Moderate Syrians vow to protect journalists

RYAN LUCAS
Last updated 13:39 16/12/2013
Monica G Prieto, Javier Espinosa and Ricardo Garcia-Vilanova
Reuters

Monica G Prieto is seen on a screen next to the photos of her husband Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa and photographer Ricardo Garcia-Vilanova, who were abducted by fighters linked to al Qaeda in a rebel-held Syrian province in September.

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The leaders of Syria's main Western-backed moderate rebel faction said they would do everything in their power to protect journalists on assignment in the country and work to secure the release of those who have already been abducted.

The letter from the Supreme Military Council, the military wing of the Syrian National Coalition, came in response to an appeal from 13 major international news organizations calling for urgent action against rebel groups targeting journalists for kidnappings. Syria has become the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, and the number of abductions has soared to an unprecedented level over the past year.

Many of the kidnappings go unreported by news organizations in the hope that keeping the abductions out of public view may help with negotiating the captives' release.

The scale of the abductions - more than 30 are believed to be currently held - and the lack of response to individual mediation efforts have encouraged some families and employers to speak out.

The vast majority of the kidnappings over the past six months have occurred in opposition-held parts of northern and eastern Syria, where al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups are particularly strong.

Fourteen news organizations, including The Associated Press, sent a letter last week to the Supreme Military Council, which is the leadership of the moderate Free Syrian Army, as well as individual armed groups to urge them to help curb abuses against journalists.

In its response, the Supreme Military Council said: "We will do our utmost to release all journalists who have been detained whilst fulfilling their professional duty and highlighting the suffering of the Syrian people."

"It is imperative that we reiterate that the FSA, along with all of its units and brigades, will do its utmost to protect and support journalists in order that they can fulfill their vital work," it said. "We will do everything in our power to bring an end to the abuses against journalists that have and continue to occur regardless of their coverage. Many of these perpetrators are from groups who are strangers to the culture and good nature of the Syrian people."

The letter, released Saturday, was signed by the head of the Supreme Military Council, Gen. Salim Idris.

It said it will ensure that it will pass on the media organisations' appeal to "all unit commanders and brigades" that share "the values of freedom, justice and democracy."

But other than that, it's not immediately clear what Idris and the FSA can do to protect journalists when the loose-knit moderate rebel factions themselves have been ceding ground to Islamic extremists, including al-Qaeda-linked groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Such radical groups are believed responsible for most kidnappings since the summer, although government-backed militias, criminal gangs and rebels affiliated with the Free Syrian Army also have been involved. Their motives have ranged from ransom to prisoner exchanges.

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Signatories to the news organizations' letter are the AP, Agence France Presse, Reuters, BBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Atlantic Media, The Economist, Getty Images, The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, The Telegraph and El Mundo.

- AP

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