Executed, Held and Released: What is Happening to Journalists in Syria?

The filming of James Foley’s brutal execution has grabbed headlines and shocked the world into examining the safety of freelance journalists. Near the end of the gruesome video, released by the Islamic State, people got a glimpse of Steven Sotloff, another journalist who IS declared ‘was next’ if their demands weren’t meant.

Then earlier this week, to everyone’s surprise, journalist Peter Theo Curtis was released from the grasp of Syrian militants. Although he was being held captive by the Nusra Front rather than the Islamic State, his release came as a surprise.  The recent spike in news about freelance journalism in Syria has sparked the question: how many more are still being held?

According to Reporters Without Borders, 39 journalists have been killed so far, with 11 being currently imprisoned. However, the Committee to Protect Journalists puts that figure much higher, with 20 imprisoned in Syria. For journalists who rely on low tech methods of reporting, also known as citizen reporting, nearly 122 have been killed, while 17 remain in jail. These, by the way, are only the ones we are able to document and confirm.

To further examine the situation in Syria we also must understand that journalism was never a ‘protected’ profession there. Journalists had a habit of either fleeing the country to escape the regime or simply disappearing and never being heard from again. For local journalists, the situation is particularly tricky because they are facing pushback from both sides. Militants in rebel camps don’t want them around, and certainly journalists pose a threat to Bashar al Assad. Because Syrian journalists lack the freedom of movement that say, an American journalist has, the idea of escaping is nullified. Escape to where? Turkey? Into refugee camps? The prospect are dim.

Yet the foreign correspondents and war journalists who come over also lack protection. With little in terms of funds, they seek story after story, putting themselves in inordinate amounts of danger for what usually amounts to a few hundred dollars per story, and that’s if they’re lucky. Obviously most journalists don’t do their job because of the riches involved, but most would appreciate it if a few more security measures were put in place.

I remember the first time I started working as a journalist in Central and East Africa. I remember sitting on a balcony in Kisoro, near the Congolese border, with a few NGO friends who worked in human rights. “So what’s your bug out plan?” one asked me. I had no idea what he was talking about. He tried to explain further, “Where will you meet your group, what airport will you fly out of, or what border do you cross if things go bad?” he asked. That’s always been my favorite term around here, ‘if things go bad.’ It’s such a nice way of saying: if a massacre begins.

“I suppose I’ll cover the story,” I told him.

“No but do you have a security bag you’ll grab that’s filled with all important documents and a couple days? Did your organization give you a plan or training?” he asked, completely confused. I laughed, not because I wanted to. It would be nice to have a security plan here and there, but those are often relegated to large name news organizations, rather than low level freelancers. Yet, even the idea of protection and evacuation seemed foreign. It contradicted the whole point of covering the news. Because unlike workers waiting to be evacuated, journalists often find ways of sneaking into a burning country, rather than sneaking out of one.

And this is one of the major cruxes of the issue. It’s predicated on the fact that we do put ourselves in dangerous situations because that is a job requirement. However, your backing absolutely matters. If you can call your editor, who will then rally the news organization behind you, calling lawyers, arranging transport fees and conducting diplomatic talks, that’s amazing. But more often than not, there’s not a whole lot they can do for their freelancers.

In the case of Peter Theo Curtis, he had Qatar on his side, vying for his release. There is hope that more journalists can and will be brought home. The UN, during a recent conference, stressed that threats and attacks against journalists were the responsibility of the state they were in to protect them. And that’s all well and good, but when the state has a murderous dictator at the helm, it guarantees very little in terms of journalistic protection.


Photo Credit: Flickr user zabielin


Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Hazel MacPhail
Hazel MacPhail3 years ago

It has been very enlightening to hear every ones comments and views on the plight of journalists. There is much to be considered here. Freelance journalists are not protected by anyone but neither does it appear are many others despite their affiliation with news agencies etc. Terrorism is terrorism and no one is exempt from the consequences of its whims. I cannot accept that any terrorist group can be allowed to dictate how and where people live and even if they are allowed to live. Journalists are the people that ensure we hear all sides of an issue whether we like it or not and as such deserve our support and protection.

Arlene C.
Arlene C3 years ago

Merci Lizabeth

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se3 years ago


john james Parr
john Parr3 years ago

Interesting article, Thank you

Nikolas K.
Nikolas K3 years ago

forgot to add. Remember how the military in Vietnam clamped down on Journalist after they exposed the mei lai massacre and other atrocities like napalm bombing of woman and children.

Nikolas K.
Nikolas K3 years ago

One must question the authentic nature of video clips as the media is well known to promote the secret agenda of their masters by putting out fake videos like the boston bombing , 9/11, bin laden and so on. remember when a news editor prints or announces the truth he quickly loses his job if not his life. Before we feel sorry for captured journalist we must look further into those who control them.

Rebecca Lynn Dreller
Rebecca Lynn D3 years ago

There are many, many private security firms for hire for this exact purpose: Non-military personnel heading into a danger zone due to war, famine, or civil wars, to cover the details. I know some may say that these journalists know exactly what they are getting into, know the risks, etc., etc. However, the world needs these people to provide firsthand, untainted, documentation of the horrors that plague our planet, routinely. The world needs propaganda-free press coverage. Period. You telling me Reuters, AP, Boston Globe, Times, etc. cannot afford these security firms? Freelance journalists should be required to hire security, or they go at their own risk, they are no longer protected by the U.S. Government once they step out of US borders and go at their own risk. But not one of these journalists "asks for it".

Nicole Heindryckx

I have great respect for those people who risk their life in war zones. If things turn wrong they are on their own. Neither their own country, nor their employers will try to get them free and away from there. If war journalists were no longer there to confront us with all the horror, injustice, brutal killing of innocent inhabitants, even children trying to get to their schools, we would be very badly informed about things happening all over the world. War journalists and photographers are also human beings, are married, have children and a large amount of them is doing this job to show the world how horrible and injustice war situations are. They do not say that party A or B is guilty, but they show us the daily reality of live in those countries.

john pierce
John P3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.