Human Rights, Middle East, Syria

A Tale of Five War Correspondents

One was a fixture on France 2 who I’d seen on the news many times. The other I’d never heard of before his tragic but not unexpected death by sniper fire.

One was a prize-winning reporter who’d covered Kosovo, Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Tunisia, Libya…the major conflicts of the past 2 decades. The other was an aluminum factory worker, a carpenter by trade, who filmed events in his home city with his red Samsung camcorder.

Both Gilles Jacquier and Basil Al-Sayed spoke the truth about the Bashar al-Assad regime’s unspeakable violence against the Syrian people, and both paid for it with their lives.

The activist who broke the news of Basil’s death wrote this tribute:

“Some news is so painful we wish we didn’t have to share it with you. Sometimes we write through our own tears… Basil Al-Sayed, Homsi videographer, has died of his wounds, shot while filming firing from a checkpoint. Rest in Peace. The only thing we won’t miss is the nerves we felt for you so often, as we watched your videos, that so often needed their own health warning… God Bless You, thank you from the revolution for which you gave your life as willingly as you gave your hours.”

Basil, age 24, was a prolific videographer whose work was not for the faint of heart. He captured images from Homs that nobody else could, or would, get. He had a recognizable speaking voice, so everyone knew which videos were his, so before clicking Play on YouTube you braced yourself for a heart attack.

Basil was at a shabiha checkpoint in Baba Amr that day when he saw security forces begin shelling and firing randomly on unarmed citizens out shopping. He moved in closer so he could get definitive proof on film. The sniper on the roof, the one he didn’t see, shot Basil in the head.

Then his funeral, where his family, friends, and heartbroken mother said goodbye to him.

Only 3 weeks later, another journalist’s funeral…and activists noting how ironic it was that Gilles Jacquier (obituary in English), after facing 1000s of life-and-death situations over the years, should die on a regime-controlled field trip inside a pro-regime neighborhood, barricaded by troops.

Which no protester could possibly have entered, let alone with a weapon. The safest place you can be is with us, the regime assured, as they gave him no choice.

The French, outraged and demanding a full investigation, are asking themselves aloud: who benefits most from a Western journalist’s death, especially if it just happened to occur in the protest hotbed of Homs?

Basil Al-Sayed’s death, on the other hand, was long-dreaded and sadly predictable: he died of a sniper’s bullet he was always careful to watch for but this once never saw coming…and inadvertently filmed his last moments, as you can see his camera, just as if you were holding it yourself, fall out of his hands and onto the ground.

Showing the Assad regime for what it really is takes everyone: Arab League monitors who quit rather than become tools of the regime. Facebook and Twitter activists who literally never sleep. Escaped military and government officials who help to fill in the blanks for the UN Security Council.

Parents who refuse to lie and say their children were killed by terrorists and then give interviews to the media using their real names. Activists who refuse to give false confessions on Syrian national TV and consequently are never seen again, presumed dead, along with their entire families.

Journalists and videographers from all backgrounds, who report the unvarnished reality in print, in video, in interviews.

In their obituaries.

(Journalists Without Borders reports that 66 journalists worldwide died in the line of duty in 2011.)

Let’s also add 2 names to the Middle East journalism wall of SHAME and kudos to the heroic journalist who outed them.

Mohamad Balout, a member of the Syrian Nationalist Party in Lebanon that supports the Assad regime, was exposed by fellow journalist Khaled Semsom for betraying activists he interviewed for the BBC.

Balout’s day job was with BBC Arabic, but it turns out he moonlights as an agent of Brigadier Ghassan Khalil, head of Syrian Intelligence, to convey information and identities of democracy activists and members of the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) throughout Syria.

Four days after he interviewed activists in Daraa-Bibasra in his BBC role, Balout passed along their names to the State Security branch of the Intelligence Services. When he was caught trying to do the same thing in Damascus, the BBC promptly kicked him out of Syria.

Good for them: betraying sources at all, let alone deliberately endangering their lives, goes against every journalistic ethic there is.

“This decision was taken by the prestigious BBC media organization in order to preserve its integrity and objectivity in the Arab world,” wrote an activist who might very well have been on one of Balout’s lists.

The BBC should’ve seen this coming, though, because Balout had written an article for As-Safir about the Syrian opposition meeting in France, about which the newspaper had been forced to publish an apology.

Dima Naseef, Balout’s wife, is his partner in more than marriage. She’s a reporter for the Russian TV station, herself outed as a shill for the Assad regime for reporting “misleading and provocative information” about the well-documented massacre in Kafar Ouide, Jabal Al Zawyiah, in which 110 villagers were trapped by military forces in a valley on the Turkish border and systematically killed.

Khaled Semsom must be looking over his shoulder right now, wondering when Syrian Intelligence is coming after him for exposing these dangerous people.

Gilles Jacquier and Basil Al-Sayed were only 2 deaths out of over 6,000 in the past 10 months, death so sadly commonplace that most Syrian victims’ names, although recorded by the LCCs, are unknown outside the country.

But it’s fitting these 2 dead journalists, and a third still alive who shared their professional ethics, should be called out by name because they took the risk of speaking for the other 6,000 ‒ and 10s of thousands more injured, missing, and running for their lives.

Gilles Jacquier, Basil Al-Sayed, Khaled Semsom: thank you for your brave and generous service.

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