LONDON – Amnesty International said Friday that Syria's government and elements of its rebel movement are deliberately targeting journalists, releasing a report which had blame for both sides in the country's civil war.
The London-based rights group acknowledges that the journalists' deaths — numbering somewhere between 44 and 100, depending on who does the counting — represent only "a miniscule fraction" of a death toll, which has climbed past 70,000.
But Amnesty's Noor Al-bazzaz said the attacks have threatened the flow of news to the outside world.
"So much information that we have about the violations against civilians — from arrests to torture to the shelling and airstrikes — it wouldn't be known so much without the efforts of the journalists and citizen journalists in Syria," she said in a telephone interview ahead of the report's release.
Reporters labored under stifling restrictions even before the protests erupted in Syria in March 2011. Many were attacked, kidnapped, or killed as the protest movement morphed into an armed uprising, turning Syria into the world's deadliest country for journalists, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Amnesty's report doesn't attempt to confirm the numbers reported by one group or another but it does flesh out stories of media abuse. One reporter, Miral Abdul Aziz Sheikha, told the rights group he was beaten every day for 26 days following his arrest by Syrian authorities in August 2011. In another case, a citizen journalist, Muaz al-Taani, says Syrian security forces bludgeoned his mother with a rifle butt in a bid to discover his whereabouts.
Al-bazzaz cautioned that while government abuses far outweighed the attacks attributed to Syrian's motley rebels, some insurgent groups "have violated the same rights they claim to be fighting for."
The report cites an August 2012 attack in which a crew from the Damascus-based Ikhbariya television was kidnapped by anti-government forces. Amnesty quotes news presenter Yara Saleh as saying cameraman Hatem Abu Yehyeh was killed by their captors almost immediately and that she was threatened with rape. In another case, citizen journalist Musab al-Hamadi said he was detained and threatened by a unit of the Free Syrian Army after he criticized them online.
Free Syrian Army spokesman Loay Almikdad said his group has never killed any journalist. He said by telephone that the Free Syrian Army rejects "any attack on civilians no matter what their political stance is. We are strongly with the freedom of opinion."
"What is happening is that the regime kills some journalists — even if they are loyal (to the government) — in order to incite their families," he said.
There was no immediate comment from Syrian authorities on the report. Damascus, which has imposed a nearly complete ban on foreign journalists, rarely comments on allegations from outside rights groups.
Amnesty's al-Bazzaz said that the journalists from both sides of Syria's political divide were unanimous in warning that the country's media workers were at grave risk — although she added that all remained defiant.
"Every single one said, 'The situation is terrible, but I am going to continue doing what I'm doing because it's my right,'" she said.
Amnesty's report is being published on World Press Freedom Day, a day meant to raise awareness of assaults on the global media. Many organizations — from the United Nations to journalists' advocacy group Reporters Without Borders — are taking the opportunity to raise the alarm over a rising number of attacks on reporters, bloggers and other newsmakers worldwide.
Bassem Mroue and Barbara Surk in Beirut and Peter Spielmann in New York contributed to this report.
Amnesty's report: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/MDE24/014/2013/en
Raphael Satter can be reached at: http://raphae.li/twitter