Ferzat Jarban was a Syrian journalist last seen being arrested on Nov. 19 by government authorities while videotaping a pro-democracy protest against President Bashar-al-Assad’s regime. His body was discovered on Nov. 20in Al-Quasyr, Homs Governorate, Syria. His eyes had been gouged out.
Although Jarban is the first recorded journalist casualty since the Committee to Protect Journalists began documenting journalist casualties in 1992, many other journalists have gone missing during the recent uprisings in Syria. On Jan. 11, for instance, a group of 15 foreign journalists was attacked in Homs, resulting in the death of French TV reporter Gilles Jacquier.
Jarban’s murder, as well as the various disappearances and attacks against journalists throughout the state, suggests a government effort to quell international awareness by instigating a media blackout.
According to a report filed on Dec. 13 by Channel 4’s Jonathan Miller, “While in Syria, we lived in a bubble, seeing nothing of the extreme brutality and killing for which the Syrian regime is so notorious. We were taken to mass rallies, where thousands of frenzied supporters kissed portraits of al-Assad for our cameras.”
Miller explains that even though journalists have proper documentation approving access to certain areas, members of his group were arrested without explanation. They were also refused access to cities such as Homs and Hama at a time when YouTube videos of the area showed tanks firing at civilians.
Although interviewees were instructed by Syrian intelligence agents to tell the international press that all was normal in Syria, Miller notes the remarkable number of Syrians who approached them furtively to express that, “all was not as it appeared.”
“The most potent weapon in opposition hands is the mobile phone,” Miller notes. The ease with which footage can be uploaded, distributed, and accessed internationally poses difficulties for regimes attempting to control perception of their rule. These small devices allow nearly any Syrian to expose images that official journalists are barred from witnessing.
By placing a hand over the camera eye, Assad’s regime is attempting to blind the world to its injustice. Jarban’s murder is symbolic of this. The act of plucking out the eyes intonates centuries of symbolic blindness. Recall classic literature such as Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare’s King Lear, where blindness to the truth results in tragedy.
The eye is of particular importance in Syria. Four of many hundreds of “Eye Idols” are featured in The Fitzwilliam Museum in Tell Brak, north-eastern Syria. They are flat, trapezoidal icons carved out of alabaster, signifying the human form with oversize eyes. In each occurrence the eye is emblematic of one’s ability to perceive the truth. Without the power of sight, acquisition of the truth is dependent upon hearsay. This hindrance can cultivate deception.
Jarban’s murder occurred the day after the Assad regime had dismissed a monitoring mission demanded by the Arab League. In light of the deaths of well over 4,000 protesters at the hands of the regime, tumultuous conditions were drawing worldwide attention regardless of the government’s attempts to avert our eyes. The Arab League had endeavored to instigate a monitoring mission in order to ensure the safety of Syrian civilians.
Damascus accepted the Arab League’s demand for international monitors on Dec. 5 and the League began its mission three weeks later. The observers entered Syria on Dec. 26 to assess the Assad regime’s compliance with the Arab League’s plan to withdraw state forces and weapons from residential areas, release political prisoners, and initiate a dialogue between the government and the opposition.
Since arriving, the mission has been criticized for its ineffectiveness. Much to the dismay of activists on the ground, Mustafa al-Dabi, the Sudanese head of the Arab League mission, indicated that he had seen, “nothing frightening” in his first tour of Homs.
Many activists believe the regime has kept monitors in the dark with respect to its violent suppression of protest. The day before an advanced team of observers arrived, the Independent reported that 40 people were killed and more than 100 wounded after two suicide car bombs exploded outside the headquarters of the General Intelligence Agency and a nearby branch of military intelligence.
Activists believe this was part of a plan to eliminate opposition members ahead of the Arab League’s arrival. Activist and filmmaker Bassel (last name withheld) reported to Democracy Now from Damascus on Dec. 29th: “Heavy bombing and shelling of the city continued for several days, ‘til the night of the Arab League litigation’s arrival. I witnessed tanks withdraw from Homs the morning before the observers’ arrival.” Democracy Now‘s was sad to report on June 4th of last year that Bassel was killed while working on a documentary and training media activists in Homs, Syria.
Despite measures undertaken to enforce a ceasefire, the death toll continues to rise. Human Rights Watch says that thousands of protestors are still being taken prisoner and sent to military installations. Observers are barred from these and many other sensitive areas. According to activists, government authorities are only leading investigators into areas of government loyalty. Some activists even claim the mission is a charade, a theatrical production to appease an international audience.
Without truth and transparency, organizations such as the Arab League cannot accomplish the goals for which it was established. In a globally interconnected world, journalists provide the eye through which we view our international society. It is through the eyes of brave men like Ferzat Jarban that we are able to see through the smoke.