In Britain the last decade has seen a spate of twitchy, overzealous and in some cases downright unlawful incidents where the police have tried to prevent journalists and others taking photos of or filming "sensitive" objects.
It's been bizarrely over-the-top. We've had people arrested for taking photos of Christmas celebrations in Accrington (including a pic of Santa Claus), for taking photos of posters on a building in London, for snapping a brawl outside a court in Manchester, and for photographing a bank doorway in Shrewsbury. I could go on. Many of the cases have involved the police citing "public order" laws or, disturbingly enough, behaviour that gave rise, they claimed, to suspicions under various anti-terrorism laws. Indeed a whole civil rights campaign has been fought around the police's over-use of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, after numerous photographers and protesters had been stopped and searched - and in some cases arrested - under this power. I'm a photographer, not a terrorist has been the campaign slogan.
If some of the over-policing can be put down to an understandable nervousness after 11 September 2001, much of it can't. What, for example, are we to make of the case of Gemma Atkinson, who was handcuffed, detained and threatened with arrest because she had merely filmed police officers who were conducting a stop and search of her boyfriend? See her powerful new animated film, funded by the out-of-court settlement she eventually received.
I predict that campaigns like "I'm a photographer, not a terrorist" are going to be with us for a long time (the price of freedom / eternal vigilance etc), but .... and it's a very big but, we are extremely unlikely to ever start seeing journalists or citizen journalist types routinely killed just for doing their jobs in Britain. But this is exactly the dire state of affairs in Syria presently. Read on ...
In addition to being what the UN has described as a "humanitarian catastrophe", Syria is also now the deadliest place on earth for journalists. Four of the nine journalists listed as killed so far this year by the Committee to Protect Journalists died in Syria. Last year it was 28 out of a global figure of 70, with deaths in Syria more than twice those of the next most perilous country (Somalia). A new report by Amnesty details some of those deaths - with killings of journalists carried out by armed opposition groups as well as government forces. A particularly chilling tendency is for opposition groups to label reporters "media shabiha" if they're considered too close to the government. For example, after the Syrian state TV journalist Bassel Tawfiq Yousef was shot dead near his home in the Tadamon suburb of Damascus on 22 November last year, opposition-affiliated Facebook and Twitter accounts posted messages about how "Bassel Tawfiq Yousef - the shabih, professional liar, fabricator and criminal - has been liquidated in Tadamon". Welcome to the world of "liquidations" of journalists in the name of the revolution ...
Amnesty has recorded at least 17 incidents where Syria's armed opposition groups have deliberately targeted journalists and media workers, but the bulk of killings, detentions and cases of gruesome mistreatment still come at the hands of government forces.
To cite just one case of many - Mahmoud Ali Othman has been in detention (assuming he's still alive) for over a year after being arrested by Syrian security forces (they apparently lured him into a trap with text messages about a "meeting"). Othman had been a notable media "fixer" at the Homs "Media Centre" in Baba Amr during the infamous Syrian army siege of the city. It appears likely that his role in assisting foreign journalists* file their reports from a "safe house" in Homs incensed the Syrian authorities. Those reports included some extremely powerful ones from the Sunday Times' Marie Colvin, who was killed when a shell stuck the house on 22 February (the 28-year-old French photographer Rémi Ochlik was also killed).
The British photographer Paul Conroy, Colvin's Sunday Times colleague in the Homs safe house, has paid tribute to the still-missing Othman, saying "He was one of the activists who just made things happen at the media centre. He would take journalists to the front line or to field hospitals, or anywhere where they would be able to get a good camera shot."
Yes, to get a good camera shot. Or, sadly, to end up themselves being shot. The war photographer's slang comes loaded with an obvious double meaning. The tragedy is that they are not just dying accidentally in Syria, they are being deliberately targeted. Framed, exposed to danger, snapped up from the streets, shot ... and killed. As I was suggesting in a post earlier this week, when they start locking up and killing journalists, you know that all semblance of the rule of law has truly disappeared.
*The practice of deliberately endangering foreign journalists in Syria seems to have paid off for those who'd prefer it if there was no-one around in Syria to document human rights abuses. In February the Press Gazette revealed that several leading UK newspapers had instituted a policy of not accepting unsolicited images from freelance photographers who'd been in Syria because the "dangers of operating there are too great".