Deadly Clash in Syria Renews Debate on Journalist Safety


A fight for control over a prison in northeast Syria that left dozens of people dead or wounded, including journalists, has renewed a focus on media safety.

During six days of clashes between U.S.-backed forces and militants linked to the Islamic State terror group in the city of Hasakah, at least one media worker affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was killed and three others were wounded, one of them seriously.

As the Kurdish-led SDF fought to win full control of the al-Sina’a prison that houses thousands of suspected Islamic State members, it issued an edict to media: Protect yourselves or stay clear of the front line.

While acknowledging the important role journalists play covering unrest and conflict, the military force’s media center issued a statement Sunday saying, “All journalists who cover the clashes on the front and support lines must adhere to protection standards.”

It called for media to wear bulletproof vests and helmets, and it warned of the danger from Islamic State snipers.

The SDF said it would take action to stop reporters accessing the front line if safety measures were not adhered to.

The SDF controls large parts of territory in north and east Syria and has been a major U.S. partner in the fight against militants in the region.

Dangerous assignment

Since the beginning of Syria’s conflict in 2011, 139 journalists have been killed, 102 of whom died in crossfire, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Most were local journalists.

Syria remains one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists, media watchdogs say.

During fighting Saturday, an Islamic State sniper killed SDF media center worker Ahmed al-Naser near the prison facility.

A day earlier, Basil Rasheed, a reporter with the online Kurdish news outlet Hawar News Agency, was severely wounded. Two others — Jindar Abdulqader, a reporter for North Press, and Fayez al-Amleh, a media worker with the Syriac Military Council — were also injured during battles with Islamic State fighters.

Most warring sides in Syria have shown no regard for the safety of journalists, especially groups such as the Islamic State, according to Evin Youssef, co-chair of the Union of Free Media, a syndicate affiliated with the SDF-led Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES).

“But a decade of a brutal war should have also taught journalists how to protect themselves while covering battles on front lines,” she told VOA. “Yet, some of them still don’t take their safety seriously during the fiercest clashes.”

Youssef said that when the military campaign in Hasakah started, her group sent a note via WhatsApp to a group of journalists covering the clashes, urging reporters to take measures to protect themselves.

“We even coordinated with the SDF to make it a requirement for all journalists to carry protective equipment, or else they won’t be able to report from the front lines,” she said.

Too bold

But the problem, according to Hejar Alsead, a local reporter who works for Sky News Arabia, is that such requirements aren’t always enforced, and that some reporters act as if they are part of the forces they embed with.

“Many journalists that work with news organizations affiliated with the SDF or the AANES don’t view themselves as reporters,” he told VOA. “They think they are also military personnel. Some of them even wear military uniforms, but without taking any training or safety precautions.”

Alsead said that during the clashes in Hasakah, he saw several journalists “boast on social media about how close they can get to where the fighting was taking place, and none of them wore a protective vest.”

Both Alsead and Youssef agreed that local, regional and international news organizations must offer safety training regularly to reporters sent to the war zone.

“The conflict in Syria seems to be far from ending, so media organizations should invest seriously in journalist safety practices for their Syrian reporters,” Alsead said.