Syria must release imprisoned journalists

December 14, 2011 Bashar al-Assad

 President of the Syrian Arab Republic Presidential Palace,

al-Rashid Street Damascus,

Syria Via facsimile: +963 11 332 3410

Dear President Assad: The Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to bring to your attention disturbing reports of journalists being arrested and subjected to abuse in Syrian prisons. In the past 10 months, CPJ has documented 29 cases of journalists who were arrested for their work and nine cases of foreign journalists who have been expelled from Syria since March.

We have also documented nine cases of journalists who are currently in prison. Mr. President, you approved the media law that passed in August that was intended to ease restrictions on journalists and ban their arrests, yet authorities continue to routinely detain journalists without charge.

A number of journalists have been detained in your country without any information given on their whereabouts or health conditions, CPJ research shows. After being held under duress for extended periods, some were released without charge. We have confirmed that at least nine journalists are in prison, and are listing their names in a separate document for your review. We call on you to disclose the names of all imprisoned journalists in Syria and any crimes they may be charged with, along with their health status and whereabouts.

We further call on you to bring to an end the harassment and intimidation of journalists in your country. We remind you of your acceptance of the Arab League’s proposal in November in which you said you would allow international journalists access to your country and domestic media to report freely. We call on you to implement this measure immediately. We also ask you to ensure that a credible investigation takes place into the death of cameraman Ferzat Jarban who was killed and mutilated in Homs in November.

Jarban is the first journalist to be killed in Syria since CPJ started documenting journalist fatalities in 1992. We urge you to end the harassment and intimidation of journalists in your country, and we reiterate our call for you to disclose the names, health status, and location of all the journalists in prison in Syria. Thank for your attention to these important matters. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely, Joel Simon Executive Director

 Journalists in Syrian Prison

 In December 2009, journalist Tal al-Mallohi was imprisoned after being summoned for questioning by security officials. In February, a state security court sentenced her to five years in prison on a fabricated charge of “disclosing information to a foreign country that must remain a secret for national safety.”

Mohamed-Jamal al-Tahan, editor and writer for the state-owned daily Tishreen, was arrested in July from his home in Aleppo. He had written in support of the country’s popular uprising, news reports said. His whereabouts, well-being, and legal status remain unknown. In November, regional news media said they had received unconfirmed but credible reports that al-Tahan may have died in detention. CPJ could not independently corroborate those reports.

Freelance cameraman Tariq Saeed Balsha was arrested in August in the coastal city of Latakia three days after he reported on government troops opening fire at Al-Raml refugee camp, according to news reports. No charges against him have yet been disclosed.

Freelance journalist Adel Walid Kharsa was arrested in August in connection with his coverage of the protests in Hama, according to news reports. His whereabouts, well-being, and legal status are unknown, but Amnesty International said it was concerned he may have been tortured in detention.

Amer Matar, a freelance journalist and contributor to the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, was arrested in Damascus in September after covering protests, CPJ research showed. Authorities did not disclose any formal charges or trial proceedings. # Freelance journalist Jihad Jamal was arrested at a Damascus café in October along with Sean McAllister, a British reporter working for Channel 4. McAllister, who was released after six days, said he last saw Jamal blindfolded and on his knees in an interrogation room in an unmarked building in central Damascus, according to Channel 4. No charges have yet been disclosed.

Alaa al-Khodr, director for the official Syrian Arab News Agency in the eastern city of Deir Al-Zour, was arrested in November, according to news reports. On the day of his arrest, al-Khodr had resigned from his post to protest “the regime’s human rights violations against civilians,” Agence France-Presse reported. Al-Khodr’s whereabouts, well-being, and legal status remain unknown.

Razan Ghazzawi, a journalist and press freedom campaigner, was arrested by the Syrian border police while she was en route to a press freedom conference in Amman on December 4. Over the past 10 months, the U.S.-born journalist has covered the detention of bloggers and writers in Syria. News accounts report that Ghazzawi–charged on Monday with “weakening national sentiment,” “trying to incite sectarian strife,” and “spreading false information”–could face up to 15 years in prison. Her lawyers denied all charges at the court hearing, according to her employer, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.

On December 8, filmmaker and freelance photographer Guevara Nemer was arrested en route to the Dubai Film Festival, according to news reports. She was previously arrested on July 13 but later released on bail on charges of “unauthorized demonstration,” “incitement and provocation to riot,” according to local press freedom groups.