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On first anniversary of uprising, tenacity of press noteworthy

(CPJ/IFEX) - 14 March 2012 - Weeks of sporadic protests seeking government reform burst into full-fledged unrest on March 15, 2011, when thousands of demonstrators gathered in four Syrian cities. Within days, authorities had cut off news media access to Daraa, a center of the unrest, beginning a sustained effort to shut down international news coverage of the uprising and the government's increasingly violent crackdown. As the civilian death toll has reached well into the thousands, according to U.N. figures, the last four months have taken a particularly dark turn for the press. Eight local and international journalists have been killed on duty since November, at least five in circumstances that raise questions about government culpability. Yet one year after the Syrian uprising began, killing the messenger has not silenced the message.

A CPJ review of the journalist fatalities found substantial evidence that two local journalists, Ferzat Jarban and Basil al-Sayed, were directly targeted by government forces. In addition, circumstantial evidence and witness statements point to the possibility that government forces may have taken deliberate, hostile action against the press that led to the deaths of three international journalists, Gilles Jacquier, Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik.

The Assad government has denied targeting the press but has not hidden its hostility toward independent journalists, effectively barring international reporters from entering the country to report freely. Colvin and Ochlik, who like dozens of other international journalists smuggled themselves into Syria through Lebanon, "must be spies or have links to terrorist organizations," Syrian state media asserted after their deaths. As recently as Saturday, the state-run SANA news agency said authorities were warning international journalists that anyone smuggled into the country would be held "legally responsible for their actions and any repercussions" and that "traveling with terrorists" would be considered "tantamount to terrorism."

CPJ interviews and news accounts show that foreign and local journalists hold a widespread belief that the government's actions have raised the danger of reporting in a conflict area well beyond its normally high level. And numerous journalists who were with Jacquier when he was killed in January, and with Colvin and Ochlik when they were killed the next month, have said they believe the press was targeted by government forces.

"When I look back, it was an attack," Paul Conroy told CBS News, describing a pattern of shelling that struck the makeshift press center in Homs, leaving him and French reporter Edith Bouvier injured and Colvin and Ochlik dead. A photographer for The Sunday Times of London and a British military veteran, Conroy told CBS, as he did other news outlets, that earlier shelling in the area had been random. "This" he said, "did what it was meant to do."

And yet the effect on the press is not quite as it might seem. Syria, of course, remains very restricted and its coverage extremely limited. The international audience is largely reliant on two types of journalists: the local citizens-turned-videographers who have shot thousands of hours of footage, and the foreign journalists who have smuggled themselves into the country.

But these two groups appear to have sustained their level of coverage all through the deadly weeks of early 2012. This week, Anita McNaught of Al-Jazeera English and Paul Wood of the BBC have openly reported from within Syria. On Monday, Al-Jazeera English released McNaught's special report on conditions in Idlib, now a central front in the conflict. CPJ research shows that at least 20 other international journalists have publicly identified themselves as having snuck into Syria in the last two months to report on the unrest. The actual number is certainly higher since many journalists have kept a low profile.

The local journalists are essentially citizens who have filled a void in independent domestic coverage, risking their lives to document the crackdown. Several of these citizen journalists have each uploaded hundreds of videos to YouTube and other online sites that depict the activities of government forces and the toll on the civilian population. Their footage has been picked up regularly by international and regional news organizations. The pan-Arab channels Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera have been using news reports from some of these local journalists, transmitting their words and images via Skype.

Javier Espinosa, a Spanish journalist who was with Colvin and Ochlik in Homs, told CPJ he was struck by the resolve of the local citizen journalists, "They did not stop working," he said, "because some of their team was killed."

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