NEW: Abu Othman may well have been speaking under duress, Reporters Without Borders says
Citizen journalist Ali Mahmoud Othman helped foreign journalists in the city of Homs
Activists fear Othman may have been tortured since he was detained in March
Foreign news outlets have been severely restricted in reporting on Syria's yearlong crackdown
Syrian state TV aired Saturday what it said was a confession by citizen journalist Ali Mahmoud Othman, who activists say was arrested in March after he helped foreign journalists escape from the besieged city of Homs.
Othman helped run a media center in Baba Amr area of Homs, which provided information to international news media during a months-long crackdown on the civilian neighborhood by government forces.
Reporters Without Borders, the journalist watchdog group, said last month it was “extremely concerned” for the life of Othman after his detention.
Othman was transferred to Damascus two days after his arrest by the intelligence services in Aleppo on March 28, the group said.
Activists fear he may have been subjected to torture in detention.
Rafiq Lutf, described as a Syrian media researcher, told the state TV program he had spoken to Othman for seven hours uninterrupted, all of it videotaped.
His subject states his name is “Ali Othman aka Al-Jid from Baba Amr of Homs. I work as photography director and live streaming with Khalid Abu Salah at the media center. I communicate with the satellite channels, on top of them Al Jazeera, Arabiya, CNN, BBC, Sky News and Turkish channel TRT.”
In the interview Othman describes how the media operation was set up in Baba Amr, and talks about demonstrations and the role of armed groups.
It is unclear under what circumstances the interview was taped.
But Heather Blake, UK representative for Reporters Without Borders, said: “Research by our organization and many other organizations indicates that many human rights defenders who are detained have been shown to give false confessions under much duress and torture.
“We would advise anyone watching this to be very aware of that fact. The fact that Othman was arrested after committing no crime would suggest that he is speaking under duress.”
Reporters Without Borders calls for Othman’s release and for justice to be served, Blake said.
Foreign news outlets have been severely limited during the government’s bloody year-long crackdown against protesters. Critics say that the government has been dutifully working to stifle such independent reporting.
Amateur videographers and news reporters dubbed “citizen journalists” have braved violence to undermine the government’s news coverage restrictions.
They have helped those international journalists who were able to sneak into Syria and report. And they have produced videos, photos and print reports every day that bear witness to the brutal crackdown.
Those reports have helped news outlets around the world tell the story of the violence.
Speaking shortly after Othman’s arrest, Paul Conroy, a British photographer who was injured in the Baba Amr offensive, said the regime was taking steps “to ensure that independent reporting becomes impossible.”
He said Othman helped him escape from Baba Amr, hammered for weeks by the military until resistance fighters retreated. Activists say other parts of the city continue to be shelled.
“After the attack and treatment of the wounded he played a significant role in assisting in our escape from Baba Amr. All our efforts must now be concentrated on saving his life. If it wasn’t for him, no Western media would have been able to work in Baba Amr and bear witness to the slaughter of the civilian population,” Conroy said.
The team that worked with Othman in Baba Amr has been pushing for the release of Othman and other detained activists.
Reporters Without Borders has also called for their release.
“Citizen journalists whose only crimes are to have witnessed, filmed and photographed acts of violence by a regime that persists in its deadly folly are being hunted down, arrested, tortured and murdered,” the group said in a statement last month.
“We hold the Syrian authorities responsible for whatever may happen to them. The regime is more determined than ever to suppress all information about its crackdown. Syria has become a hell for both professional and citizen journalists.”
A peace plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan last month calls on Syria to ensure freedom of movement for journalists in the country.
An apparent violation occurred this week when Sky News, a British broadcaster, said Syrian officials confiscated a television camera after a crew filmed an impromptu protest in Damascus.
CNN’s Hamdi Alkhshali and Laura Smith-Spark contributed to this report.