Jeremy Bowen, one of the BBC’s most experienced foreign correspondents, has said the threat from Islamic State (Isis) has made “even the most enterprising and daring reporters” think hard about whether working in Syria is worth the risk.
Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, described the conflict in Syria as “extraordinarily difficult and at times dangerous” for journalists.
“The threat from Islamic State is so unequivocal that even the most enterprising and daring reporters are hesitating to take the risk of being anywhere near them,” Bowen wrote in the new issue of Radio Times.
“Seeing colleagues beheaded by a group that seems to delight in what it’s doing makes it hard to argue that you’re too experienced, or too careful, to get into trouble.”
US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were murdered after being kidnapped by Isis in Syria. British aid worker David Haines and volunteer Alan Henning were also killed by Isis after they were captured having just entered Syria.
Bowen said it was difficult to get into the country “with or without a visa” and recalled how his friend, Times correspondent Anthony Loyd, was “kidnapped, shot and badly wounded by a man he thought of as a trusted fixer”.
“For a while there was a well-beaten path through rebel-held territory from Turkey to Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city and in many ways the key to victory – or defeat – in the war,” he said. “But now almost no journalists are crossing in from Turkey. The rise of Islamic State has made it too dangerous.”
Bowen said: “Most journalists who regularly risk their lives to do their jobs are not foolhardy. They don’t want to die. They might say that no story is worth their lives.
“But they might add that you’re asking the wrong question. Because they’re not going to die today. War journalists can usually find reasons to predict why they will survive ahead of their more impulsive colleagues.
“In every war, being in the wrong place at the wrong time will get you killed. Everyone I know who does this particular kind of journalism has a whole list of near-miss stories. Often they turn into darkly humorous tales that can be told in bars, the reporter’s equivalent of a drinking song. The much worse list is of colleagues and friends who have been killed.”
Bowen said when he covered his first war, in El Salvador in 1989, it had been “exciting, like being in my own war movie … These days, I don’t feel the same way about being on the edge”.
But he said he returned to Syria because “I wrestle, every day of my working life right now, with the reasons why the Middle East is convulsing.
“However tempting, it just isn’t possible to find out what is happening through a computer screen in London. You need to see it and smell it. I used to like danger. I don’t any more. But if I want to report what’s happening to Syria and its neighbours properly, I need to go there.”