Dead journalists and Sister Agnes-Mariam

The Committee for the Protection of Journalists has an important report up by Dahlia El Zein. The attacks on media personnel affiliated with the Syrian regime has been rightly condemned. But not enough is said about the regime’s more systematic policy to co-opt and in some cases deliberately trap journalists for propaganda purposes. Most shocking however is the role of Sister Agnes-Mariam, the regime-affiliated nun who has been feted both by the far left and the Christian right. The nun has already been condemned by Father Paolo Dell’Oglio, who was expelled by the regime for his criticisms after spending 30 years of his life in the country. The following story is further indictment.

Evidence of government targeting in the deaths of the international journalists is circumstantial, although the journalists on the ground perceived that they were under attack. CPJ spoke with Sid Ahmed Hammouche, a reporter with the Swiss daily La Liberté who participated in the government-sponsored trip that ended in Jacquier’s death. He said he believes the government laid a trap for the reporters.

Gilles Jacquier (AFP)
Gilles Jacquier (AFP)

Hammouche and Jacquier were among a group of 15 journalists allowed into Syria on government-issued visas facilitated bySister Agnes-Mariam de la Croix, a Lebanese nun of Palestinian origin with close relations to the Assad regime. Sister Agnes had helped arrange a reporting trip to Homs on January 11, although she declined to accompany the group, saying her absence would help them move freely. Jacquier resisted the Homs trip, believing it unsafe, but Sister Agnes urged him to go or risk losing the opportunity to renew his visa beyond the initial four-day period, Hammouche told CPJ in an account consistent with news reports.

Once they arrived in Homs, the journalists divided into two groups, one with journalists from CNN, CBS, and BBC who were led by the Ministry of Information to visit a local hospital. The other contingent included Hammouche, three French journalists, including Jacquier, his wife, Caroline Poiron, Jacquier’s cameraman, Christophe Kenck; and Swiss and Belgian journalists. That group was escorted by 20 Syrian soldiers dressed in military fatigues and in plainclothes. This group was also supposed to visit the hospital but they were detoured without explanation to a pro-Assad neighborhood, Hammouche said, where they interviewed residents. As they left the area, the group encountered a pro-Assad march and heard an explosion.

To his surprise, Hammouche said, the soldiers took no evident action to protect the journalists or respond to the explosion; instead, most of the soldiers dispersed without explanation, leaving four escorts who appeared relaxed and dismissed the noise as a “sound explosion.” Hammouche said the soldiers urged the journalists to go toward the explosions to investigate. Hammouche said he and a Swiss colleague refused, remaining in one of two government vehicles, but Jacquier and the others traveled toward the source of the initial explosion.

More explosions followed, Hammouche recounted: “There were four explosions total in a 10-minute period. And that’s it. We didn’t hear a sound after that.”

Kenck, Jacquier’s cameraman, rushed back. The reporter, he said, appeared to have died in the explosions. At a local clinic where the body was taken, Hammoche recounted, Syrian authorities were insistent that the journalists give statements blaming the attack on “terrorists.” They also urged Caroline Poiron to give her husband’s body over to Syrian authorities for what they termed an autopsy, pressure so strong that she, Hammouche, Kenck felt compelled to stand guard over the body for several hours before it could be given to French officials.

French authorities later began a criminal investigation; no autopsy details have been disclosed. The Syrian government blamed the strike on opposition forces, labeling it a “terrorist” attack.

A deadly attack, professional resolve

Marie Colvin (AFP)
Marie Colvin (AFP)

The worst episode for the press came on February 22, when several government shells struck a makeshift media center in a three-story building in the Baba Amr neighborhood. Conroy, a former target acquisition/communications operative in the British Royal Artillery, said he believed the attack was deliberate because the pattern of repeated shelling on the center was intended to cause massive damage and take out its target. He told CBS news that the February 22 shelling did not fit earlier patterns, which appeared indiscriminate. This time, he said, the strike appeared to have military coordination: “The first shots hit wide. A second round narrowed their target. The third set of shots hit the house–‘fire for effect,’ it’s called–and they fired for effect and killed two very good people, wounded a few others, and destroyed the building.”Jean-Pierre Perrin, a journalist for the Paris-based daily Libération who was with Colvin and Conroy in Baba Amr before leaving days earlier, told CPJ that government forces could have easily picked out the building since it was the only one in the area with consistent electricity, which was provided by a generator that worked through the night amid an otherwise darkened neighborhood. Reports also suggest Syrian authorities could have picked up the satellite phone signals the journalists used to communicate with the outside world, a tactic similar to one used by the Russians in the conflict in Chechnya. Technology experts have told CPJ that satellite phones can be tracked with relative ease.

For those who survived, like Espinosa of the Spanish daily El Mundo, the effect was profound. “It makes you feel that you can be also a victim of the conflict,” Espinosa told CPJ. “But I always compare my situation with that of the civilians living around me. And always we, the foreign journalists, are a type of VIP in those conflicts so we have a duty to keep reporting. For the local citizen journalists in Baba Amr, it was also the same. They did not stop working because some of their team was killed. In fact, one was working even after being wounded.”

Said Hammouche: “We are witnesses. We serve as witnesses to the brutal oppression. And if we let them scare us away, then they have won.”

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