10 Apr 2013

Syrian security situation: worse than we are being told?

In time of war you will hear plenty of world leaders making noises about “freedom” and “good” and “right” and then you will see same leaders allowing the arsenals they control to be used to kill non-combatants and – particularly – journalists.

Take for instance the United States, which talked long and loud about the importance of freedom in the Balkans, then set about bombing a Serbian TV station full of journalists. They did much the same in Iraq of course and upon arrival in Baghdad killed journalists at a city centre hotel, as they had killed journalists (from ITN as it happens) in the opening days of warfare in the deserts of southern Iraq.

What this teaches us is, of course, to take with a pinch or two of salt the protestations of freedom and righteousness with which leaders cloak the actions of their men-at-arms.

All of this comes to mind very much in the context of Syria’s brutal two year old civil war, where the death toll marches unstoppably on towards the 100,000 mark. And here too the killing and kidnapping of journalists has been a major feature of war.

The government in Syria is brutal, repressive and founded upon the torture and abuse of the Syrian people on an industrial scale. I’ve said it before. I say it again.

Its army has shelled and shot foreign journalists in Homs and Aleppo. At least one freelance reporter is believed to have disappeared in government hands.

However it is the groups fighting to overthrow President Assad who must also account for talking about “freedom”, “good” and “right” on the one hand, and repeatedly attacking, killing and kidnapping journalists on the other.

As I write,there are four more victims – Italian journalists – detained in the rebel-held areas of northern Syria.

Many others have been killed and Syrian journalists working for any media outlet based in Damascus are considered targets, and constantly threatened, kidnapped and killed. We can argue about whether or not such journalists are merely mouthpieces for the regime. But I say you cannot be a la carte about this.

Either you believe journalists should not be killed or attacked for doing their job as non-combatants, or you do not.

Plainly some rebel groups do not. But they cannot then prattle on about “freedom” and “liberating” Syria. Some kind of liberation. Some kind of freedom.

And all this presents troubling issues for the western media attempting to cover this war. The rebels’ attrition against journalists and journalism is an important part of their war. It amounts to strategy in its consistency. Yet all too often because of “security concerns”, the western media simply self-censors this out of existence.

Few people in the UK will be aware the a very prominent British journalist and his team have only recently emerged from the terrifying experience of becoming kidnap victims in rebel hands. That story has still not appeared in any media in the UK because a “news blackout” was declared in order to facilitate their release. Few would – or should – have any qualms with that degree of self-censorship.

However, their organisation – a very major force in the British media – has chosen to say nothing about the issue since. The public are entirely unaware this has happened.

In doing so they – and we by extension – have effectively muzzled ourselves and not told an important part of the Syrian war story – a nasty, dark and highly relevant dimension to the the rebel campaign there. The great Syrian question is all about what kind of freedoms people are fighting for. That’s why this issue matters so much.

When the prominent US TV journalist Richard Engel of NBC was kidnapped and released, recently, he wasted no time in putting the story out when he was safely out of Syria.

But I would say he took the opportunity to tell an important story just when our governments are considering arming these people who will kidnap our reporters.

I think that matters. Matters more then self-censorship. Whilst there may be reasons for not telling the story when it is happening and trying to get people out is paramount, it should be a very different story when, with luck, the people are freed.

This self-censorship after the event is not stopping the kidnapping, nor is it telling and essential truth of the war. In fact it is actively hiding that important truth.

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