of all the networks almost every night,” Mr. Whitaker said.

He and others asserted that professional video and reporting were essential even in an age of social media, when graphic videos of the violence in Syria are uploaded to YouTube and shared on Twitter seemingly every day. “It’s quite dehumanizing, really, to see fuzzy YouTube videos and photos that have been shot on cellphones,” Mr. Williams said. Interviews by professional journalists, on the other hand, “bring the story alive to the audience,” he added.

Viewer surveys by the BBC showed a below-average amount of interest in the Syria story for the better part of the last year, Mr. Williams said, possibly because of the lack of firsthand stories from journalists there. The past two weeks, when Mr. Wood and Mr. Scott of the BBC were holed up in Homs and broadcasting during the Syrian government’s bombardment of the city, “it’s gone substantially above the average,” Mr. Williams said, reiterating in his mind the value of original reporting.

At least four other journalists have died in Syria since the uprising began, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has no records of journalist deaths there in the 20 years before. According to the group, five journalists and one media worker died in Libya last year and two died in Egypt, where journalists had more freedom of movement.

In Syria, a freelance cameraman, Ferzat Jarban, was found dead in early November. His body was mutilated, according to information gathered by the group. Another freelance cameraman, Basil al-Sayed, died at the end of December. A French television reporter, Gilles Jacquier, died in January during a government-sponsored trip to Homs. A freelance reporter for Agence France-Presse, The Guardian and other publications, Mazhar Tayyara, died in Homs in early February.

Each death was accompanied by claims that Syrian security forces were at fault, but those claims were nearly impossible to confirm because of the dearth of independent reporting in the country.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 18, 2012

An earlier version of this article misidentified the Committee to Protect Journalists. It is not the Committee to Project Journalists.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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