CAIRO As my colleagues Rod Nordland, Nick Cumming-Bruce and Alan Cowell report, Syria said Wednesday that rebels stormed a pro-government television station in a Damascus suburb, killing journalists and blowing up the station, in a predawn raid.
While restrictions on independent reporting inside Syria make it difficult to verify the identities of those killed or to determine the exact circumstances of what took place, Syria's state news agency reported that three journalists at the station were "executed" by "by an armed terrorist group" that broke into the facility to destroy it and cart off equipment.
A spokesman in Turkey for a rebel commander of the Free Syrian Army offered a different version of events, saying that the satellite channel al-Ikhbaria's facility was destroyed during fighting between defectors from President Bashar al-Assad's elite Republican Guard and loyalist members of the force. Rami Jarrah, a Syrian opposition activist in Cairo, also said in an interview that the violence was not the result of a planned raid by the rebel army, but came during a firefight that started when the defecting soldiers were attacked by the loyalists guarding the station.
Mr. Jarrah also accused the Assad government of "taking advantage of the event" to suggest that "pro-regime journalists are a target" for rebel fighters.
The initial report from state television that journalists were executed provoked some sharp disagreements among Syrian bloggers on Wednesday about whether reporters whose work might be considered propaganda are legitimate targets for the armed rebels fighting to overthrow the Assad government.
@LeShaque I disagree. I don't think this is right, many of those people might have no choice. One innocent death is one too many.
@LeShaque This "with us or against us" mentality is wrong. We shouldn't become like Assad otherwise we are no better.
@LeShaque and who decided that these people were complicit and deserved to die?
@LeShaque Yes, I do as a matter of fact. Assad's supporters will go on trial for their crimes only and not because their side lost.
@LeShaque So some guy with a rifle walks in a station and based on this nuance decides who to execute? This is wrong.
Mr. Jarrah, who was forced to flee Damascus last year and now coordinates a network of activists inside the country who document the uprising as an alternative to the state-run news media, said in an interview with The Lede that journalists are "absolutely not" considered legitimate targets for the armed resistance to the Assad government.
He argued, though, that the satellite channel is part of a network of "state-controlled television" stations which are "an element of the regime," responsible for producing propaganda. That being the case, he said, "the journalists are not legitimate targets, but the facilities are."
By way of example, Mr. Jarrah said he would have no problem with an attack on the headquarters of the state broadcaster, "not that it would be justifiable to go in and blow the place up" in broad daylight. The destruction of al-Ikhbaria's studio, he noted, had taken place late at night, when people who work at the station as journalists were presumably less likely to have been there.
He added that while it would be wrong to suggest that "all those who support Assad should be held responsible" for the brutal crackdown on dissent, that journalists "who work in state-controlled media are at the heart of the propaganda" apparatus that justifies it and that "these employees know the true nature of what is happening in Syria and are silent."
Although the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, responded to the attack by saying, "We condemn all acts of violence, including those targeting pro-regime elements," when NATO bombed three Libyan state television transmission dishes last year, its justification for the attack sounded like what opponents of the Syrian government were saying on Wednesday. As my colleague David Kirkpatrick reported from Libya at the time, NATO said in a statement after those airstrikes:
Our intervention was necessary as TV was being used as an integral component of the regime apparatus designed to systematically oppress and threaten civilians and to incite attacks against them. Qaddafi's increasing practice of inflammatory broadcasts illustrates his regime's policy to instill hatred amongst Libyans, to mobilize its supporters against civilians and to trigger bloodshed.
That statement closely echoed those made more than a decade earlier, after NATO bombed the headquarters of Serbian state television in Belgrade, killing at least 10 people, during the war over Kosovo. As my colleague Steven Erlanger reported in 1999, a Pentagon spokesman said that strike was a legitimate one because "Serb TV is as much a part of Milosevic's murder machine as his military is." A British minister added that Serbian state television had to be taken out because it was "a source of propaganda that's prolonging this war and causing untold new suffering to the people of Kosovo."
Bill Neely, a correspondent for Britain's ITV News in Syria, reported on Wednesday that he visited the station after the attack and found journalists there "very scared." He also accused the rebel fighters of killing "freedom of the press and journalists."
Rebel attack on #Syria TV station poses a political & moral problem-they fight for "freedom" but kill freedom of the press & journalists.
In a subsequent update, he categorically rejected the suggestion that journalists whose work looked like propaganda to some were not entitled to the same protections from attack as other civilians.
@FreeingSyria They were journalists.Full stop.They worked for a pro-Government TV station.They told it one way. No reason to kill them.