Journalists the new tools for terrorists

Covering the war in Syria is now considered one of the world’s most dangerous jobs, according to British roving reporter Paul Conroy.

By Lucy Hinton

In February 2011, foreign correspondent for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR), Henrik Lerche, bade farewell to fellow Swedish journalist, Bert Sundstrom. He took one street, and Sundstrom another, heading back to their respective hotel rooms in Cairo. Lerche walked slowly through the winding streets, making sure he kept his camera covered. He says he felt the eyes of Egyptian citizens following him, believing him to be a Western spy.

The next day news reached him that Sundstrom was missing. Colleagues called Sundstrom’s phone numerous times, until finally a voice answered, saying in Arabic; “We have got him, you will never see him again”. 24 hours later, Sundstrom was found in a hospital with several stab wounds, and signs of severe beating.

This year Islamic State (IS) has killed two US journalists, eight Syrian journalists and one Iraqi journalist, says Reporters without Boarders, a non-profit organization with consultant status at the United Nations. The terrorist group currently holds nine Iraqi journalists in Iraq and around 20 Syrian journalists are missing.

Journalists are the new bulls-eye

“Journalists come to war zones, armed only with their pens,” says Lerche, “we make ourselves easy targets for terrorists groups, who use hostages to grab the international communities attention.”

Lerche’s time in Egypt made him aware of the lengths foreign reporters will go, to get a story. He says it becomes a balance of needing to report the atrocities terrorists groups like IS are committing, but also not to provide them with new meat on a platter.

“When I was Head of the Foreign Desk at DR, I knew I was sending people into harms way. I worried about them, and in hindsight I made many poor decisions,” he says, “but I know I would not send anyone to Syria today.”

Lack of cameras, lack of awareness

Many fear that reducing the number of cameras in Syria will decrease the global understanding of terrorist acts.

“These crisis are big and important, and play a huge role in how things are reported back to the community,” says Thomas Ubbesen, a roving reporter at DR, who is currently writing a novel on his experiences in war zones.

“It all comes down to what level of danger you are willing to accept. You have to ask yourself; is the story worth risking your life for?”

And for many reporters, the stories are.

Taking a bullet for the global community

British journalist Paul Conroy was injured during an attack on the Syrian city of Homs in 2012. He had to leave behind his friend and colleague, Marie Colvin, who died during the onslaught.

He remembers finding his way, injured, into a building while the city was under attack. When he came out, he could only hear the screams of women and children, and the street was torn to shreds.

“She would have wanted the story told over anything,” he told English TV station Channel 4 from his hospital bed in 2012, “I can justify leaving Marie, so that our story can be told.”

Some hostages don’t stand a chance

Conroy now describes Syria as the world’s most dangerous place for journalists. Yet, he still believes people need to be sent to “shine a light on the dark places where human rights abusers thrive”

He speaks of James Foley, whose beheading was publically broadcast earlier this year.

While other hostages held alongside Foley were released on ransom, such as Danish photojournalist Daniel Rye Ottoson, Lerche says Foley didn’t stand a chance.

“No matter what the US offered them (IS), they still would have killed him,” he says, “they wanted a symbolic action, that would hurt and affect American feelings.”

Lerche’s friend Sundstrom is hoping to return to work in Beijing next month. At the same time, many other journalists are preparing to risk their lives in crisis zones, to help the global community understand the terrors of war.

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