Turkey has reacted strongly to the airing of video footage of a Turkish journalist held hostage in Syria, saying that the Syrian government will be held accountable for the safety and wellbeing of the Turkish citizen abducted by regime forces.
Cüneyt Ünal, a cameraman working for Virginia-based Al Hurra TV, was seen in a video played on pro-government Syrian news channel al-Ekhbariya talking about how he had arrived in Syria and what he had experienced. The video first shows a photograph of Ünal with a rocket launcher in his hand, portraying him as terrorist.
“After [seeing] this footage, firstly, Syria is responsible for the health of our cameraman friend,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told reporters on Monday, making clear the belief that the words spoken by the cameraman in the footage had been dictated to him.
Ünal, who went missing in Syria a week ago while covering the civil war in the restive northwestern city of Aleppo, appeared very tired and had difficulty speaking in the video. He had blackened eyes, indicating that he had been assaulted either during the abduction or whilst in captivity.
“Anyone who objects to the brutal violence of President Bashar al-Assad's regime is regarded as a terrorist [by the regime],” Davutoğlu explained.
Parliament's Human Rights Investigation Commission Deputy Chairman Naci Bostancı has also slammed the Syrian government for airing the footage, saying that journalists should not be used in propaganda by the Syrian regime. “Portraying a cameraman like a terrorist for a dirty war propaganda campaign is not acceptable. If he is not freed, the Syrian government will be held accountable,” he told Today's Zaman in phone interview, adding that journalists have a duty to inform public opinion even during times of war. “They are not to be precluded from reporting the truth,” he warned.
Bostancı, deputy for the governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party), also said that the video footage showed how the regime in Syria was cornered in international public opinion. “It is simply immoral to exploit a working journalist for domestic and international propaganda,” he noted.
In the footage, the cameraman tells how he flew from İstanbul to Hatay and then traveled on to the province of Kilis. From Kilis, Ünal says, he went to the northern Syrian city of Azaz “with an armed group, which included members of Chechnian, Libyan, Saudi Arabian and Qatari origin.”
Deniz Ergürel, the secretary-general of the İstanbul-based Media Association, also condemned the footage, saying that it violated the basic rules of international law and media freedom. “We are following this case very closely and are in talks with international partners to make sure he will be released,” Ergürel told Today's Zaman, stressing that Ünal appeared to have been assaulted, and that the picture of the cameraman holding a weapon appeared to have been doctored using Photoshop. “This cameraman is working for a US-based TV station and the Americans should also be involved in making sure of his release,” he added.
Ergürel emphasized that he was happy to see Ünal alive in the footage, and stated that the Syrian government now has a responsibility to ensure his health is in good condition.
Mika Yamamoto, a veteran war correspondent with the Japan Press, an independent TV news provider that specializes in conflict zone coverage, was killed on Monday of last week in clashes between Syrian opposition groups and Assad's soldiers.
It is not yet clear whether Yamamoto's killing is in any way connected to the case of the missing journalist, but there are allegations that the slain journalist was traveling with Ünal, as well as other journalists and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters, before their vehicle was attacked by a group of people. FSA sources said Syrian government forces were responsible for the attack on the journalists.
It is not known when the video was recorded.
There have been seven confirmed killings of Turkish nationals in Syria during the conflict, while others have been abducted in both Syria and Lebanon as reprisal for the Turkish government's open condemnation of Assad's minority regime and the brutal killings perpetrated in Syrian towns and cities. Some of these murders and abductions were deliberately committed by regime forces, while other individuals were simply caught in the crossfire. In the latter case, it would be difficult to ascertain who was responsible for the killing.
Aliye Taş, a 63-year-old Turkish citizen from the southern province of Kilis, was shot dead in Aleppo in June. Three Turkish truck drivers -- Suphi Ezer, Mustafa Üçtaş and Hasan Koçak -- all died in separate incidents in Syria in March 2011. In December of last year, Münir Dural was killed in Syria while in transit to Saudi Arabia for work. In November of last year, three buses carrying pilgrims back to Turkey from Saudi Arabia, where they had gone to perform the Islamic pilgrimage, were attacked at a checkpoint. Two Turkish citizens were wounded as a result of the attack. In June, Syria was held responsible for the shooting down of an unarmed Turkish warplane in international airspace, killing Capt. Gökhan Ertan and Lt. Hasan Hüseyin Aksoy.
Two Turkish journalists, Adem Özköse (34) and Hamit Coşkun (21), were kidnapped and held for two months while reporting on the uprising in Syria. They were released in May. The collateral damage of Turkey's stance on Syria has also spilled over into Lebanon, where Abdülbasit Arslan, a truck driver, and Aydın Tufan Tekin, a businessman, were kidnapped by armed groups with close ties to the Syrian regime. The Turkish Foreign Ministry has already issued travel warnings for Turkish citizens planning to travel to Syria and Lebanon, urging them to rethink their travel plans.
A total of 23,000 people have been killed in the 17-month Syrian crisis, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization. The UN puts the death toll at around 17,000.