by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
March 1, 2012
THE NEED TO BEAR WITNESS, NO MATTER THE COST
DUMMERSTON, Vt. --These are dangerous times for journalists around the world.
The group Reporters without Borders (RWB) recently released its 2011-12 Press Freedom Index, and in the index's summary, they made the danger very clear.
"Never has freedom of information been so closely associated with democracy. Never have journalists, through their reporting, vexed the enemies of freedom so much. Never have acts of censorship and physical attacks on journalists seemed so numerous. The equation is simple: the absence or suppression of civil liberties needs necessarily to the suppression of press freedom."
That's why in 2011, according to RWB, 66 journalists were killed worldwide, 1,044 were arrested, 1,959 were physically attacked or threatened, 499 were censored, 71 were kidnapped, and 73 had to flee their country.
For new media workers, RWB tallied 199 bloggers and netizens worldwide who were arrested, 62 who were physically attacked, and 68 countries that censor the Internet.
The late British press baron Lord Northcliffe once said that "news is something someone wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising."
That urge by the powerful to kill the messenger has become literal, as journalists around the world are targeted for abuse, arrest, and occasionally death.
Fair and factual reporting depends upon the courage of the men and women who are willing to risk their lives to uphold a simple, yet profound, idea - that democracy depends upon freedom of information and that people have the right to know what is being done in their names.
That is what makes the deaths of Anthony Shadid of The New York Times and Marie Colvin of the Times of London in Syria hit home for me, and for others in my profession. These two talented and brave reporters paid the ultimate price to try to tell world about the carnage being committed by the Assad regime against its citizens.
Colvin summed up why journalists are willing to take such risks. At a memorial service for journalists and media workers killed in action in 2010, she said that "the need for frontline, objective reporting has never been more compelling."
"Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction, and death... and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash.
"And yes, it means taking risks, not just for yourself but often for the people who work closely with you.
"Despite all the videos you see from the Ministry of Defense or the Pentagon, and all the sanitized language describing smart bombs and pinpoint strikes... the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers for their children. Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice."
Colvin lost an eye in 2001 after being wounded by shrapnel during an ambush in the Sri Lankan civil war. She said she asked herself then if it was worth risking her her life to be a witness to the chaos of war, but she already knew the answer - journalists cover wars because "the public have a right to know what our government, and our armed forces, are doing in our name."
"Our mission is to speak the truth to power," she said. "We send home that first rough draft of history. We can, and do, make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians. Someone has to go there and see what is happening. You can't get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you."
But the biggest question is whether it matters, as international news is pushed off the front page by fluff and trivia.
She admitted that "the real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people - be they government, military or the man on the street = will care when your file reaches the printed page, the website or the TV screen. We do have that faith because we believe we do make a difference."
It has to. For Shadid, perhaps the greatest foreign correspondent of our generation, his philosophy of reporting was no different than Colvin's.
In an interview with MotherJones.com earlier this year, Shadid said that "in any kind of conflict, you have a certain dehumanization that comes along with it. And it's important as a reporter, a writer, a journalist, to try to restore humanity. ... I've spent my entire career here in the Middle East, but I would never call myself a war correspondent. The region I want to cover is beset by conflict and that's regrettable, but it forces me to cover it."
But the primary job of a reporter, he said, is to "make sense of society, of people's lives." Even if it means getting shot, as he did in the West Bank in 2002, or being captured, beaten, and threatened with execution, as he did in Libya last year. He wasn't driven by bravado or machismo, just curiosity and a need to bear witness.
Dictators like Bashir al-Assad would rather not have anyone bearing witness as his forces continue to bomb, shell and shoot civilians who oppose Assad's rule. It is no surprise that his forces are targeting journalists.
But the story will continue to get out. As the powerful keep trying to hide the truth, there will be courageous men and women fighting to tell the whole story.
Chief of AR Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.