BEIRUT: The Al-Qaeda-linked group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is holding two Spanish journalists captive, the men’s families announced Tuesday.
The families of El Mundo bureau chief Javier Espinosa and freelance photographer Ricardo Garcia-Vilanova made the announcement of the men’s abduction in Beirut at the SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, thus ending a three-month media black-out.
“We have reached an impasse with the captors after many weeks of attempted mediation,” said Monica G. Prieto, Espinosa’s wife, herself a journalist who covers the Middle East.
“Today we appeal to the Syrian people and all armed groups to help release Javier and Ricardo, who have always been committed to showing the human face and suffering of the Syrian people during these very difficult times.”
The two men were taken hostage on Sept. 16 at a checkpoint in northern Syria, along with four Free Syrian Army escorts, to facilities in Raqqa belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), considered one of the strongest and most extreme insurgent groups operating in Syria.
The four FSA members were released after 12 days, but the two journalists remain in custody.
Syria is now the most dangerous place for professional reporters, with over 30 currently missing or kidnapped and more than 52 killed since the crisis began, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Other organizations include citizen journalists, putting the number even higher.
“Despite the immense dangers, Javier and Ricardo have repeatedly entered Syria to report on this war that has devastated the Syrian people,” CPJ director Joel Simon said in a statement.
“We call for their immediate release, as we call for the immediate release of all journalists who are held against their will,” Simon added.
Fellow reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a friend of the two men who is closely following the case, told reporters that the most recent information he has, from about a month ago, is that they are alive.
When asked by a journalist in the audience if he would advise reporters against going into Syria given the current dangerous situation, he said that was a “personal decision.” He noted that without much transparency it is difficult to put pressure on kidnappers in Syria. But at the same time “the presence of journalists is essential to tell the world what is happening.”
The fact that the Espinosa and Garcia-Vilanova are being held by ISIS is not a good sign, say Syrian activists who are familiar with the various groups operating in the country.
“I’m not sure what should be done. The Syrian activists haven’t figured out how to talk to the Islamic State. There are lots of cases of journalists being abducted by ISIS,” said Beirut-based Syrian activist Shakeeb al-Jabri, who knows Espinosa personally and admires his dedication to reporting on Syria since the beginning of the conflict.
He hopes that this latest awareness campaign will encourage people to take action.
“We’re seeing more realization that the situation is unacceptable. Now we’re seeing campaigns forming. It’s definitely a good sign because there’s a universal rejection of this behavior. Something must be done immediately.”
“After the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of its first resolution on the safety of journalists on 26 November, the international community must quickly intervene to prevent ISIS from extending its hold over all the so-called ‘liberated’ areas in northern Syria,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“Urgent action is needed to end this nightmare for the Syrian population in general and news providers in particular, who are being targeted by both the regular army and armed groups that support Al-Qaeda.”