October 17th, 2012

Suspect Arrested in Kidnapping of Photographer

British authorities have charged a 26-year old man with illegally detaining UK photographer John Cantlie and Dutch journalist Jeroen Oerlemans in Syria last July, according to a BBC report.

Shajul Islam, a British citizen who allegedly has ties to Syrian jihadists, was arrested October 9 upon returning to the UK on a flight from Cairo. Police charged him with the kidnapping after searching his home in London.

Cantlie and Oerlemans were held against their will for a week last July by Islamic militants in Syria. They were rescued by a Free Syrian Army group, and Cantlie told The Guardian after his release that he and Oerlemans were constantly threatened with death. They were both shot and slightly injured in an unsuccessful attempt to escape. Their captors were holding them for ransom, they said.

Cantlie reported to British authorities after his release that one of his captors spoke with a South London accent and had claimed to be a doctor working for the British National Health Service. Cantlie also reported seeing the NHS logo on medical equipment during his captivity.

Prosecutors said at a court hearing yesterday that Shajul Islam had been a doctor-in-training in London, and that he had gone to Syria to work as a medic for a jihadist group there.

Islam returned to the UK October 9 with his wife and two-year-old daughter. His wife was also arrested, but she was released without any charges filed against her.

July 16th, 2012

Photojournalist Describes Wreckage in Tremseh, Syria

© AFP/photos by D. Leal Olivas

Spanish photographer Daniel Leal Olivas, who reached the Syrian village of Tremseh on Friday July 13, reports that he saw what looked to be the effects of shells fired by tanks in the village. That would contradict the Syrian government’s claims that the Syrian Army did not use heavy weapons, a violation of a UN agreement. Olivas, speaking to PDN by Skype from the Istanbul airport on July 16, also said mourning villagers begged him and his companion not to leave them.  How many people were killed in Tremseh, what kinds of weapons were used and whether the Syrian government was pursuing opposition fighters or targeting civilians remains uncertain, according to reports from the BBC, The New York Times and other news organizations, as the Syrian government and anti-government activists have made claims and counter claims about what happened.

Olivas, a news photographer, has made two month-long trips to Syria this year; his first, in April, was his first time photographing in a war zone. In the past two days, he has given interviews to Al Jazeera and to National Public Radio about what he saw in Tremseh on Friday night. “I’m not a military guy,” he told PDN, then added that “being in Syria for two months, you know what weapons they used.” In Tremseh he took photos, many of which he transmitted to Agence France Press, showing burned out homes, holes blasted through walls, and boys holding up shells that Olivas says would have been fired by a tank – presumably on Thursday. He also photographed bloody hand prints on walls. He told Al Jazeera (quoted in The Guardian’s Middle East blog), “All the tank tracks were in the ground, very fresh. Everyone was in the town very nervous, trying to show us what happened in the town.” Olivas told PDN, “Those people who came running to us, screaming what they did in Tremseh, they were either great actors or they were really freaked out. What I saw in their eyes, I felt that they weren’t lying,”

Olivas says, “I went to Syria to help Syria.” He found places to stay and got help moving around the country from locals, in particular from one person he describes as “my good friend and amazing activist.”  Olivas was in Kafranbel on Thursday when he and the friend saw a report on Al Jazeera Arabic that 200 people had been killed in Tremseh. Olivas was eager to go; his friend said, “Only God can reach there.” On Friday, however, his friend made calls and researched a route. They passed several checkpoints, Olivas says, and “ finally got there with the last minutes of light,” around 7:30pm. UN observers “arrive[d] pretty much at the same time.”

He says that the observers left after less than 20 minutes. “It was getting dark, it was so dangerous to be in that area.”  He left soon after, and says he saw no other journalists.

Olivas says before he left Syria he transmitted images to the agency AFP using a pseudonym for protection. The credits on the AFP images were changed once he was safely in Turkey. Olivas’s images and captions from Tremseh can be found on the AFP Image Forum page.

June 4th, 2012

BBC Fooled by Syrian Rebel Propaganda Photo on Twitter

The BBC recently suffered a predictable consequence of relying on citizen journalism: It published a photograph circulated on Twitter by a Syrian anti-government activist that purportedly shows dead civilians after a government massacre last month in Houla, Syria. The image turns out to have been misappropriated and mislabeled for the purposes of propaganda.

The photo was actually a 2003 photograph from Iraq by Getty images contract photographer Marco di Lauro, John Harrington reported May 27 on his Photo Business News & Forum blog.  The image shows dozens of bodies dug up from a mass grave. They were victims of a brutal crackdown by former dictator Saddam Hussein against a Shi’ite uprising after the 1991 Gulf War.

A Syrian activist reportedly circulated the image on Twitter as evidence of a Syrian crackdown against its citizens, in order to stoke the international outrage against Al Assad’s government. The BBC saw it,  “obtained some information pointing to its veracity,” and published the image with a disclaimer saying it could not be independently verified, according to the mea culpa that BBC published on May 29.

“It was a mistake,” the BBC said, “and we apologise for it.” The image was displayed for approximately 90 minutes before it was taken down, the BBC says.

Harrington argues that the mistake was a predictable consequence of the rush by the BBC and other news organizations to embrace citizen journalism, while mouthing all the right words about upholding standards for accuracy, fairness and objectivity.

One would think that a few glaring errors like this might make reputable news organizations realize that there are no shortcuts to gathering and vetting news–and also make them twice shy about crowd-sourcing news in order to save money.

But for now the BBC seems undeterred. “Fortunately, such mistakes are very rare,” the BBC assures its readers. “BBC News has a strong track record of using content from non-traditional sources, and of stopping numerous examples of incorrect material making it to air or online – but it does underline the need to handle such material with great care.”

March 15th, 2012

Reuters Photographer Recounts Harrowing Trip Into Syria

Reuters has posted photographer Zohra Bensemra’s nail-biting account of her recent five-day trip into Syria. With the help of Syrian activists, she slipped across the Turkish border to document the unrest near Idlib, which has come under attack by government forces in recent days.

“In Libya, miles divided the warring parties. In Syria, enemies are yards apart. The war is being fought from house to house,” Bensemra writes. Recounting civilian deaths in the aftermath of indiscriminate bombing by the military, she says, “From the moment we had crossed the border from Turkey, the terror was palpable in the faces of our guides, of all the villagers.”

Bensemra describes the terror of coming under attack when her guide panicked, and of being hunted by soldiers going house to house after they realized journalists were in the area. Her first-person account is accompanied by photographs of the destruction and death.

“Conditions for our work had been so tough in Syria, that it had been hard to capture many of the striking, bold images that make for the most arresting photography,” she wrote after returning safely to Turkey.

Bensemra’s account coincided with a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists about the dangerous conditions in Syria. Eight journalists have died there since November. CPJ says there is “substantial evidence” that government forces deliberately targeted two local journalists who were killed. And CPJ says that “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.”

Meanwhile, two Turkish journalists who were missing in Syria for nearly a week have been captured and handed over to the Syrian secret police, according to news accounts today.

Related:
Photographer Remi Ochlik Killed in Homs, Syria
Remembering 13 Unsung Heroes of Photojournalism
Photographer William Daniels, Edith Bouvier Safe in Lebanon

March 1st, 2012

Photographer William Daniels, Edith Bouvier Safe in Lebanon

Agence France Presse reports that French photographer William Daniels has managed to escape from Homs, Syria to safety in Lebanon with French reporter Edith Bouvier. The two journalists had been trapped in the besieged city for more than a week.

Bouvier’s leg was badly injured when Syrian troops fired mortars at a makeshift media center in Homs on February 22. Two other journalists –American reporter Marie Colvin and photographer Remi Ochlik–were killed in that attack, while British photographer Paul Conroy was also injured.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced at a press conference today: “Edith Bouvier and William Daniels are currently safe on Lebanese territory and will within moments be under the protection of our embassy in Beirut.”

Concern for the safety of Daniels and Bouvier had mounted as the Syrian army moved into Homs today, cutting off water, electricity and other supplies. Reporters Without Borders had earlier today reported that the two had not been heard from since February 23, when they managed to post a video pleading for “any assistance” to get them out.

Photographer Paul Conroy, also injured in the attack that killed Colvin and Ochlik, was smuggled to safety in Lebanon on Tuesday. Several activists who helped in his escape were killed by the Syrian army.

Related stories:

Injured Photographer Paul Conroy Smuggled out of Syria

Remembering 13 Unsung Heroes of Photojournalism

Photographer Remi Ochlik Killed in Homs, Syria

February 29th, 2012

Remembering 13 Unsung Heroes of Photojournalism

News stories of the deaths in Syria of American reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik totaled in the thousands last week. That was followed by hundreds of stories yesterday about the rescue of British photographer Paul Conroy, who was injured in the same attack in Homs, Syria that killed Ochlik and Colvin.

Lost in much of the coverage about Conroy’s rescue was the fact that 35 activists helped Conroy reach safety in Lebanon, and 13 of them died during the rescue mission. AP reported those deaths, which occurred when government troops attacked the activists.

Meanwhile, the death last Friday of Anas al-Tarsha, a young Syrian videographer and the fourth journalist to die in Homs within a week, was virtually unreported by the news media, except in Spain. The Committee to Protect Journalists, NPPA, Lightstalkers, and a few others also mentioned his death. The death of the fourth journalist, Syrian video blogger Rami al-Sayed, also received much less coverage last week than the deaths of Ochlik and Colvin.

In other words, Western journalists get into trouble, and it’s big news. Local journalists and fixers and others who get injured or killed along side them are too often relegated to the footnotes.

Of course, hundreds of Syrians have died and thousands more have been injured in Homs, where government troops have been shelling rebels and unarmed civilians alike for three weeks in order to keep the unpopular Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in power.

But a disproportionate amount of Western media attention and outrage seems reserved for its own journalists, and it raises (again) the uncomfortable questions about the risks that Western journalists impose not only on themselves, but the locals who aid them. (The issue arose last spring, when a driver for four New York Times journalists went missing after they were detained at a checkpoint in Libya. It wasn’t until November that The New York Times quietly acknowledged the driver’s death.)

This isn’t to say that the deaths of Colvin, Ochlik or any other journalists are anything but a tragedy, regardless of their nationality. Nor is it to suggest selfishness or callousness on the part of individual journalists for whom drivers, fixers, or anyone else risks life and limb. (Conroy’s wife has told The Western Morning News that the photographer “is obviously very concerned for all the people who lost their lives in helping them out. It’s a real burden on him to know that so many people died.”)

What makes the issue so complicated is that journalists endanger themselves and others for good, defensible reasons. By bearing witness to the savagery committed by al-Assad, journalists are trying to help the Syrian people. And they are making a difference. The images and reports have turned the international community (with the glaring exceptions of China and Russia) against al-Assad, and put pressure on him to allow the Red Cross and Red Crescent in to help evacuate the dead and wounded.

That’s why al-Assad is targeting journalists with intent to kill them, while Syrian citizens are risking their lives to help those same journalists. The Syrians who died in the rescue of Paul Conroy undertook the mission voluntarily. But their deaths shouldn’t be his burden to bear alone, because they might have died for any journalist in Conroy’s predicament. To recognize and honor them for their sacrifice is to elevate and honor not only them, but all who put themselves at risk anywhere in the world to make the work of journalists possible.

Related stories:
CPJ Says Missing New York Times Driver is Dead
Talking About the Deaths We Don’t Talk About

February 28th, 2012

Injured Photographer Paul Conroy Smuggled Out of Syria

British photographer Paul Conroy, who was injured last week in an attack on a makeshift media center in Homs, Syria that killed two other journalists, has been smuggled to safety in Lebanon, the Associated Press reports.

Syrian activists smuggled Conroy out last night. According to The Guardian, the activists came under attack while they were moving Conroy to safety and several of them died.

The British Sunday Times, for which Conroy works as a staff photographer, confirmed that he is “safe and in Lebanon,” The Guardian reported.

Kate Conroy, the photographer’s wife, said in a statement that “we are delighted and overjoyed at the news” that the he is out of Syria.

Conroy suffered leg injuries in the attack last week that killed French photographer Remi Ochlik and American reporter Marie Colvin. Another French journalist, Edith Bouvier, was also injured in the attack. She remains in hiding in Homs, according to press reports.

Like other foreign journalists, those killed and injured last week had entered Syria illegally to report on the popular uprising against the government, which is refusing legal entry to foreign journalists.

February 23rd, 2012

Were Journalists in Homs Targeted for Bombing?

Radio communications between Syrian army officers have shown that the army was ordered to bomb the make-shift press center in the besieged city of Homs where photographer Remi Ochlik and reporter Marie Colvin were working, The Telegraph newspaper reports. The journalists died yesterday when the center was shelled. Photographers Paul Conroy and William Daniels and reporter Edith Bouvier of Le Figaro were also wounded in the bombardment of the press center, Reuters reports.

Journalists used the press center’s electricity and internet access to report on the shelling of civilians in Homs. Colvin’s reports of the ongoing humanitarian crisis had been broadcast on the BBC and CNN. According to The Telegraph, radio orders intercepted by the Lebanese intelligence service show that Syrian army officers were ordered to bomb the press center, and if journalists were killed,  army officers were instructed to make it appear that they died accidentally in battles with “terrorists.”

Jean-Pierre Perrin, a reporter for French newspaper Liberation who had been in Homs last week before leaving for Beirut, tells The Telegraph that he learned, “The Syrian army issued orders to ‘kill any journalist that set foot on Syrian soil’.” The Army may have used journalists’ satellite phone signals to target them.

Syria strictly controls access to foreign press, and most journalists trying to report on the humanitarian crisis in Homs and elsewhere have entered Syria without visas. Following reports of the deaths of Ochlik and Colvin, the Syrian foreign minister announced, “The ministry urges all foreign journalists who entered Syria illegally to report to the nearest immigration office to legalize their presence.” That’s a request foreign press are likely to ignore.

Related Stories

Photographer Remi Ochlik Killed in Homs, Syria

In Syria, Photojournalist Bears Witness to Violence

Survival Training for Conflict Zones

February 22nd, 2012

Photographer Remi Ochlik Killed in Homs, Syria

© Lucas Dolega

Freelance photographer Remi Ochlik was killed today in the besieged city of Homs, Syria, according to several news organizations. Reporter Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times of London was killed in the same attack. An aid worker told Reuters the journalists were at a make-shift media center set up by rebels fighting the Syrian army when it was struck by shells. Ochlik and Colvin were trying to flee the building when they were hit by a rocket. The same aid worker also told Reuters two other journalists, including British photographer Peter Conroy, were injured in the attack. Syrian videographer/activist Rami al-Sayed also died of wounds sustained during earlier shelling.

This month, Ochlik, who was represented by the IP3 agency, won first place in the General News/Stories category of the World Press Photo Awards for his work on the civil war in Libya.
Our complete story is now on PDNOnline.
February 8th, 2012

In Syria, Photojournalist Bears Witness to Violence

photojournalist Alessio Romenzi in Homs, Syria

© Time/Photo by Alessio Romenzi

With Syria strictly limiting access to foreign press, most foreign journalists trying to report on the uprising in Homs, Syria, have had to remain in nearby Lebanon while relaying reports from locals on the scene.  Italian photojournalist Alessio Romenzi, however, has managed to move through the besieged city. More than two dozen of his images of civilian casualties, women and children taking shelter during shelling, and fighting between the army of the Assad government and the rebel Free Syrian Army were posted today on Time’s Lightbox. Patrick Witty, Time‘s International Picture Editor, edited the pictures.

Romenzi, whose previous work from the Middle East and elsewhere has been published in Time, The New York Times, Washington Post, Le Monde and other publications, has been in Al Qsair and Homs, Syria, since late January. Previous posts to his PhotoShelter page include his images of Syrian journalists as they have tried to file reports on the fighting.

On assignment for Time, he has moved among fighters in the Free Syrian Army and at one point he took shelter from the shelling in the basement of a home in the southern Homs neighborhood of Bab Amr, according to a report on Lightbox. He reported seeing 25 civilian casualties in two hours of shelling. In an email to Time he wrote, “The word ‘safe’ is not in our dictionary these days.”

*Update:
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported on February 8 that Syrian journalist Mazhar Tayyara, a stringer for AFP and other news organizations, was killed in Homs on February 4, when the Syrian government shelled the neighborhood he was reporting from.  “The Syrian conflict is growing increasingly dangerous for all kinds of journalists, from citizens who have taken the role of documenting unrest in the country to international journalists who report from the frontlines,” says the CPJ.