War correspondents in region cite a deteriorating press situation in the Middle East following the execution of US journalist James Foley.
By HK Tzanis for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 03/09/14
A special mass in remembrance of journalist James Foley was held on August 24th. [AFP]
The release of the videotaped beheading of an abducted US photojournalist by a masked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) jihadist sent shockwaves around the world.
The August 19th video of James Foley's execution amid a desert backdrop also sent shivers through southeast Europe, given that Turkey shares a long and often porous border with Syria and Iraq, where ISIL fighters hold large swathes of land.
For professional journalists with experience in war zones, the Foley execution and its subsequent airing on YouTube was an ominous development for the future of press coverage of the Middle East.
Nikolas Vafiadis, one of Greece's most prominent war correspondents, said that the ever-volatile Mideast is now experiencing unprecedented and unforeseen violence.
"We're seeing a mish-mash of extremist ideas linked with hostage-taking and ransoms; the ISIL are nothing but brutal merchants, they don't respect anything," he said, while warning that journalists are prime targets in this latest conflict.
Vafiadis, who has covered several wars and conflicts for the Athens-based Antenna channel for the past two decades, was travelling in an ill-fated convoy of journalists and cameramen intercepted by armed gunmen in eastern Afghanistan in November 2011, shortly after the Taliban's overthrow. Two correspondents and two photographers were killed during that incident, and Vafiadis credits his driver with persuading the gunmen not to execute his passengers.
"ISIL are more ruthless than local Afghan bandits, however. As a journalist, there's really no defence against them, there's no rationale. The only thing I would advise a journalist trying to cover this conflict is to 'hide in the crowd', go incognito if necessary, don't stand out. You also need local people you can absolutely trust, and these are not necessarily the so-called fixers," he told SETimes.
Veteran Kosovo journalist Nehat Islami covered the Middle East for the one-time Pristina daily Rilindja in the 1970s, based in Beirut as a correspondent. In 2010, he published his first book, Hotel Bejruti (Hotel Beirut), which contains a summary of his dispatches and analyses from the region.
He agrees that what is happening to journalists covering the Syria and Iraq conflicts is unprecedented.
"When I was there, yes, journalists were taken hostage, but I don't remember a single case of a journalist being executed like Foley was. Reporters were killed in war, on the frontlines, taking bullets while doing their job," he told SETimes.
Islami, the former project manager of the Pristina office of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, now runs the office of the Kosovo press council, a self-regulating body for and by the print media.
He said the abduction of journalists by ISIL jihadists aims to generate funding for the extremist group through extortion and ransoms, a method once employed by Latin American guerrillas. Nevertheless, he said the plan has now backfired, as the latest grim images have negatively affected people once deemed as neutral or indifferent.
Athens University professor Giorgos Plios, who specialises in mass media communication, referred to the Foley murder as an "extremely barbaric act," one whose "communications message" aims to frighten Westerners and invigorate jihadists. "Surely this was an escalation, aimed to cause a reaction and a rallying of extremists."
In terms of Greek society, Plios said the journalist's killing will definitely be viewed with shock.
"This act scares Greek society and could, unfortunately, create negative feelings towards Muslims. This is a complex situation in the Middle East and it should not turn into a 'clash of civilisations' debate," he added.
Closer to the frontlines, regional journalists have been kidnapped while covering the wars in Syria and Iraq.
Bunyamin Aygun, a photojournalist for the Turkish mass daily Milliyet, was abducted in Syria in November 2013 and rescued 40 days later. Cuneyt Unal spent three months in captivity in Syria in 2012. His Palestinian-Jordanian colleague, Bashar Fahmi al-Kadumi, who works for Al-Hurra TV and is based in Turkey, is still missing.
Romanian reporter Ovidiu Ohanesian was kidnapped in Iraq along with two fellow journalists in March 2005.
Foley's death was a "flashback of the situation I found myself in and reminded me that I could have had the same fate. His execution denotes cruelty and shows that the job of a journalist remains very risky," he told SETimes.
Turkey Association of Journalists Secretary General-Sibel Gunes noted that veteran war correspondents from her country are usually quite experienced in navigating war zones, but any journalist sent to cover a conflict should be provided with a specific training and with protective gear before being deployed.
"War correspondents from the local media who are assumed to know the region have a greater risk because they are deployed with less equipment compared to reporters from mainstream media. Many of them don't have life and health insurance, for instance, and they don't have security with them when conducting field reports in such a region with so many different conflicting parties," Gunes told SETimes.
However, Gunes said, the targeting of journalists for abduction, and even Foley's beheading, will probably not deter Turkish correspondents from reporting in Syria and Iraq.
Correspondents Menekse Tokyay in Istanbul, Linda Karadaku in Pristina and Paul Ciocoiu in Bucharest contributed to this report.
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