The Middle East Channel

Obama can stop the killing in Syria

As the Syrian uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad concludes its third month, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is coming under increasing fire for its slow, reluctant reaction. The administration continues to call on the Syrian president to lead a transition to democracy and argues that the United States simply lacks the leverage to affect the situation in Damascus. As one senior U.S. official told the Atlantic in May, "The Syrian government knows it can act with a certain amount of impunity because we have no real leverage over them."

Not all significant players agree with Washington. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak have stated that Assad's rule is "illegitimate." Washington is lagging behind.

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The Middle East Channel

The war against journalists in the Middle East

American freelance journalist Matthew VanDyke travelled to Libya on March 6 to report on the North African nation's nascent uprising -- at that point in its third week. He went there to do the job he loved in a region he had long studied, and to "witness history in the making," his mother, Sharon told me about three months ago as we tried to figure out what had happened to her son. VanDyke has not been heard from since March 13. The sole piece of information about the 31-year old reporter since then has been a single unconfirmed sighting in a Sirte prison about two months ago.

Unfortunately, VanDyke's case is not unique. The Committee to Protect Journalists' (CPJ) research shows that at least 15 journalists and media workers are currently missing or in government custody in Libya. Since mid-February, CPJ has documented nearly 100 attacks on the press. They include five fatalities and 50 detentions, as well as assaults, attacks on news facilities, jamming of satellite news transmissions, destruction of equipment, disabling of the Internet, obstruction, and expulsions.

Tripoli is deliberately engaged in a policy that targets journalists, detains them, and finally uses them as lures to engage the international community. Libyan officials have maintained throughout that the detention of journalists -- and the abuse that inevitably follows -- is the work of rogue elements. Such baseless claims are belied by the sheer number of detentions, the absence of any public government condemnation of the practice, and perhaps most tellingly by the political leadership's repeated use of detained journalists to project state power and enter into negotiations where Tripoli holds few, if any, other bargaining chips. Moreover, Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's "good cop/bad cop" tactics, where militiamen detain journalists at the frontlines, physically assault them, hand them off to the political leadership who treat them with a modicum of respect and negotiate their release to foreign diplomats, have occurred one time too many to be unscripted.

Though Tripoli holds the dishonor of being at the top of the list of regional press freedom violators, others are not far behind. As far as governments are concerned, journalists seemingly fall into one of two categories: as pawns to be utilized in political posturing and negotiations or as an irritant to be eliminated. As such, journalists from Egypt to Bahrain, from Syria to Yemen have been brutalized with appalling frequency. Consider one telling statistic: Of the 19 global media fatalities recorded by CPJ in the first five months of this year, 13 (or 68 percent) occurred in the Middle East and North Africa.

A cursory examination of the record reveals that regional governments (chief among them the one in Tripoli) resort, as a matter of policy, to cruelty to intimidate, disinformation to mislead, and manipulation to curb critical coverage. 

The cruelty in Tripoli was plain to see when it subjected detained reporters to mock executions and when it released four Al-Jazeera journalists one afternoon only to re-arrest them later the same day. Though Libya has not monopolized callous behavior; government proxies in Yemen have long threatened journalists with abduction and murder, but in recent months the threats have expanded to include the rape of reporters' wives and the dismemberment of their children.

Tripoli is also engaged in a deliberate campaign of disinformation, obscuring facts and at times outright falsifying them to meet narrow short-term objectives. For a month and a half the government lied, assuring all that South African journalist Anton Hammerl was in custody and would be permitted to call his family "shortly," when it knew all along that he had been shot by Gaddafi's militiamen and left to die in the Libyan desert on April 5. The truth only got out after three other journalists that witnessed the killing were released from custody and left the country. Similarly in Bahrain, the government maintains that a newspaper publisher and a blogger who died in government custody and whose post-mortem pictures show indisputable and extensive signs of torture, expired, respectively, as a result of kidney failure and sickle cell anemia complications.

Finally, manipulation with the goal of making reporting conditions as arbitrary as possible are also hallmarks of Qaddafi's strategy. One April afternoon, over 20 journalists in Tripoli were asked, for no apparent reason, to leave the country within 24 hours. The next morning, the deadline had been extended by two days. Ultimately, all were permitted to stay. Saif al-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader's second-eldest son, hailed his invitation to some 100 international journalists to report from Tripoli as an opportunity for the world to see reality on the ground. Yet one international journalist described the conditions under which she and her colleagues were forced to operate as "seemingly designed to exhaust the reporters, more suited to a detention facility, which this kind of is -- a plush expensive one. But the journalists in Tripoli are completely at the whim and mercy of the regime." Similarly in Syria, the government forcibly sent Al-Jazeera reporter Dorothy Parvaz to Iran after she tried to enter the country, but claimed for days that she was in custody. As if a reminder that journalists are routinely exploited in political maneuvers was necessary, Parvaz was released and sent to Qatar, presumably after the tiny Gulf emirate responded favorably to a political overture by Tehran "seeking closer ties with the Doha government," as the New York Times put it.

While Tripoli's treatment of journalists has been archetypical of a regime all too willing to engage in outright criminal behavior vis-à-vis journalists, it is hardly the only government in the region which will deploy violence and intimidation against media. Indeed, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh claimed that the country's revolution was the product of an Al-Jazeera conspiracy to topple the government in Sana'a, a notion as preposterous as Libya's assertion that journalists are not targeted. Syria's contention that "a lot of exaggeration and many unspecified things were said by news media" and that "Syrian state television tells the truth; no one else," as expounded by senior presidential advisor Buthaina Shaaban in a March press conference hardly warrant serious consideration. Equally groundless assertions -- perhaps most notably that demonstrators and any journalist who questions the government-sanctioned narrative are infiltrators trained and bankrolled by the U.S., Israel, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and/or other sinister shadowy forces -- have been made, to little effect, by Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and others at various points since January.

With 13 journalists killed in Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya since the beginning of the year, there is no doubt that reporters in this part of the world, when not deemed objects to be used in political posturing and negotiations, are seen as a nuisance to be eliminated.

Mohamed Abdel Dayem is program coordinator for the Middle East & North Africa at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Follow him on twitter @xmarksthespot77.

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