Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

Foreign journalist rescued from Homs...

... and a reminder of the risks to everyone when reporters go to war zones.

Shaam News Network via Associated Press Television News/AP
This Feb. 22 file image from amateur video shows Paul Conroy of the Sunday Times, laying wounded, in a makeshift clinic in Homs, Syria. Conroy is now reported to have made his way out of Syria and into Lebanon.

The good news is that Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy, wounded in the attack that killed Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, is now reported to have made his way out of that battered city and into Lebanon.

The bad news is that, the whereabouts and condition of three other foreign journalists who were in the city – Edith Bouvier, William Daniels, and Javier Espinosa – are not known. And in the case of Mr. Conroy, his escape came at the expense of more blood. The Guardian reports that a number of the Syrian activists who smuggled him out of the city were gunned down in the process:

The dramatic nature of Conroy's evacuation underlines the high level of risk being faced by those who have been trying to run medical, food and other supplies into the besieged suburbs of Homs and evacuate the injured, including foreign journalists. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which has recently moved the elite 4th Division commanded by his brother Maher into the battle for Homs, has been using a foreign-supplied drone to target its artillery and mortar fire into the city. Conroy had twice refused to leave Baba Amr without the body of Colvin, who was killed during a rocket attack last Wednesday. The group of reporters has been holed up in Baba Amr ever since and protracted negotiations to evacuate them have failed.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said earlier today that Le Figaro's Bouvier, who suffered a serious leg injury, had also made her way safely to Lebanon. But he soon retracted that comment.

Though the world's focus should be on the citizens of Homs, who have born the brunt of a ferocious onslaught for weeks, the killing of the foreign reporters has brought a spurt of international attention to the Syrian crackdown. The deaths, as well as the passing of The New York Time's Anthony Shadid as he was being smuggled out of Syria, have also led to a fair deal of soul-searching and debate among the community of reporters who cover conflict in the region.

The reporters in Homs were gathered in what's been described as a media center, but was effectively a makeshift office for foreign reporters and opposition activists. The office was a node of phone calls and other forms of communications that Assad's forces probably have the ability to monitor. Brian Conley, who runs an NGO that trains local journalists in conflict zones in how to get their stories out safely, says the center apparently had a VSAT hookup for Internet communications, which would have been a like a "giant radio beacon" if the Syrian military had the equipment to detect it. A site with signs of that kind of activity would be an inviting target for Assad's gunners.

Now in online forums and articles, there's a lively debate about how to stay safe. On private mailing lists and discussion groups for reporters, there have been complaints about news reports revealing too much detail about how reporters are smuggled in and out of Syria, and worries about deliberate Syrian efforts to kill foreign reporters.

Jillian York and Trevor Timm write for the Electronic Frontier Foundation that: "Authorities can find the position of a satellite phone using manual triangulation, but in order to track a phone in this manner, the individual would need to be relatively close by. Nowadays, however, most satellite phones utilize GPS, making them even easier to track using products widely available on the market .... Some of these products allow not only for GPS tracking, but also for interception of voice and text communications and other information."

Whether calls can be listened in on or not, using a GPS satphone or a VSAT for Internet access is like putting a sign over a location that reads to Syrian officers "there's something interesting here." A rebel, a civilian activist, a foreign reporter? The Syrian military don't appear to be interested in those distinctions at the moment.

Stephen Farrell at The New York Times writes that this latest round of conflicts feel far more dangerous than the Iraq and Afghan wars, where the practice of embedding and the luxury of fortified bureaus helped keep reporters safe. But not entirely safe. Mr. Farrell and his translator Sultan Munadi were abducted in Afghanistan in 2009. Mr. Munadi was killed in the British-led raid that freed Farrell, as was Cpl. John Harrison. In March 2011, Farrell, Mr. Shadid and two other New York Times journalists were detained by Libyan government forces in Ajdabiya. The foreigners were released about a week later. Their Libyan driver has been missing since, and is presumed to have been murdered.

Farrell writes:

As the correspondents of this era seek to adjust to the ever-shifting hazards of war reporting, there is a sense that the conflicts in Syria and Libya are taking even more of a toll on this generation of foreign correspondents than the latter years of the Iraq and Afghan wars. And all these countries remain infinitely more dangerous for the reporters, photojournalists, citizen journalists, translators and fixers of those countries who, unlike foreign correspondents, cannot jump into a taxi or aircraft when it gets too hot and do not have the protection of a foreign passport or an embassy when at the mercy of their own governments."

Certainly any presumption that Mr. Assad will treat reporters, foreign or local, as anything but enemies at this point is be misplaced. State media has been running an intense campaign seeking to brand foreign reporters as spies and worse, much as Qaddafi tried to do in his war. Shortly after the deaths of Ms. Colvin and Mr. Ochlik, Syrian state television (video clip with subtitles below) speculated that they must have been in Syria with "ulterior motives: foreign intelligence, military spies, or terrorists."

The claim is preposterous and false. But it's a signal of Assad's intentions. And with the foreign journalists left in Homs trying to get out, the chances for full, independent reporting on what's happening there have grown dimmer.

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