As protests continue to sweep across the Middle East, the situation in Syria is escalating. Tens of thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets of the southern city of Dara'a and elsewhere Friday following a deadly government crackdown earlier this week.
Journalists, however, are facing difficulties covering the unrest there. Media access is more restricted than it has been in other epicenters of dissent throughout the region, such as Egypt and Libya, where dozens of foreign correspondents are now assigned to that country's rapidly escalating civil war.
Authorities turned reporters away Friday as they attempted to enter Dara'a. The city was sealed off to outsiders last week, but some members of the local and international press managed to gain entry covertly and have been reporting anonymously, Mohamed Abdel Dayem, Middle East program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told The Cutline. Indeed, the New York Times initially withheld its reporter's byline and location from an article filed from the country on Friday. (The Times declined to comment on its Syria coverage, though a byline was subsequently added to the piece.)
Dayem said CPJ had not confirmed any recent instances of journalists in Syria being detained or beaten, but he cautioned: "The situation is still unfolding. Journalists cannot operate freely, and they're currently in a phase where they're trying to see how much reporting they can do now without getting into trouble. It will take a few days until it becomes clear how much tolerance the Syrian regime will have for journalists doing their jobs on the ground."
If the treatment of journalists in neighboring autocratic regimes is any indicator, the media in Syria could be on the verge of government retaliation. Over the past two months, journalists have been attacked, detained and in some cases even killed in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. A handful of foreign reporters were recently expelled from Yemen, and on Thursday, Yemeni officials shut down the Al Jazeera bureau there.
Several high-profile U.S. journalists spoke out on Twitter Friday about the lack of media access in Syria and Yemen.
"Lots of people asking for more coverage," wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. "You're right: it deserves more. But we can't get into Syria or Yemen. Very frustrating."
CNN's Anderson Cooper had this to offer: "#syria says trust only syrian govt news. No visas for int'l reporters. Makes it seem like they're hiding something, doesn't it."
CNN, which has produced comprehensive coverage of Egypt and Libya, does not currently have any staff in place in Syria. But "we have access to freelance reporters, stringers, humanitarian groups and eyewitness accounts," said a spokesperson for the network. "We also continue to ask for permission to enter the country and are exploring all options in our desire to report on the current situation."
The Syrian government, meanwhile, has made several goodwill gestures toward the press. Various journalists, bloggers and writers who had been detained throughout the country were ordered released on Thursday, according to the AP. The government also pledged to allow greater press freedoms as part of a broader package of concessions intended to quell growing anger over this week's fatal crackdown on protesters.
Dayem is skeptical.
"Over the past few years, they have repeatedly made such promises, but they're batting a zero on execution," he said. "Nobody is really taking those things seriously."