Book Review: Journalists around the world killed while doing their jobs

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“War on Words: Who Should Protect Journalists” full of  in-depth research and interviews with 60 sources

By Pat Winters Lauro

During World War II, 37 American journalists were killed on the job, including the famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who was shot dead by a Japanese sniper in the Pacific.

In contrast, more than 1,000 journalists and their essential support staff, including drivers and translators, have been killed in just the last 10 years, according to the International News Safety Institute – and not necessarily because they were caught in crossfire. In a number of cases, they were targeted because of their jobs.  And their murderers got away with it.  According to INSI, eight of 10 murders of journalists have never been investigated.

Ironically and tragically, this story of journalists getting killed for doing their job has not caught the public’s imagination even as a many journalism advocates are working to institute protections for journalists.

“War on Words: Who Should Protect Journalists?” documents this horrifying situation and examines why it’s intensifying and what is – and is not – being done about it. While the book isn’t the only one to report on the crisis, it is a valuable and well-researched resource. It is a central source on the many policies introduced and debated on the subject, all of which are well-meaning, yet none of them enough to truly protect journalists and media workers in conflict situations. Students of journalism would also benefit from learning about the kinds of atrocities committed without impunity in places that have few human rights, much less a First Amendment.   According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 87 percent of the journalists killed doing their jobs since 1992 were local correspondents, killed, says the book, not necessarily for reporting suspicious activities, but “for some seemingly innocuous story that some more powerful members of the community find unacceptable.”

“War correspondents who covered the world wars of the last century faced constraints and censorship … but they rarely faced the new form of crude censorship from combatants – harassment, kidnapping and murder,” the book states.

The authors, Joanne M. Lisosky and Jennifer R. Henrichsen, are advocates for journalists who many times in the book espouse their belief that democracy cannot flourish without a free flow of information.   In addition to deep academic research, the authors interviewed some 60 journalists, journalism educators and media advocates.  Lisosky, a member of the College Media Association, is a journalism professor at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., who previously covered the UN in Geneva as a journalist and lectured in Uganda and Azerbaijan as a Fulbright scholar.  Henrichsen is a project assistant for the Democracy Coalition Project in Washington, DC, with an advanced master’s degree in international and European security from the University of Geneva.

The rise of violence against reporters is attributed largely to the changing nature of war, and a growing recognition of the importance of the media on public opinion, which can translate into violence against reporters as a form of censorship.  Today’s conflicts are decentralized, lacking a front and often carried out not by the state, but by mercenaries or militias with no regard for international rules of war. The internet only quickens the process by alerting these leaders to published reports. In 2009, the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City reported that fully half of all journalists imprisoned were targeted for easily accessed work published online.

Of course, the journalism community has not been silent on this subject.  The book devotes a whole chapter to the many organizations devoted to helping journalists and gives credit to groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists meticulously documents violence against and censorship of journalists, and then disseminates the reports to the world in an effort to publicly “name and shame” the offenders.  Such campaigns, the books said, have helped put pressure on repressive governments in Iran, Namibia and the Philippines, and have led to the release of imprisoned journalists.

At the same time, however, the authors suggest that the journalism community is fragmented and would do well to come together as a singular force to lobby for change. Specifically, the authors make a convincing case that International Humanitarian Law needs to be changed to give special protection to journalists.  The law sets rules for military and civilians, and is designed to protect the vulnerable by providing protection, for instance, to aid workers such as the International Red Cross.

However, the law leaves journalists in a gray area, for they are neither combatants nor innocent bystanders.  Journalists do not act, yet unlike civilians they are not bystanders. Journalists run toward conflict, not away from it, for the benefit of the public, and the book discusses at length the many declarations, resolutions and proposals that call on ways to protect that special role. The authors even suggest making violence against a journalist a hate crime.  “…people who attack journalists are, indeed, making efforts to terrorize a specific group.  Thus, as a group, journalists have been singled out as victims because of what they represent rather than who they are,” they write.

All of these issues are discussed in the context of a history of war reporting in the Western world. The book surveys the colorful history of war reporting dating back to the Crimean War in the 1850’s through the present day of 24/7 coverage.  It offers many ideas for further scholarship such as the use of pool reporting–which led one BBC reporter to quip during Desert Storm that never had so few reported so little to so many—and the advent of embedding reporters in recent conflicts, the rise of female war correspondents, and the effect of stratification of media access in wartime.

The book also pays tributes to some of the journalist heroes, including Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter in Pakistan who was kidnapped and decapitated in 2002, and the Russian journalist Ana Politkovska, whose outspoken reports about the Chechnya War and government ended in her assassination in 2006. The book notes that the Pearl case in particular led to an important worldwide discussion of the crisis, and a new law in the U.S., The Daniel Pearl Freedom of Press Act that requires the State Department to identify and document press attacks in foreign nations.

Publication of “War on Words” is timely; as the book notes, the “swift rise of unrest in the Middle East” alone resulted in more than 450 attacks on journalists in the region. Clearly, the old days of expecting protection by throwing up a sign denoting “Press” are gone, as longtime war correspondent Gretchen Peters told the authors.  “That was when your identity as a journalist was a form of protection,” said Peters, who has reported for many news outlets including ABC and the Associated Press. “Now, certainly in some war zones, that can make you a target.”

Pat Winters Lauro

Pat Winters Lauro is an assistant professor of journalism at Kean University, where she advises The Tower newspaper. She is a former staff writer with the New York Daily News and has been a regular contributor to the business section of The New York Times.


One thought on “Book Review: Journalists around the world killed while doing their jobs”

  1. This was a very excellent review. It spoke of what is going on with journalist that you don’t hear about aften.

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