How fear of kidnapping is stopping journalists from entering Syria

Richard Pendry reports from the Syria border on the hazards facing journalists trying to gain access to the war-torn country

Kilis, the Turkish border town, has been a haven for foreign journalists travelling to Aleppo to cover the conflict in Syria. “Last Christmas, you could have breakfast with eight friends in the Hotel Istanbul,” says freelance Emma Beals of the most popular fleapit hotel in town.

Beals says that for many reporters it was so routine to cross the border there that they would take the public minibus on into Aleppo from the Free Syrian Army(FSA) border post in Azaz, three kilometres away in Syrian territory.

But last week, the Hotel Istanbul was empty.

A spate of kidnappings of journalists in northern Syria, many of which remain unreported, have scared foreign journalists away. Syrian fixers, activists and citizen journalists are also frequently abducted or killed, though such cases are reported much less prominently.

Some are kidnapped for money. Others because they are perceived to be on the wrong side. International journalists particularly fear falling into the hands of Islamic fighters. The belief is that the jihadis are more dangerous than the gangs made up of criminals.

One result of the fear is that international efforts to find out who was responsible for last week’s apparent gas attack in Damascus have been hindered by the near absence of international reporters in country.

Journalists desperate to get into Syria have become scared that fixers will inform on their whereabouts to the kidnap gangs. The atmosphere of distrust has become heightened as unemployed fixers, desperate for work, spread false rumours about each other. Nor do the fixers necessarily trust journalists. One asked me immediately if I was working for an intelligence agency.

Horrific accounts from journalists lucky enough to be released from captivity are emerging. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, ten foreign journalists are currently held hostage in Syria. Many of them passed through Kilis.

The exact number of kidnap cases is unknown. Very often families and the victims’ employers avoid publicity in the belief it will hamper their negotiations with the kidnappers.

Fixers had been charging $300 a day to drive reporters around Syria, extremely high rates of pay for the region. Now they are out of work.

In Kilis I met a Syrian driver, Nur, who is paid $800 a month by one broadcaster, whether or not they use him. Until recently National Public Radio in America were also paying him a smaller stipend. Add in whatever else he picks up from other jobs, and Nur is making great money.

He says his wife isn’t keen on his job, all the fixers and drivers I met have families. But in Syria wives don’t have much choice, he laughs. And just as for his journalists, he says going to the frontline is interesting. The bombs, shelling and snipers, you get used to. “All these things are normal for us now,” he says.

There are other downsides to life as a fixer apart from the risks of being kidnapped or killed. Fixers are scathing about some of the 'journalists' that ask to work with them. There was one woman who turned up and announced she wasn’t actually a journalist but wanted to marry an FSA fighter.

Hassan says like many fixers he didn’t charge initially,  but that he started to do so after it became apparent journalists suspected he might be a kidnapper if he worked for nothing.

He has worked with many French journalists, who he says are known as “walking banks” for the high fees that will be paid to kidnappers for their release. One French journalist explained he had been released because a ransom of $450,000 had been paid.  

Another, says Hassan, got her passports mixed up and went in with an Israeli visa. She was detained by the FSA.

His apparent disdain for journalists is tempered by the fact that he is married to a French reporter.

Recent atrocities in Syria have increased the fixers’ rates. The lucky few that are trusted can charge up to $500 a day. Though for that fee, says Beals, journalists can expect not only a driver and car but a second car full of gunmen for security, as well as a place to sleep.

Since the start of the conflict Ahmed says he has taken numerous international journalists from Azaz where he and his family now lives, to Aleppo.

On 9 June, gunmen took two French reporters for the French radio station Europe 1 Didier François and Edouard Elias at a 'checkpoint'. Ahmed says he hadn’t paid attention to the car travelling fast that overtook them because it was a routine journey on a road he knew well. It was only when that same car blocked the road that he realised his mistake. Then a gunman poked a Kalashnikov through the driver’s window, and told those inside to get out.

“I looked at Didier’s eyes as he was led away,” says Ahmed. “I told him , 'There is nothing I can do.’ Afterwards, I cried.”

For every warning I had about fixers in this area, there was a journalist who told me they were trustworthy. But it is impossible to be sure. “Who wants to take the risk?” asks another freelance, Austrian reporter Petra Ramsauer. “The conflict drags on for such a long period of time. So people you could trust, or other journalists could trust at one point and recommend their services,  cannot be trusted in the long run. They are simply running out of funds now and getting more desperate.”

These days the few journalists going into northern Syria avoid spending the night in Kilis in an effort to stay safe.

The day I met him it became apparent that Ahmed was linked to another kidnapping case. Several family members – one of whom has since been freed – had been taken, along with yet another foreign reporter.

Ahmed is acutely aware that journalists are now understandably reluctant to take a chance on using him, despite the many successful trips he had made in the past. He has been talking to the FSA about taking a second car full of fighters in when he makes trips in the future. But then his journalist customers would have to trust the fighters too.

Richard Pendry is a lecturer in Broadcast Journalism at the University of Kent. To protect their safety, the names of the various fixers quoted in this piece have been changed.

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