65 journalists have been killed in Syria since the war began - so how do reporters stop themselves from becoming the story?

There's never been a more dangerous time to be a reporter; and there's never been a more dangerous place to report from than Syria


On 19 April, four underfed men were found in a field in a no man's land on the Turkish border with Syria. They were blindfolded and handcuffed and one had a long grey beard. It was quickly discovered that they were four French journalists – Nicolas Hénin, Pierre Torres, Edouard Elias and Didier François.

They had been held for more than 10 months by a radical Muslim group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), the objective of which is to establish an Islamic state in the northern Syrian land which it has pried from Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Being captured by Isis is the nightmare of all journalists reporting on the Syrian civil war. On 31 March, Isis released Javier Espinosa, a reporter for the Spanish paper El Mundo, and a photographer, Ricardo García Vilanova. There are believed to be 30 more journalists still in captivity in Syria. While there is news from some, others appear to have disappeared from the face of the earth.

“They came to her door and took her away,” says the friend of one Syrian journalist who disappeared in February. A mother of small children, she had been investigating war crimes by both sides. “We have had no news since.”

In addition to Isis, other radical groups are holding some reporters, the Syrian government others. Most news organisations are wary of revealing details of the captives for fear that it will compromise negotiations for their release.

Safe return: French President Francois Hollande (left) greets the freed French journalists as they arrive back in France (Getty Images) Safe return: French President Francois Hollande (left) greets the freed French journalists as they arrive back in France (Getty Images)
The freed French journalist with the bushy beard, Didier François, 53, a reporter for the French radio station Europe One, had covered many conflicts before he was kidnapped, including the wars in Bosnia for the French daily Libération.

One time, in Sarajevo, François darted in the middle of gunfire to rescue a British photographer, Tom Stoddart, who had been badly injured and could not move. Stoddart later credited François with saving his life.

Later, François reported from Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Africa and other danger zones. Even in Chechnya, where warlords were at one point decapitating hostages and posting their heads on spikes, the Frenchman managed to stay safe. It took the Syrian war to land him in extended captivity.

Although François and the others were not tortured as earlier victims had been, they were chained together, not given enough food or water and kept in darkened rooms and cellars for most of their 10 and a half months' captivity. François said it was “a great joy and an immense relief, obviously, to be free. Under the sky, which we haven't seen for a long time, to breathe the fresh air, to walk freely”.

One can only trust that other hostages, including the American James Foley, missing since Thanksgiving Day in November 2012, have not lost hope. Austin Tice, another American, has been missing since August 2012.

Syria is the most dangerous country in the world, a feeding ground for terrorist groups abducting reporters, aid workers and anyone else who dares to cross the border. At least 65 journalists have been killed since the conflict began.

Reunion: El Mundo correspondent Javier Espinosa is greeted by his son in Madrid (Getty Images) Reunion: El Mundo correspondent Javier Espinosa is greeted by his son in Madrid (Getty Images)
“The emergence of hard-line Islamist fighters has made Syria coverage even more dangerous for the press,” explains Joel Stein, of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“While other armed opposition groups, especially the Free Syrian Army, have courted international public opinion and facilitated the work of the press, the hard-line factions have no use for international journalists and no interest in shaping Western public opinion. Journalists are simply bargaining chips.”

John Owen, a professor of journalism at London's City University and chairman of the Frontline Club, an association for war reporters, says that abducting journalists may be “barbaric”. But, he says, “there is an even greater danger, which lies at the very root of reporting the truth. [Kidnapping] has also succeeded in making Syria so dangerous to report on that only rarely now can journalists get any safe access to bear witness to this humanitarian disaster.”

Read more: Ransom rumours after French hostages go free
Syria conflict: Four French journalists freed
Spanish journalists freed after Syrian kidnap ordeal

Reporters Without Borders (RWB), the media watchdog, says that more than 87 journalists have been kidnapped worldwide, many in Mexico, where reporting the drug wars means risking being kidnapped, tortured and killed. In former conflicts (other than the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s), it was rare for journalists to be used as bargaining tools. But the Syrian war has reached new heights in abduction.

Some manage to escape – climbing through windows or even fighting their way out. In 2012, the BBC's Paul Wood and his crew escaped captivity in Syria, as did NBC's Richard Engel and his team. Others have governments that do not give up. Whether the Spanish or French government (or both) paid kidnappers to free the most recently-snatched reporters is unclear. The French have denied it, although they allegedly have paid to release other hostages in the past, including those held by the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.

Times reporter Anthony Loyd, who was shot twice in the leg while reporting in Syria (PA) Times reporter Anthony Loyd, who was shot twice in the leg while reporting in Syria (PA)
The American and British governments repeatedly say that they will never negotiate with kidnappers and will not pay ransoms. As a reporter covering Chechnya and other war zones in the 1990s for News International, I was repeatedly told that if I was kidnapped, my government would not barter with kidnappers. Nor did my expensive war insurance – a bone of contention for reporters – cover kidnapping. “Kidnap insurance turns you into a walking ATM,” one of my editors told me. “We don't sanction it.”

According to a study by Dr Anthony Feinstein, a Canadian psychiatrist who writes about the effect of trauma on war reporters, more than a fifth of journalists had no insurance of any kind while covering the Syria conflict.

Some families of kidnapped reporters make sure the world does not forget that their relatives are missing. Foley's family keeps a blog and has reached out to reporters to approach their contacts for information.

Governments are usually aware of where their citizens are being held. “The US State Department apparently knew exactly where we were throughout the time we were captured,” says one of three hostages held during the Nato-led bombing campaign in Libya in 2011. “They knew down to the house we were kept in.”

Is there any way to prevent an abduction? “Kidnappings are based on financial or political motives,” says Darren White of the UK security group Dragonfly. “And they generally follow a process that is very similar to the attack cycle. There is target selection, planning, deployment, attack, escape and exploitation.”

White says there are “almost always” telltale signs that the abduction process is in motion prior to the actual kidnapping. Which translates as: keep your eyes open. “In retrospect, almost every person who is kidnapped has either missed or ignored an indication or warning,” he says.

During the “hostile environment courses” that many war journalists now undergo, there are extensive kidnapping workshops teaching them how to avoid situations that might place them at risk: always be met at an airport if you are travelling to an unknown location; know your route; do your research. They are also taught what to do if kidnapped – when is the best time to try to escape? – and how to survive if you are caught and abused. UN field workers, also frequently targeted by kidnappers, are even advised which floors of hotels are the safest.

Times photographer Jack Hill, who was badly beaten in Syria Times photographer Jack Hill, who was badly beaten in Syria (PA)
RWB recently began teaching reporters in Senegal, France, Tajikistan, Tunisia and the US how to encrypt data as a measure to protect them when they are in the field. “If you do not encrypt your data and communications, you take the risk that everybody knows where you are,” says Christophe Deloire, the group's director. “And they can come and kidnap you.” Another tactic used by reporters is a virtual private network such as WiTopia, which gives a false location, indicating that they are working from, say, Las Vegas or Dallas when they are in fact working inside Syria.

Then there is the trauma suffered by those abducted. One reporter who was kidnapped for more than a year during the Lebanese civil war says he still has nightmares. “I always hated seeing those films about kidnappers and their hostages and how they became close, even friends,” he says. “It's a lie. I hated my jailer, and he hated me.”

Others advocate safer practices. “We have to consider the lessons learned,” says Deloire. “One of the first things Didier did when he got off the plane was to say to the heads of Europe, 'We have to think of what happened to me. We have to analyse and improve so this does not happen to others. We need to share the experiences so that we can learn... ' ”

With all the risk to reporters, most news organisations have chosen to cover Syria from afar. Some hire local stringers, aware that they are losing their objectivity by hiring activists. Others get Damascus-issued (ie, from the Assad government) visas, which are usually given only to those who will toe the line.

“The risks are not only to journalists, but also to their sources, who may face reprisals or threats for giving interviews,” says Emma Daly from Human Rights Watch. “This is true whether the meetings are conducted face-to-face or via phone or internet.” Meaning that the people whom reporters interview, even on Skype, can be subject to harassment, incarceration, or worse.

The price of getting the truth out can be high for those who dare to risk their lives on the front line. “It was a long time not to see the sun,” said François after his release. “It was really a black hole.”


Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
Clarke Carlisle
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'