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Syria: An Assignment Worse Than Hell

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Syria's 544-mile border with Turkey has long been a common path for illegal entry or exit. These days, that border has drawn a new group of illegal entrants to Syria: foreign correspondents covering a nearly year-old conflict that seems to grow bloodier by the week.

As the civil war in Syria intensifies, it has become the only pathway foreign journalists can use to sneak in under the nose of Syrian authorities who are determined to keep out foreign press. Very few visas are granted to the foreign correspondents -- which is why reporters from the BBC, the New York
Times
, CBS, and other news outlets have taken the clandestine route from Turkey this month.

"If I'm caught," said CBS correspondent Clarissa Ward, "I'll spend time in jail and be used as a political bargaining chip."

Ward has made two sorties into Syria, the latest in early February. Trudging through mud canals created by a week of rain, in the dark of night, with a sprained ankle, was Ward's only option to exit the country as unnoticed as she entered. Ward hired a professional smuggler to act as a guide and translator to make her safe escape.

To cover the uprising in Syria, reporters like Ward are willing to risk their lives by embedding with opposition forces and being smuggled back and forth across the borders. In light of the deaths of the Sunday Times correspondent, Marie Colvin, and the New York Times correspondent, Anthony Shadid, the safety and working conditions for journalists in Syria have become increasingly hazardous.

Syria is now at the top of the Committee to Protect Journalist's (CPJ) list of the most dangerous countries in the world for working journalists. In the last four months, seven other journalists have died in Syria. Last year according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, two were killed.

Last summer, as the uprising reached it's six-month mark, the Syrian government ordered a media blackout. Visas for journalists had not been easy to obtain before, but now it became virtually impossible to get one. Soazig Dollet of Reporters Without Borders said that in July and August, fewer than a dozen European journalists were given visas.

Bashar Akbik, the Syrian ambassador to Canada, insists in an exclusive interview that his government bars journalists out of concern for their safety. But he also acknowledged that the Syrian government believes it's version of events is not being fairly told by the western media.

"These media are trying all they can to distort the reputation of Syrian government initiatives to hinder insurgents," he said.

One of those few journalists granted legal entry into Syria earlier this summer was Deborah Amos, National Public Radio's Middle East correspondent. However her ability to report was restricted by the accompaniment of a full-time government monitor. Monitors or minders are the eyes and ears of the government. They dictated what events, cities, and individuals she could visit. The city of Homs, which has been under siege by Syrian tanks and artillery, was off limits to Amos, as were protests and funerals.

"You understand that staying with a minder, you'll see only what they want," she says.

Travelling with a minder is one of the rules journalists agree to when receiving a rare journalist visa, said Alexander Marquardt, the ABC News foreign correspondent. In early December, Marquardt was denied travel authority to areas of violence and unrest, despite Syrian President Assad's assurance that his team was free to do what they wanted and go wherever they wish. But shortly after landing in Syria, Marquardt was given a government minder and learned that eight undercover police cars were following them.

"They were taking us where they wanted us to go," he said.

Sometimes getting a good story means sneaking away from a minder, but even then, both Amos and Marquardt think they were being followed by secret police.

That's why some journalists try their luck with a tourist visa and don't bother applying as journalists. The success rate for a work visa is too low, said Clarrisa Ward, and it puts you on the government's radar.

"The minute you are in Syria as a journalist," she said, "your view of Syria is different and you can never get in again.

Last December, Ward, looking as much as possible like a British tourist, complete with backpack and camera, went to a small town on the Turkish/Syrian border. Using her British passport free of immigration stamps from Israel or Iran she was granted a tourist visa. Her CBS producer, however, was denied entry, so she went alone.

To maintain the tourist identity, once inside the country Ward spent two days taking snapshots and visiting tourist haunts. "There is a real chance that you are being watched," said Ward. Even after she felt confident that she was not being followed and could start reporting, she kept two separate memory cards, one containing her editorial material and the other her tourist pictures. Ward says she felt safer being in the country with legal authorization.

Without the constant presence of a government minder, she could attend events and visit cities other journalists had previously been shielded from.

Her most recent sojourn two months later presented a new set of challenges caused by the mushrooming of armed rebel groups in Syria. Ward embedded herself with opposition forces, living with them day in and day out. But other rebel groups and leaders running knew nothing about her.

That's why she said she tried to avoid all checkpoints. There's often a lack of communication amongst opposition forces, said Ward, and that makes reporting more dangerous.

"I felt that I needed armed protection," she said. But during her trip in December, she added, "I didn't think about that in Damascus."

The strengthening of opposition forces is also giving reporters greater access.

Ward engaged in daily conversations with rebel forces. She lived with opposition fighters in the Syrian city of Idlib, where rebels controlled large sections of the land. She was given access to hospitals, protestors, and people shot by government snipers. The rebels responded by giving her their schedule and list of events.

"I needed them in a way I didn't before," she said.

On her first visit with official permission, people were fearful of speaking to her.

Ward says she never shot a single video frame containing the faces of activists she interviewed for fear they'd be retributed by the government.

But this time was different. "People were hugging me and thanking me. When you're not on the government radar, activists and citizens appear less skittish," Ward says.

However, Mohamed Abdel Dayem of the CPJ says now even tourist visas are being denied. He says: "[That] excuse is becoming less acceptable. The Syrian Government often assumes you are a journalist, or worse, a spy."

Foreign reporting in Syria, especially without work authorization, is a dangerous and potentially deadly business. It can include arrest, material seizure, and possibly torture for reporters and their Syrian sources. These are the circumstances local journalists have faced in Syria long before the present crisis.

The CPJ says that eight Syrian journalists have been imprisoned since December and 27 more detained since the uprising began. While no international journalists have been arrested, Reporters without Borders urges them to be prepared. Dollet said that the punishments are unknown, especially for journalists who have entered the country illegally.

"Reporters should be ready for interrogation. They should clear their Facebook page
and have no Syrian contacts on it," she added.