Why Syria Is the Most Dangerous Place To Be a Journalist

For the second year running, more journalists have been killed in Syria than anywhere else in the world, according to a report released Monday by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). In 2013, 29 were killed there in the course of reporting; in 2012, the grim toll reached 31.

Reporting from within a war zone is always a risk, but Syria stands out for a couple of reasons. First, from a baseline of relative safety, the security situation for journalists deteriorated rapidly once the conflict began. (In the two decades before the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, CPJ had not documented a single journalist death in the country; the following year, it ranked No. 1 in journalist deaths). Second, both sides of the conflict have specifically singled journalists out for violence.

Assad's regime -- already notorious for suppressing media freedom -- was the first to target journalists reporting on the civil war. In the early days of the uprising, Syrian authorities began arresting local reporters covering the anti-government protests. Then, in 2012, when Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in a rocket attack carried out by the Syrian army, the Telegraph reported that the Syrian Army may have specifically targeted the journalists after tracking their satellite phone signals to a particular building. Soon after, CPJ confirmed that satellite phone tracking was being widely used by military and security forces, and that it presents a real risk to journalists covering Syria and other conflict zones.

The peculiar nature of the violence against journalists in Syria prompted Robert Young Pelton, writing for Foreign Policy, to draw parallels between the Syrian conflict and the second Chechen war, in which "journalists were specifically targeted to prevent sympathetic or embarrassing reports from escaping the killing zone." Pelton speculated that Assad "studied the success of the last Chechen war before launching his own assault on the restive city of Homs.... The crackdown in Homs carries a grim echo of Grozny, both in its use of signals intelligence to track down and silence the regime's enemies and in its bloody determination to obliterate any opposition, including Western journalists." Iraqi cameraman Yasser Faysal al-Joumaili was the first foreign journalist executed by ISIS fighters.

Journalist abductions are also increasingly a problem in Syria. According to CPJ, 60 journalists have been kidnapped since the start of war -- most likely taken by opposition groups -- with 30 still missing. In most cases, the kidnappers don't ask for ransom, but are looking to mete out their version of "justice."

Elsewhere in the world, the CPJ report notes, the number of journalist deaths has decreased slightly; In 2013, 70 journalists died globally, down from 74 in 2012. Of those 70 deaths, two-thirds occurred in the Middle East, most of them in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. "The Middle East has become a killing field for journalists," CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney said in a statement. "The civil war in Syria and a renewal of sectarian attacks in Iraq have taken an agonizing toll."

CPJ only counts deaths of journalists who are "killed in direct reprisal for his or her work; in combat-related crossfire; or while carrying out a dangerous assignment." The organization is still investigating the deaths of 25 other journalists who died in 2013.



Will Shinzo Abe's Yasukuni Visit Hurt Relations in Washington?

On Thursday, Dec. 26, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, drawing condemnation from China and South Korea, as well as a harshly worded statement from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo that many found surprising. But as Dennis Halpin, a former advisor on Asian issues on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS explained to me, the 14 Class A War Criminals enshrined in Yasukuni are controversial not only in East Asia:

"Of the almost two-an-a-half million souls enshrined at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine for giving their lives in service to the Japanese Emperor, there should be one name that stands out for every American: Hideki Tojo, General of the Japanese Imperial Army and wartime Prime Minister, who issued the orders for the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. That attack, which killed nearly 2,400 Americans, was the deadliest on U.S. soil until September 11, 2001.

The December 7 date of that attack was, as President Franklin Roosevelt told a stunned nation the next day 'a date which will live in infamy.' Surely Americans, even with their sense of historic amnesia, have not forgotten what Tojo unleashed? While they may be too young for Pearl Harbor, most Americans alive today remember the stunning and brutal attack of the morning of September 11, 2001, and the national pledge to never forget. How can Americans ignore those who would go and pay homage to the memory of Hideki Tojo any more than they would ignore a similar tribute to Osama bin Laden? 

The last Japanese Prime Minister to visit Yasukuni Shrine, Junichiro Koizumi, paid a price in Washington when he visited in 2006. Koizumi had planned to address Congress. My old boss Henry Hyde (R-IL), then chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, learned of Koizumi's plans to visit Yasukuni after his Washington visit. Hyde stated it would be a cause of concern for the World War II generation if Koizumi spoke to the Congress from the Chamber of the House of Representatives where FDR delivered his 'date of infamy' speech, and then returned to Tokyo to pay homage to Tojo. The matter was dropped, and Koizumi had to accept, instead, a trip with President George W. Bush on Air Force One to Graceland. (Koizumi was an enthusiastic Elvis fan.)"

Abe has had a pretty remarkable year so far -- particularly on the economic front. But internationally, he's probably better known for his nationalism. Will Abe's decision to visit the shrine hurt his standing in the United States as well?