Rash Report: Press under fire, and not just in war zones

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 30, 2011 - 5:36 PM

Foreign correspondents and local reporters alike are increasingly targeted for killing, kidnapping or incarceration.

Addario (left), Farrell, Hicks and Shadid

Addario (left), Farrell, Hicks and Shadid

Photo: Courtesy, New York Times

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On Monday, after six days of captivity, four New York Times journalists -- Anthony Shadid, the paper's Pulitzer Prize-winning Beirut bureau chief, Stephen Farrell, a reporter and videographer, and Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario, both photographers -- were finally freed from forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

The reporters recounted their harrowing ordeal in a first-person account in the Times. They were repeatedly beaten, threatened with decapitation, and Addario was particularly singled out because of her gender, just as CBS reporter Lara Logan was when she was assaulted in Cairo.

The four journalists were among the 60 so far who have been targeted in Libya, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending the rights of reporters worldwide.

Seven other journalists are listed as "missing." Two -- Mohammed al-Nabbous, founder of opposition broadcaster Libya Alhurra TV, and Ali Hassan al-Jaber, an Al Jazeera cameraman -- were killed in the conflict, which is only weeks old.

The high number of incidents is indicative of how changes in warfare, war coverage and the perception of the press among some combatants has shifted in the post-9/11 era.

It's a significant shift from World War II, when uniformed armies had uniform rules, approved by the Geneva Convention, that classified journalists the same as soldiers -- with the same rights if captured, according to Joel Simon, executive director of the CPJ.

But post-Vietnam, the Geneva Convention was amended to treat journalists as citizens, reflecting how reporting had changed.

Today, asymmetric warfare has been met with asymmetric treatment of journalists in combat zones. Some recent wars, such as those in the Balkans, still operated with some semblance of understanding of reporters' roles.

More recently, the rise in rogue regimes and militant groups has resulted in increasingly dangerous conditions.

David Rohde, a colleague of the Times reporters liberated from Libya, knows both sides well. The Pulitzer Prize winner was kidnapped by Bosnian Serbs in 1996, but was released due to diplomatic pressure, because Bosnia still cared about its international image.

Conversely, his 2008 kidnapping by the Taliban, chronicled in the Times and in his 2010 book "A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping From Two Sides," ended only after he escaped to a Pakistani military base.

"The nature of war has changed, and there's less of a delineation between combatant and civilian," he said in an interview.

"Journalists, fairly or unfairly, are viewed as extensions of certain political parties or governments, so if they are viewed as a citizen of a country that is viewed as an enemy, then the journalists themselves are enemies."

American journalists in particular are suspected of working for the CIA or the State Department, a charge Rohde called "extraordinarily widespread, very prevalent, and completely unfair and wrong."

The high profile of prominent journalists in harm's way is actually a small slice of the perils reporters face, however.

Since CPJ started keeping track in 1992, of the 852 journalists killed because of their job, defined as "motive confirmed" (an additional 320 deaths are categorized as "motive unconfirmed"), 87 percent were local reporters who didn't have the protection of large news organizations and couldn't flee the fighting.

"People have this notion of war correspondents traveling from one conflict to another, but the reality is most journalists who are killed didn't go looking for the war -- the war came to them," said Simon.

And nowadays, more often than not, it's not crossfire, but crossing local politicians or criminals that costs journalists their freedom or their lives.

Of the 44 "motive confirmed" killings of journalists last year (an additional 31 "motive unconfirmed" murders occurred), only 25 percent were war correspondents.

Conversely, 48 percent covered politics, 30 percent corruption and 20 percent crime (totals exceed 100 percent due to some reporters having multiple beats).

Last year's suspected perpetrators apparently didn't think everything is news that's fit to print: 22 percent were part of a political group, while government officials, criminals and mobs accounted for 19 percent each.

Comparatively, military officials, who are often more professional and disciplined, accounted for only 4 percent of those accused.

And typically those accused are never convicted.

Last year, those responsible for 96 percent of the deaths of journalists received complete impunity. In the rare instance someone is held accountable, the wheels of justice grind slowly.

Such is the case in the Ukraine, where former President Leonid D. Kuchma was officially named a suspect on Wednesday in the 2000 killing of journalist Georgy Gongadze, whose headless corpse was dumped in a forest outside the capital, Kiev.

Ukraine illustrates that the dangers aren't limited to war zones such as Iraq (147 killed since 1992), Algeria (60), Pakistan (35) and Afghanistan (22).

In the same time period, 52 journalists have been murdered in Russia, 27 in India, 24 in Mexico, and an astonishing 71 in the Philippines, including 29 who were slaughtered in one 2009 incident.

The stark statistics of those killed are eclipsed by the number of jailed journalists. Worldwide 145 were incarcerated in 2010, with China and Iran each locking up 34. Nearly half of them write online only, often as opinion journalists.

What's at stake for journalists is clear. What's at stake for society is the fundamental ability of the press to present the world as it is.

And especially now, we're interested: The Pew Research Center reported on Wednesday that since January's Egyptian uprising, foreign news has accounted for 40 percent of overall media coverage, which is twice the normal rate.

But it takes robust reporting on the ground to make an indigenous story international. And that reporting is threatened, along with journalists themselves.

"The irony and tragedy of the situation is that with all of the partisan punditry that's occurring, it's more important than ever that journalists get on the ground in these foreign countries and see what's actually happening," Rohde said.

Simon summed it up this way: "There's kind of an ecology of information, and it starts with local reporters who are doing the kind of nuts and bolts information gathering that feeds the international press corps."

Let's hope that for journalists' sake -- and the public's -- this ecology isn't further endangered. Reporters need, and deserve, protection. And our world in crisis needs their journalism now more than ever.

The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. Follow John Rash on Twitter @rashreport.


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Addario (left), Farrell, Hicks and Shadid