The Syrian Regime Still Has No Qualms About Attacking Journalists

Journalists and fixers associated with Britain’s Sky News recently came under fire in Syria. This was not an accident nor was it brief, as video recorded by the crew as they scrambled to escape injury and death attests. No one was killed, but an activist travelling with the party was injured by shrapnel.

The intent of the attackers, forces affiliated with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was obvious. So, too, is the campaign by pro-regime forces, secretly and in plain sight, to make reporting in Syria dangerous and to kill those whose conclusions conflict with how the Syrian state wants its country’s civil war understood.

The attack on a foreign news crew elicited international outrage. Much of Britain’s media class reacted strongly and the country’s political and diplomatic figures did so, too. Envoys from other countries echoed similar sentiments. All declared that targeting journalists is illegitimate and criminal and that it must not happen again.

When confronted with this rare uniformity in international discussion of Syria, it is normally clear to see why it has come about. Violence aimed by the regime at foreigners is seemingly easier for the world at large to condemn. When Syrian journalists have met with death in the last eight years, rarely have so many international voices been united in condemnation.

A double standard can always be detected but this reaction must not be paramount. When discussing attacks on journalists and their aides, perspective must be kept.

One can note that the attack on Sky’s entourage does not represent a unique outrage but rather a small and luckily unbloody reminder of the near constant bombardment that falls somewhere in the country every day and especially around Idlib of late. The fact of this widespread violence means condemning its every instance is more, not less, important.

As the regime has become stronger, in relative terms, it has not moderated its approach. Secure in Damascus, it is not more responsible but more reckless. The attacks on areas of the country that are not under its direct rule have intensified and will continue absent intervention from outside or capitulation from within.

Regime violence against media – domestic and international – demonstrates one thing: that reporting on the actions of its forces is something Damascus does not like and cannot tolerate.

The immediacy of the social media age means video of the worst of Syria’s war is widespread and widely available. The results of aerial attacks are viscerally captured from windows or rooftops. The fate of those caught in rubble can be broadcast globally at little cost and with great effect. This weakens the capacity of the regime to convince anyone outside its borders that its fight is a noble one and that its enemies are not worth sympathy of support.

In any case, it takes vernacular accents to elicit more general attention. For Western publics to care, Western media must do more than aggregate material provided by others. For Syrian activists under fire, this is an unfortunate necessity but it also provides an opportunity.

The presence of foreign journalists in opposition areas makes the regime nervous and when it gets nervous, it gets violent. When, in 2012, Marie Colvin, Paul Conroy and Remi Ochlik reported about what the regime was doing to Homs, it could not tolerate their version and sought to bring their efforts to a violent end. Colvin and Ochlik were killed and Conroy wounded – deliberately, knowingly, targeted by regime forces.

This attack did not have only its intended effect. The killing of colleagues breeds media consensus. Colvin’s story has furnished both book and film. Conroy’s continued activism and journalism do him great credit.

Perspective demands that we resist self-mythologising claims, if they emerge, in which foreign journalists are the primary victims of Syria’s war.

Nonetheless, if the story of this recent attack travels and combines with other attacks mounted by the regime on foreign media, it can at least tell the world something: that the regime has no qualms about doing things that are not just immoral but seemingly illogical and self-defeating; that it is uncaring or unrestrainable in violence; and that things can only get worse – for Syrians and foreigners critical of the regime – as it is allowed to grow more certain of victory, no matter how bloody the road it must travel to get there.

This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.

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