Covering the war ravaging Syria for more than two years has become one of the world's most dangerous jobs, with reporters not only facing injury or death during fighting but also the rising risk of kidnapping.
As the United Nations marks International Press Freedom day on Friday, at least seven journalists are missing inside Syria, including American journalist James Foley, a video contributor to AFP who has not been heard from since last November. The last journalist reported missing is Domenico Quirico of the Italian daily La Stampa, who entered Syria secretly and was declared missing by his employer after failing to make contact for five days.
The Syrian regime's reluctance to hand out visas, and its insistence on controlling the reporting of those it allows into the country, have left reporters with no option but to enter without government permission, often from Turkey.
But with a growing number of rebel groups, and increasing lawlessness in rebel-held areas, travel inside the country has become more dangerous. Kidnappers have sought to abduct journalists for ransom, while jihadist groups have accused reporters of being spies and even threatened to kill them.
The regime is also suspected in the kidnap of several journalists, including Austin Tice, who disappeared on August 13, 2012 in Daraya outside Damascus, where the Syrian army was operating at the time.
The country has come to be the final resting place for a startlingly high number of journalists. In just over two years, 23 reporters and 58 citizen journalists have been killed. The latter -- Syrians who have taken up video cameras or posted news online -- were often the only conduit for news from places that foreign reporters could not reach.
"The work of journalists covering the conflict in Syria is becoming more complicated by the day and their working conditions are only getting worse," Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Sans Frontieres, told AFP.
"While at the beginning of the conflict in March 2011, the danger was 'only' from the government army and while journalists continue to be targeted in attacks by the regime of (President) Bashar al-Assad, today armed opposition groups are also responsible for numerous abuses, particularly against foreign journalists. Kidnappings are becoming commonplace," he said.
AFP Photo/Nicole Tung
Deloire added that coverage of the conflict is also inherently flawed because of the regime's refusal to grant visas. "Very few are able to go to areas still under regime control. Journalists are forced to enter Syria illegally... and can't go from one side of the front line to the other. This seriously affects coverage of the conflict," he said.
AFP has been forced to send different journalists to either side of the front line in places such as Aleppo, the main city in the north, in a bid to gain the most complete and accurate assessment of the situation on the ground.
On the eve of Press Freedom Day, AFP reaffirmed its determination to cover the conflict on the ground, as it has done since the beginning, and issued new guidelines on covering the fighting with the aim of improving safety for those working for the agency inside Syria. These guidelines include extending hostile environment training to regular stringers, something that is already a prerequisite for staff journalists covering conflict.
The Syria conflict, in which social media such as Facebook and Twitter and video sharing website YouTube have become primary means for journalists to get updates and information, has posed new challenges. Such sources mean reporters often have to work almost like detectives to separate fact from fiction and verify news of everything from regime defections to the alleged use of chemical weapons.
AFP PHoto/Zac Baillie
Journalists who have lost their lives in Syria
Here is a list of the 23 journalists who have died in Syria since the beginning of the revolt against the regime of Bashar al-Assad on March 15, 2011, according to a count by AFP and Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
— 2012 —
Shukri Ahmed Ratib Abu Burghul (Syria): Damascus radio reporter shot on December 30, 2011 by gunmen as he left his home dies in hospital on January 2.
Gilles Jacquier (France): Reporter with the state-owned French television broadcaster, Jacquier is killed on January 11, when a shell explodes among journalists during a government-sponsored trip to the strife-torn city of Homs.
Marie Colvin (United States) and Remi Ochlik (France): The 56-year-old working for the Sunday Times and the 28-year-old working for IP3 Press are killed when a makeshift media centre in Homs is struck by a Syrian army mortar on February 22.
Falah Taha (Iraq): Killed in a Damascus suburb on July 14.
Mohammed al-Saeed (Syria): Television presenter is kidnapped from his Damascus home in mid-July and executed by the Islamist militant Al-Nusra Front.
Hatem Abu Yehiah (Syria): Assistant cameraman of public television channel Al-Ikhbariya killed on August 10 after being captured with a group of Syrian journalists accompanying the army near Damascus.
Ali Abbas (Syria): Head of the domestic news department at the official SANA news agency is assassinated at his home in Jdaidet Artuz outside the capital on August 11.
Mika Yamamoto (Japan): Veteran Japanese war reporter working for small news agency Japan Press dies on August 20 after coming under fire from up to 15 apparently pro-government troops in Aleppo.
Musab al-Odallah (Syria): Journalist from government daily Tishrin shot dead on August 22 at his home in Damascus during a search operation by the army, his friends say.
Tamer al-Awam (Syria): Film-maker and journalist killed on the front lines of Aleppo on September 9.
Yusuf Ahmed Deeb (Syria): Killed in Aleppo on September 16 in an air raid on the printworks of newspaper Liwaa Al-Fatiha.
Maya Nasser (Syria): Snipers in Damascus kill the correspondent for Iran's English-language Press TV on September 26 at the site of bombings targeting Syrian army headquarters.
Mohammed al-Ashram (Syria): Cameraman for Al-Ikhbariya television, shot dead in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on October 10.
Hisham Musali (Syria): A video journalist working for Syrian national television killed on October 15.
Basel Tawfiq Yousef (Syria): State television journalist shot dead on November 21 in the south Damascus district of Tadamun.
Naji Assaad (Syria): Journalist working for a government newspaper killed in Tadamun on December 4.
Haidar al-Sumudi (Syria): State television cameraman gunned down on December 21 outside his Damascus home.
— 2013 —
Sohail Mahmud Ali (Syria): Journalist working for Syria's pro-regime TV channel shot dead on January 4 in a regime-controlled area in Aleppo.
Yves Debay (France): Journalist and founder of Assaut, a publication specialised in defence issues, killed by sniper fire in Aleppo on January 17.
Mohammed Hourani (Syria): Al-Jazeera reporter shot dead by a regime sniper on January 18 while covering clashes in the southern province of Daraa.
Mohamed Abd Al-Rahman (Syria): A sports journalist for Syria News, killed on January 25.
Olivier Voisin (France): Freelance photographer who died in a Turkish hospital after sustaining serious shrapnel wounds to the head and arm in the northern region of Idlib on February 21.
In addition, seven journalists are listed as missing and around 60 have been killed from the ranks of "citizen journalists" who, faced with restrictions imposed by the regime on the professional press, have armed themselves with cameras to bear witness to the situation in their country.