Abduction: the price of being a journalist in Syria
None of Bilal Ahmad Bilal’s colleagues at the Damascus-based Arabic-language TV station Palestine Today were surprised that he was late for work on Sept. 13, 2011. The countless army and security checkpoints in and around the Syrian capital had turned his 30-minute commute into a three-hour ordeal.
But Bilal failed to show up by the end of the day.
The next day, his wife told his colleagues that the journalist and television director had been arrested at a checkpoint manned by the feared Syrian Air Force Intelligence at the entrance of Moadamiyeh, on the outskirts of Damascus.
She pled with the station to help secure her husband’s release.
Bilal is just one of the Syrian journalists currently missing or detained in the country. “At least 52 journalists have been killed covering the Syrian conflict. Local journalists have paid the greatest price for reporting on the conflict, with Syrians comprising 90 percent of the journalists killed so far,” Jason Stern, research assistant for Middle East and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said in an email.
“Meanwhile, the risk of abductions in Syria has never been higher. CPJ has publicly reported on at least 14 local and international journalists currently missing in Syria.”
Bilal’s station belongs to to a Palestinian faction with close ties to President Bashar Assad’s government.
His anti-regime appearances on Arab and Western television and his blunt assertions about government oppression were unheard of during the first months of the revolt. He dared to speak publicly before the Free Syrian Army liberated certain areas of the capital, before activists could reveal themselves to the world without fear of arrest. He had reported from the early days on protestors facing live ammunition from the security apparatus.
When the revolution gained momentum, Bilal was part of a group that believed peaceful protests played an essential role in the revolution. This group was best known for its leader, Ghaith Matar, who was killed while being tortured, three days after his arrest by the Air Force Intelligence unit.
Bilal studied journalism at the University of Damascus, where he fell in love with a Palestinian student. They married and moved into in a small house in Moadamiyeh, where they had their two children.
Bilal’s last Facebook post before he was arrested talked about the benefits of a peaceful revolution and the dangers of taking up arms, as well as the consequences of violent retaliation.
Activists have accused the Assad regime of targeting the leaders of the revolution’s civil movement in order to eliminate figures calling for peaceful protests, and to allow for the militarization of the revolution.
The Damascus office of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which files formal missing persons requests with the Syrian government, has received 1,000 such requests this year from relatives of those presumed detained or missing. It said the number had increased from last year. Many of the missing are, like Bilal and Ghaith, journalists and activists who speak out against the regime.
Bilal remains in detention, now in Damascus’ notorious Sidnaya Prison. His health has deteriorated after a year of detention by the Air Force Intelligence Unit, by whom family sources said he was tortured.
Bilal “suffers from many illnesses in this prison, which is home to military men and political prisoners who opposed the Assad regime,” they said. “No group has shown any interest in Bilal’s case.”
The sources said that a number of activists were arrested before and after Bilal, and that the government was forced to release them due to pressure from embassies and respected human-rights organizations.