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Syria expels Dutch undercover journalist
Published on:Wednesday, July 13, 2011 - 15:01
The authorities in Syria have thrown Dutch undercover reporter Maarten Zeegers out of the country. Maarten Zeegers had secretly written a number of articles on the uprising in Syria – all published anonymously for his personal safety - for Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and Belgian Dutch-language daily De Standaard. The Syrian authorities no longer allow foreign journalists into the country.
Maarten Zeegers had been living in Damascus for two and a half years, and was studying Islamic law at the university there.
Despite all his precautionary measures, his activities had clearly come to the attention of the authorities who detained him when he went to renew his visa. Speaking to Dutch radio, he said it was then that he found out he had been declared an ‘undesirable alien’. He was handcuffed immediately, taken away, forced to spend five hours in jail amid criminals and drug users and finally put on an evening flight to Turkey.
Mr Zeegers says he was handled reasonably well by the Syrian police. His guards had done little else but shout at him until they discovered he had a European passport and that the Dutch embassy was aware he had been detained. This led to an immediate change in attitude.
It’s not known how the Syrian authorities found out about his journalistic activities. He says he was aware of the risks and had been carrying out his work with as much caution as possible. His articles have all been published with the credit “by one of our reporters”. All this leads Maarten Zeegers to believe that someone betrayed him to the Syrian security service. As he told Dutch radio:
“When you interview someone, you have to say what you’re going to do with the information. And if you happen to say that to the wrong person on one occasion, well, then you’ve had it.”
Maarten Zeegers had established a fairly extensive network of contacts while studying in Syria. This put him in a good position to provide good journalistic coverage of the uprising. However, much of what he experienced has shocked him:
“I have seen things I’d never seen before in my entire life. Security forces gunning down peaceful civilians. That’s not a pretty sight. But it’s a good thing that [people] know exactly what’s going on in Syria.”
Although by no means all Syrians are taking part in the uprising, Mr Zeegers has noted one significant change in the country: Syrians in general have become more open and dare to criticise the regime more than they ever did before: “That would still have been unthinkable just a short time ago.”