ABC Middle East correspondent, Matt Brown, sees Syria as an even more deadly conflict for journalists than Iraq.
Antakya has it all: rich coffee and dips laced with pomegranate and walnut, an ancient past, and – just 30 kilometres from the horrors of the Syrian civil war – a passing parade of idealists, desperadoes, thieves and fanatics. In my brief trips there over the past 18 months it has been a useful window onto the risks of reporting on Syria.
Scoring an hour-long interview with a guy who sends foreigners, including Australians, into Syria to join an al-Qaeda linked group should have been a journalistic highlight. Instead, it was post-modern farce. For our security and his, we couldn’t do the interview in person, only via Skype. So we sat in Antakya in southern Turkey and he sat, I think, in a farmhouse on the border.
“Abu Hafs” was happy to do the whole thing using the video link function, but was so paranoid all he’d let us see was his chest, in the dark. No, a silhouette of the back of his head was out of the question. All those bytes flying through the air, all that time for the spooks to zero in, and not a single shot to show for it. Given the risks that had forced us to fall back on an internet interview, I felt some guilt about my TV reporter’s pique, but it was also a sign of how hard it has become to report on the war.
I first travelled to Antakya in mid-2012. The ABC’s Middle East cameraman, Mat Marsic, and I were lucky enough to be accompanied by a former US Marine medic who was our security/medical officer.
The factors that would make Syria an especially lethal conflict for journalists were already clear. The makeshift “media centre” in Homs had been shelled, killing Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin and photographer Rémi Ochlik. Several reporters had been kidnapped by regime militiamen and rebel groups, and foreign fighters had begun to stream in. But bravado, opportunism and hope laced the air, along with talk that the regime might soon fall.
At our little hotel, we set out our maps and tried to drill our local fixer on our basic approach to security. He couldn’t believe we didn’t want to stay at the “media centre” in Atmeh, the town just inside Syria. After all, that’s where all the other foreigners stayed on their way to Aleppo. When we hiked across the border and into Atmeh, we confirmed that the European journalists at the house were using a BGAN [Broadband Global Area Network] satellite terminal – on the roof – to send their stories out, and opted for other accommodation.
Our fixer also doubted our desire to use two cars when we moved about the countryside. It’s a simple way to make sure you aren’t left stranded on a risky roadside when one car conks out, and the lead car can spot potential trouble and radio back a warning. This, he said, was over the top.
And, when an armed Chechen angrily abused us for filming him walking in the street of the Syrian town of Ad Dana, the fixer lied to us about the man’s nationality, explaining later he didn’t want that sort of news going out about the “revolution”.
Despite this, we were able to put a human face on the insurgency, and were told to prepare for another Syria assignment in a couple of months. But when the bill for security from the last job came in, everything was put on hold.
In the meantime foreign fighters were flooding into Syria, and the risks were growing.
By February 2013, Mat Marsic had found an excellent freelance security officer whose rate was less than half the big companies’. So we headed back to Antakya. Men with bushy beards, cargo combat pants and eyes filled with the dangerous certitude of aspiring fanatics walked the streets. The camping stores were festooned with black flags, T-shirts and bandanas emblazoned with the Shahada, the simple Islamic verse turned into a rallying banner for the reign of terror being established by Salafist fundamentalists like al-Qaeda and like-minded groups.
We drove into Aleppo and witnessed attacks on civilian neighbourhoods by government artillery, airstrikes and Scud missiles.
Outside our flat, utes flying the black flag raced to and from a battle at the airport a few kilometres away. The locals sang the praises of the strongest al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. We interviewed one of their milder, civilian members. But they’d soon be eclipsed by an even more extreme al-Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Throughout the year ISIS would establish control over large tracts in the north and east of Syria. A colleague working for a major international newspaper went from slipping quietly into the country with a translator in a taxi to driving in a car, led by a ute-load of “moderate” Islamist gunmen tasked with guaranteeing his safety.
“Before, it was the general threats of war: crossfire, disease, what have you. But we saw in 2013 journalists being targeted because they were journalists, and especially because they were international journalists, and we saw an unprecedented wave of kidnappings last year,” says Jason Stern from the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“It really didn’t matter last year whether you had a big operation with all the resources behind you or whether you were going in ‘under the radar’ with not many resources. No matter what tactic you took and what precautions you took, you still really had a tremendous risk of being kidnapped,” Stern says. “In terms of kidnapping, it is actually worse in Syria than it ever was in Iraq.”
With more than 150 media workers killed in less than 10 years, Iraq was a horribly lethal conflict for journalists. But with more than 60 already dead, Syria is on track to eclipse Iraq.
Consider the Iraqi cameraman, Yasser Faysal al-Joumaili, who was killed in northern Syria in December. The details of his death are still unclear, but it offers a lesson for journalists trying to get proper access to the story in Syria.
Hailing from Fallujah in Iraq, Faysal al-Joumaili was a veteran of conflict reporting. It’s said he had been filming members of Jabhat al-Nusrah and had written permission from a senior member of the group. It’s said he was even riding in the second car of a two-car convoy. A seasoned, security-aware operator with good local contacts – it doesn’t get much better than that. But he was still ambushed and gunned down in a hail of bullets by gunmen suspected of being members of ISIS. He died with a bullet in the head.
We’re still looking for a way to get back into Syria. But it means treading more carefully than ever before.
Matt Brown is the Middle East correspondent for the ABC
This story was first published in the March-May 2014 issue of The Walkley Magazine.