Two journalists working for US-funded Al-Hurra TV went missing in Aleppo exactly a month ago today, on 20 August. Only one has since given any sign of life. It was Cüneyt Ünal, a Turkish cameraman who was seen in footage broadcast by the pro-government TV station Al-Ikhbariya on 27 August.
Looking tired, with bruises under both eyes and clearly speaking under duress, he accused himself of having been escorted during some of the fighting by persons of foreign origin "who were all carrying a weapon." Accompanying armed men while covering a war is not new and, for a journalist, is certainly not evidence of crime.
His Al-Hurra colleague, Jordanian reporter Bashar Fahmi Al-Kadumi, is being held by Syrian pro-government forces, according to his brother. The Syrian information ministry nonetheless issued a statement on 4 September denying that he is being held by the Syrian authorities. So where is he? Someone is lying. Telling lies in wartime is not new either, but this is like getting facts from a black hole.
Syria’s cities have become a Bermuda triangle for journalists. US freelancer Austin Tice has been missing since 13 August, when he disappeared in a Damascus suburb while reporting for the Washington Post, Al-Jazeera English and McClatchy. According to the ambassador of the Czech Republic, which represents US interests in Syria, Tice is being held by pro-government forces. But the Syrian government refuses to confirm this, although pressed by the US State Department.
Journalists used to be taken hostage in order to make demands. Are they now being kidnapped in Damascus just to remove unwanted witnesses from war zones, just as certain well-known faces used to be removed from photos in Moscow?
And where are the 31 Syrian journalists and citizen-journalists currently being held by the regime? Their arbitrary detention in unknown locations is tantamount to enforced disappearances. Where are Mazen Darwish, the head of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), Hussein Ghreir, a blogger arrested along with Darwish during a raid on the SCM in February, and Ali Mahmoud Othman, the head of the Media Centre in the Homs district of Bab Amr, who was arrested on 28 March?
Similarly, there has been no word since mid-August of Ahmed Sattouf, the Homs-based correspondent of Iran’s Arabic-language TV station Al-Alam and the Syrian pro-government TV station Al-Ikhbariya, or of Talal Janbakeli, a cameraman with the Syrian government TV station, who was kidnapped by a Free Syrian Army militia in Damascus on 5 August.
The Assad regime, like the Free Syrian Army and the other components of the opposition, need to realise that making journalists disappear in order to hide what is going on serves no purpose. It just sheds an even harsher light on all the disappearances of men, women and children that are taking place in the course of this war.