Category: Press Releases, MENA, Syria
By: Steven M. Ellis, Senior Press Freedom Adviser

Syria denies holding missing journalist

IPI joins calls for information on Al Hurra correspondent Bashar Fahmi

Nuran Unal (front, 3rd L) and Arzu Fahmi (front, 3rd R) hold portraits of their husbands, cameraman Cuneyt Unal and TV correspondent Bashar Fahmi, during a demonstration in front of the Syrian Embassy in Ankara on Aug. 31, 2012. Photo: REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By: Steven M. Ellis, Senior Press Freedom Adviser

VIENNA, Sep 6, 2012 – The International Press Institute (IPI) today again expressed deep concern over the fate of two foreign journalists reportedly captured by Syrian loyalist forces in Aleppo last month after the Syrian government on Tuesday denied that it was holding one of them.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees U.S.-funded Arabic-language satellite station Al Hurra, yesterday called on Syria’s government to release any information it had on the capture and whereabouts of Al Hurra correspondent Bashar Fahmi and cameraman Cüneyt Ünal.

Syria’s Information ministry reportedly said on Tuesday that Fahmi, a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian origin, was not with Syrian authorities. A pro-government television channel in Syria last week broadcast an interview with Ünal, who is from Turkey, in which he reportedly said he travelled from the Turkish border to Aleppo with an armed group of foreign fighters that linked up with rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad. However, Ünal, who appeared exhausted and nervous with apparent bruises under both eyes in the interview, made no mention of Fahmi.

IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills said: “The denial by Syrian authorities that they are holding Mr. Fahmi, despite reports that he was captured by forces loyal to the government, is an extremely worrying development. We urge the authorities to release Mr. Ünal and to take immediate steps to locate Mr. Fahmi and ensure his wellbeing – if he is indeed not in their custody – so that he may return home.”

Fahmi and Ünal were reportedly travelling near Aleppo with Japanese reporter Mika Yamamoto and her colleague, Kazutaka Soto, on Aug. 20 when Yamamoto was killed by shots fired from what Sato said appeared to be government soldiers. Fahmi and Ünal were reported missing that day. Sato said they were travelling with anti-regime forces at the time of Yamamoto’s death and the pro-government Syrian television channel that broadcast the interview with Ünal also broadcast an image of him holding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Ünal’s wife, in an interview with Al Hurra, insisted that her husband travelled to Syria solely to report as a journalist and she said that the image of Ünal with the grenade launcher was fabricated. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, at a news conference in Ankara following the broadcast of the interview with Ünal, similarly said the journalist “was forced to make a statement that was dictated to him”.

IPI today also renewed its demand that Syrian authorities release U.S. freelance journalist Austin Tice, who has been missing for three weeks and who the Czech Republic’s ambassador to Syria last week said had been detained by government forces on the outskirts of Damascus.

Syria is currently the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. According to IPI’s Death Watch, more than 40 journalists and citizen reporters have been killed in Syria since the current conflict between loyalist and anti-government forces began in March 2011.