Journalist deaths in Syria underscore risks faced by reporters

 

REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- The deaths of two Western journalists in the battered Syrian city of Homs has focused new attention on the risks faced by reporters trying to document the almost yearlong uprising against the government of President Bashar Assad.

British Prime Minister David Cameron lauded veteran foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, an American, calling her death “a desperately sad reminder of the risks that journalists take to inform the world of what is happening and the dreadful events in Syria.”

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the deaths of Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik underscored “the repression that is more and more intolerable.”

The Syrian government has severely restricted media access to the strife-torn nation. But many journalists have slipped into Homs and other conflict zones, sometimes with the assistance of opposition activists.

The work can be deadly: Seven media workers have been killed in Syria as a result of their work since the start of the uprising, according to the media freedom group Reporters Without Borders, which condemned the deaths as a result of government repression.

“The Damascus government is persisting in its bloody policy of censorship and suppression of information,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement Wednesday morning. “It has decided to punish the entire population collectively and to use the most violent means to silence those journalists who witness its excesses.”

Colvin, 55, wrote for the Sunday Times of London; Ochlik was 28. Several other Western journalists were reported injured in the shelling in Homs, which opposition activists say has been under government bombardment for weeks, killing hundreds of civilians.

In a telephone interview before her death, Colvin described for the BBC the “unrelenting” rocket and mortar strikes that were pouring down on Homs’ Bar Amr district, where she and colleagues were apparently staying in a makeshift media center.

“It is shelling with impunity and merciless disregard for the civilians, who simply cannot escape,” Colvin said in the interview, broadcast Wednesday by the BBC after news of her death stunned the journalism community.

A day before the two Western journalists were killed, opposition activists reported the death from shrapnel wounds of an intrepid "citizen journalist," Rami Ahman Sayed, who had filmed hundreds of videos from Homs that were later distributed on the Internet. The stark amateur videos from Homs have proved a powerful testimony of the violence, though the government often condemns them as staged.

Writers have also faced arrest. Last week, Syrian forces arrested prominent activist and journalist Mazen Darwish along with a well-known blogger Razan Ghazzawi and more than a dozen other people. The women were later freed, but Darwish and other men are still being held, activists say.

The death of the pair of journalists in Homs comes less than a week after celebrated New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid died in Syria’s northwest Idlib province after suffering an asthma attack. Friends and family honored Shadid Tuesday evening in a ceremony at the American University of Beirut.

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-- Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut and Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Video: The French government confirms the deaths of two journalists in Syria who were covering the fighting in Homs. Credit: Associated Press

 
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