The Herald on Sunday
Colleagues I’ve met paid the ultimate price
‘‘ In 2001, coming under fire in Sri Lanka, Marie she lost her left eye. Once recovered, she chose to return to the world’s frontlines
The grisly case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been headline news, but across the world, often unnoticed, reporters are being targeted and slain like never before. Foreign Editor David Pratt reflects on the cost of bearing witness and telling hard truths
EVERY year I remember them. From a drawer in my desk at home, out comes the commemorative black lapel ribbon with the single word PRESS in tiny white lettering that I pin on and wear proudly.
More than a few people unfamiliar with the ribbon always enquire as to why I’m wearing it and what it represents. It’s May 3, World Press Freedom Day I tell them, the day on which we remember fallen journalists, colleagues who gave their lives in the line of work.
For those interested I might tell them about Andy Skrzypkowiak, Marie Colvin, Tim Hetherington, Martin Adler or other colleagues I’ve met over the years that paid the ultimate price. There is no shortage of others.
I was still pretty young and very much a rookie war reporter when I met Andy Skrzypkowiak. At that age we all feel indestructible and I revelled in the exotic, high-octane experience of my early years in my chosen profession.
But all that quickly evaporated with Andy’s death. A seasoned ITN cameraman, though himself only 36, he had talked kindly to me offering advice in the Pakistan frontier town of Peshawar while on one of my first war assignments during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Raised in Britain by Polish parents, Andy took me under his wing, offering insights that were to prove invaluable. So, too, was his infectious passion for the job.
“This war will go down in history, and I want to be in there, close, getting it all on film,” Andy once said. A few months later he was dead, killed near the Kantiwar Pass on his way into Afghanistan’s remote Panjsher Valley.
Fighters close to Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar captured and murdered him by crushing his skull with a rock while he slept. The motive appeared to be part politics, part robbery. The murderers were determined to stop Andy reaching and filming a rival guerrilla commander and his group. The publicity from such a film might have meant the commander in future would get the lion’s share of foreign arms supplies at the expense of Hekmatyar’s fighters.
Andy was a quiet and private man who left behind his wife Chris and a young daughter. Before setting off into Afghanistan for the last time he had discussed with Chris the possibility of being killed. Later, Chris told how Andy had said he wanted to be buried in the mountains of Afghanistan. Andy’s wish was fulfilled.
I always think of Andy on World Press Freedom Day. I think fondly, too, of Swedish correspondent Martin Adler, whom I worked alongside during the 2004 coup d’etat in Haiti, and in Somalia.
It was in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, while covering an Islamist rally, that Martin was shot dead at point-blank range by an unknown gunman. I’ll never forget that day in the then Sunday Herald office, when the picture editor called me over to ask if I knew the journalist in the pictures that were dropping from the wire services.
The photographs had been taken by another colleague and caught the moment Martin tumbled into the red African earth as he was gunned down.
For a few minutes I stood there frozen in time, just like Martin himself in those photographic frames in the last seconds of his life.
The photojournalists who take such pictures so often place themselves in harm’s way. Tim Hetherington was one of the best. We last talked in the Libyan city of Benghazi. A short time later in, April 2011, he too was dead, killed by shrapnel in another Libyan city, Misrata, as the country twisted in the throes of its revolution to overthrow the regime of Muammar al Gaddafi.
Not all, of course, who work the frontlines are men. The late, great Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times was one of the finest war correspondents of her generation. It seems like an age ago now but, in 2012, Marie was killed by shellfire in the besieged Syrian city of Homs alongside French photographer Remi Ochlik.
The story of her friendship and professional partnership with war photographer Paul Conroy was recently released as a powerful documentary film called Under The Wire based on Conroy’s memoir of the same name.
Marie was fearless in the pursuit of what she called finding truths in a “sandstorm of propaganda”. In 2001, after coming under fire in Sri Lanka, she lost her left eye. Once recovered, she chose to return to the world’s frontlines wearing a distinctive black eye patch that made her even more instantly recognisable and adding to her already buccaneering character.
I recall a certain enforced candlelit dinner I had with Marie during the Lebanon conflict of 2006, in a little fish restaurant in the coastal town of Tyre.
Miraculously the place had remained open despite the bombardment by Israeli forces that had left buildings nearby still smouldering and blacked out the town’s electricity supply.
“This makes you about as blind as I am,” quipped Marie in her usual dry, self-deprecating American way from across the table through the flickering darkness.
In the hands of Marie Colvin, Andy Skrzypkowiak, Martin Adler, Tim Hetherington and others like them, the reporter’s trade is something to be proud of.
Across the world journalists like them shine a spotlight on, and give a voice to, people who have no voice. They bring to our attention the civilians caught in the crossfire of conflict, the refugees and migrants uprooted and adrift like flotsam, the poorest and most vulnerable, crushed underfoot by uncaring authority and governments.
Those who document and cover such people and happenings epitomise the reporter’s real value. I’m talking here about journalism’s greatest capacity, that of helping prevent abuses of power or exposing immoral, unethical or illegal behaviour by individuals, armies, governments or companies.
Right now we live in a time when a cacophony of voices shout “fake news”. A time, too, when world leaders, even in democracies, make the independent media’s job even more difficult.
When the US President tweets that journalists are the “enemy of the people”, then we have a measure of how just easy it is for an independent press to come under threat in free societies.
From Donald Trump last week praising a US congressman for “body slamming” a reporter to the disappearance and apparent targeting for torture and murder of the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it’s open season today on journalists like never before. While Khashoggi’s grisly case has caught the headlines, elsewhere from Moscow to Mexico journalists are dying in numbers simply for doing their job. According to the non- governmental group the Committee to Protect Journalists, 43 journalists have been killed in the line of their work so far in 2018.
Last year, there were 46 deaths. The numbers aren’t that unusual and, in fact, have been higher – 73 in 2015 and 2013, 74 in 2012.
What is different and disconcerting, however, is the way these journalists are losing their lives. Unlike my war correspondent colleagues mentioned previously, many recent fatalities are not a result of violence in all- out conflict zones, but reporters often selected, targeted and slain.
At least 27 journalists have been individually murdered so far this year, compared with eight losing their lives while caught in the crossfire of violent conflicts.
“Conflict deaths are one thing, targeted assassinations another,” was how Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University recently summed up this disturbing trend.
As journalists, we are all familiar with the risks of reporting from countries ravaged by war, but the recent deaths of three colleagues in Turkey, Bulgaria and Mexico highlight the growing dangers to reporters who are specifically singled out.
Only yesterday, Saudi Arabia changed its story of events saying that Jamal Khashoggi was killed in a fight in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
It was something of a turnaround given that for days the Saudis had claimed he had left the consulate. By doing this the Saudis are suggesting that Khashoggi’s death was not premeditated, but few will buy such a version of events given the circumstantial evidence and the fact that his reporting had been a thorn in the side of the Saudi regime for years.
The Khashoggi case aside, elsewhere these past days, Bulgarian national radio reported an arrest in the death of television reporter Viktoria Marinova, who was raped and murdered in the Danube border city of Ruse.
Her death has prompted speculation that she may have been targeted as “a warning” after she presented a programme about alleged misuse of European Union funds by a Bulgarian building company
In the wake of the slaying, the owner of an investigative website that featured on the programme said he had received “credible” information that his journalists were in danger. “Viktoria’s death, the brutal manner in which she was killed, is an execution,” said Bivol.bg
At that age we all feel indestructible and I revelled in the exotic, high-octane experience of my early years in my chosen profession. But all that quickly evaporated with Andy’s death
owner Asen Yordanov. “It was meant to serve as an example, something like a warning.”
Just as targeted killings are a cause for concern so, too, is the alarming spread of slayings into Europe, as opposed to countries like Mexico, where drug violence has made journalism risky for years.
Besides Marinova’s death in Bulgaria, Jan Kuciak was found shot to death in Slovakia after investigating tax fraud among people close to the ruling party.
In Malta, investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed after reporting frequently on government corruption for her blog.
“There are crooks everywhere you look now,” she wrote right before her death. “The situation is desperate.”
The European cases appear to speak to the power of oligarchs involved in shady transnational activities without consequences, says Shapiro of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma. “It’s safe to say there is a pervasive worldwide threat directed to journalists and a perceived immunity for attacks,” Shapiro insists. “And I think that’s very dangerous.”
While experts are careful not to point the finger of blame at Donald Trump, they say the US President’s attacks on the press as the “enemy of the people” have had a knock-on effect that is noticed globally.
Whatever Trump’s influence on this worrying trend, perhaps nowhere are journalists under greater daily threat and have been for years than in in Mexico.
This past week, journalist and activist Sergio Martinez Gonzalez was shot and killed by two people on a motorcycle as he ate breakfast with his wife at a cafe.
Gonzalez is at least the tenth journalist to be killed this year in Mexico, the method of his slaying closely resembling that of another murder which killed reporter Mario Gomez Sanchez just a few weeks ago, also in Chiapas.
Mexican colleagues have long lived with the perils and the often terrible price of investigating powerful drug cartels and corruption in the country. The country is ranked one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a reporter, according to the CPJ. It has even eclipsed Iraq and Syria. Such a rising toll, no matter where it is in the world, should make us all pause for thought. As Bruce Shapiro summed it up, those of us who stand for democratic values must begin to understand that “scapegoating journalists and scapegoati ng t he media is a step t owards authoritarianism”.
Speaking at an address a few years ago to remember those journalists who gave their lives in the line of work, Marie Colvin described her job as “a hard calling”. Right now it has never been harder.
On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, next year, journalists and non-journalists alike would do well to pause, remember, salute and fully realise the sacrifice some have made for bearing witness and telling hard truths.
‘‘ While experts are careful not to blame Donald Trump, his attacks on the press have had a knock on effect