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Not since the worst period of the Iraq war, or in the Balkans the decade before, have so many storied journalists been killed or seriously injured in such a short period of time. Inevitably, the spate of deaths leaves many journalists asking questions about whether and how much they are willing to risk their own lives, and possibly the lives of others. Many experienced journalists might agree on one thing: the decisions one makes about risk are among the most intimate decisions they will ever make.
Photojournalist Joao Silva lost both legs near the knee in 2010 from a landmine in Afghanistan, just months before his friend and fellow South African shooter Anton Hammerl was shot and killed in combat in Libya. Underscoring the risks of the story for which he died, Hammerl's fate went unknown for six weeks while colleagues traveling with him were held in captivity.
Two other highly experienced, highly respected photographers, Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, were killed covering another battle several weeks later in Libya. The American Hondros died immediately and the Brit Hetherington after bleeding to death from an arterial wound. More recently, the violence surrounding the uprising in Syria has claimed more journalists' lives.
In January, French cameraman Gilles Jacquier was killed in a mortar attack in Homs. Last week Anthony Shadid, an Arab-American who became an inimitable chronicler of Mideast events, died of an apparent asthma attack while following a horse to which he knew he was allergic after entering Syria without a visa. This week, the celebrated reporter Marie Colvin, who had already lost an eye in Sri Lanka, died in a volley of rocket attacks alongside French photographer Rémi Ochlik.
A number of other journalists were wounded in the same attack, including French reporter Edith Bouvier. Like almost every other foreign correspondent reporting from inside Syria, she entered the country without a visa. Activists uploaded to the Internet a rare video showing Bouvier lying in a bed with what she describes as a broken leg and femur bone and explaining that she will die if the shelling does not stop to allow her to be evacuated. Activists released another video of Paul Conroy, Colvin's photographer who was less seriously injured, making a similar plea.
These and other journalists assumed such risks to report what is emerging as the most deadly targeting of civilians in a single city since the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s. "Snipers on the rooftops of al-Ba'ath University and other high buildings surrounding Baba Amr shoot any civilian who comes into their sights. Residents were felled in droves in the first days of the siege but have now learnt where the snipers are and run across junctions where they know they can be seen," wrote Marie Colvin in her final report for The Sunday Times of London before she was killed.
CPJ has rarely documented as many experienced foreign correspondents being killed or injured as have died or been wounded covering events related to uprisings over the past year in the Middle East. Local journalists are always another story. While honoring the lives and work of slain foreign correspondents, we must remember that they represent a literal fraction of journalists killed worldwide. Nearly nine out of every 10 journalists killed, according to CPJ research, is a local reporter.
One such journalist unknown to most people outside their own community or nation was Rami al-Sayed. He was a Syrian activist and videographer killed in Homs the day before Colvin and Ochlik died. Al-Sayed was among the first to record attacks on civilians in Homs and upload or live stream them to the Internet, where they made news worldwide and helped compel foreign journalists to assume the risks to cover the same unfolding story.
Just three before she died, Colvin gave a speech where she addressed the matter of risk. "We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?" she said at St. Bride's church in London, at a ceremony honoring journalists who had given their lives to the profession.
Lately, as the death toll among journalists covering international events has begun to rise, some notable voices in the news business have been asking the same question. "As journalists we have an instinctual compulsion to be where the action is. Photographers and cameramen, in particular, need to get the shot to record reality for history. That's a dictum that is fundamental to our craft. But is it fit for purpose? Is it fit for today?," said David Schlesinger, then editor-in-chief of Reuters, at a "Live and Tell" debate organized by the London-based International News Safety Institute in Athens in November 2010.
Today, an increasing number of journalists reporting on the frontline are either freelance foreign correspondents who are selling reports to various news outlets, or local journalists like al-Sayed who are one way or another providing breaking news content that airs worldwide. For these and other journalists, the decision about what risks to take, and how far to push it, are highly personal. Even more so when one considers the loved ones, including spouses and children, so often left behind.
Colvin answered that question for herself. "Many of you here must have asked yourselves, or be asking yourselves now, is it worth the cost in lives, heartbreak, loss? Can we really make a difference?," she said three months ago in London. "I faced that question when I was injured. In fact one paper ran a headline saying, 'has Marie Colvin gone too far this time?' My answer then, and now, was that it is worth it."
Frank Smyth is CPJ’s senior adviser for journalist security. He has reported on armed conflicts, organized crime, and human rights from nations including El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Cuba, Rwanda, Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Jordan, and Iraq. Follow him on Twitter @JournoSecurity.
Copyright 2012 by Committe to Protect Journalists (CPJ). All worldwide rights reserved.