Assad Systematically Targeted, Murdered Foreign Journalists, US Lawsuit Alleges

July 11, 2016 Updated: October 5, 2018

The death of veteran U.S. war journalist Marie Colvin in 2012 in Syria fits with a long list of targeted, systematic, and often deadly attacks the regime of Bashar al-Assad mounted on foreign and domestic journalists, alleges a lawsuit brought against the regime in a U.S. court.

The lawsuit, filed by Colvin’s family, alleges that at least nine senior Syrian military, security, and intelligence officials—including Assad’s brother Maher—conspired to silence independent media in the country using a campaign of arrests, torture, and killing of journalists and the civilians aiding them.

The allegations are based on four years of investigation by the Center for Justice and Accountability, a non-profit seeking justice against war crimes, crimes against humanity, and severe human rights abuses. 

The lawsuit includes a document that appears to be authored by Assad’s Baath Arab Socialist Party National Security Bureau. The document calls for the capture of people supporting anti-government protests.

However, it also takes aim at “those who tarnish the image of Syria in foreign media and international organizations”—in the eyes of the regime, a fitting description of journalists who report negatively on the government’s actions.

The lawsuit lists at least four Syrian journalists detained and tortured, sometimes to death, in the months following the issuance of the document on Aug. 6, 2011.

The government’s intelligence forces also offered rewards for the capture of foreign journalists in Syria, the lawsuit states.

Almost 200 journalists were killed in Syria between March 2011 and December 2012, according to Reporters Without Borders. The majority were citizen journalists, reporting on the situation by posting videos on YouTube and Facebook.

In January 2012, Syria’s top security officials, including Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat, Minister of Interior Muhammad al-Shaar, and Major General Ali Mamluk met with the diplomatic mission of the Arab League, the lawsuit states.

During the meeting the officials labeled foreign journalists in Syria as spies and citizen journalists as terrorists.

They were specifically interested in the location of journalists in the rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr, in the western city of Homs, partly controlled by rebel forces between 2011 and 2014.

“Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat told the Arab League monitors that members of the media were his main obstacle,” the lawsuit states. “He could destroy Baba Amr in ten minutes, he explained, if there were no cameras.”

In February 2012, the government launched an offensive against Baba Amr.

Foreign journalists, including Colvin, were housed at a makeshift Media Center set up by citizen journalists in Baba Amr. They reported the government was indiscriminately shelling the neighborhood of 28,000 people.

“It’s a complete and utter lie they’re only going after terrorists,” Colvin told CNN on Feb. 21. “The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.”

That was her last dispatch.

Syrian military intelligence had intercepted the satellite signal Colvin used to talk to CNN, the lawsuit alleges. Later that night, an informant confirmed the location of the signal as the media center, and the military reduced the entire building to rubble with salvos of rockets and mortars the next morning.

Colvin died trying to escape the building, along with French photographer Rémi Ochlik. At least three other foreign journalists were injured in the attack.

The lawsuit was brought under a law allowing U.S. citizens to sue other governments that are on the list of sponsors of terrorism.

Mohammed Ramez Turgeman, the Syrian minister of information, denied the allegations in a phone call with The Washington Post.

Follow Petr on Twitter: @petrsvab