CURRENT AFFAIRS

The Journalists Who Risk All
by Carol Gould          May 14, 2014

Lyse Doucet and Stanley McChrystal
Lyse Doucet, interviewing US General Stanley McChrystal. Photo: Mark O'Donald, US Navy
On the sunny afternoon of April 16 I was sitting in the tranquil surroundings of Clifton Nurseries in Little Venice, London. I was thinking of the peaceful life I lead and how lucky I am – despite many personal heartaches – to avoid the horror and strife that seemed to be overtaking much of the world. Because I often get called in to news networks to discuss breaking stories I decided to look at my smartphone to see what was happening in the world. I found a tweet to followers from the BBC's Canadian–born correspondent Lyse Doucet in Homs, Syria, that a mortar had exploded near the BBC car. Her cameraman Phil Goodwin had been hit by shrapnel and at the time of this writing (mid May) is still recovering.

Already in the weeks preceding the mortar strike British–Swedish journalist Nils Horner, 52, had been shot dead in broad daylight on March 11th in a Kabul street in the supposedly secure diplomatic district. Sardar Ahmad, a leading AFP reporter in Afghanistan and head of Pressistan, which he had founded to support visiting foreign correspondents, had been killed on March 21st along with his wife, son and daughter in an attack by young Taliban gunmen at the Serena Hotel in Kabul. (His little boy survived and has started a new life in Toronto with Uncle Bashir.)

Anja Niedringhaus, the Pulitzer–prize winning Associated Press photographer, had been killed on April 4th near Khost, Afghanistan; her AP colleague, Canadian Kathy Gannon, was seriously injured in the same gun attack by an Afghan policeman. In addition Father Frans, a Dutch Jesuit priest who had for decades looked after the people of the Damascus Christian community and beyond, was murdered on April 7th in the lead–up to Holy Week.

When all of this unfolded I wondered how anyone could continue reporting from the region with the aplomb and dignity shown by Doucet. (I remember trying to make a feature documentary in Israel after the Rabin assassination, when people, including several I had known and loved, were being killed every week by suicide bombers. I could not stop crying and at times simply could not work.) After the deaths of people she had known, including Sardar Ahmad, Anja Niedringhaus and Father Frans, it was impressive that Doucet could put together a report on the school that had evidently been the target of the mortar, on the church's tribute to Father Fans and on the various aspects of survival being pursued by the Christian community of Damascus and beyond.

Iraqi insurgents
Iraqi_insurgents_with_guns_2006. Photo: Menendj
The contribution made by American and Canadian journalists and photographers – mostly women – to coverage of conflict most recently in the Middle East is notable. In 2013 alone seventy journalists were killed around the world including twenty–nine in Syria, the huge majority having been local citizen journalists. But the protracted conflict in Afghanistan has seen the death of Michelle Lang of the Calgary Herald/Postmedia News alongside four Canadian soldiers in 2009 when a landmine exploded under their armored van. In 2002 Kathleen Keene of the Toronto Star was seriously injured by a grenade whilst traveling between Kabul and Gardez.

For me the most tragic moment of the past three years of the 'Arab Spring' came when I received news of the death in Syria of legendary American–born Sunday Times journalist and broadcaster Marie Colvin who had covered conflicts in Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe. I had met her only once on one of her rare visits to London and was struck by her intensity, brilliant mind and inability to suffer fools gladly. Described by Lyse Doucet in an interview for Australian TV after Colvin's death as 'the bravest of the brave,' she lost an eye covering the Sri Lankan civil war in 2001 but still managed to file her 3,000–word report.

Her luck ran out in Homs, Syria in February 2012 when she and French photographer Remi Ochlik went back for their shoes amidst bombardment of a building in which they had been. They were hit by an IED full of nails. It was reported that the people of Homs, then under siege, came out in spite of danger to pay tribute to Colvin and Ochlik. Her mother Rosemarie told the press Marie was to have left Syria that day but that her daughter's legacy was to be passionate and 'involved in what you believed in,' indeed writing in her final despatch that she 'had watched a baby die.'

Lest we forget the men: James Hunter was the first American military journalist to be killed in Afghanistan; he died in June 2010 whilst on a foot patrol. Richard Engel of NBC News and his five crew were held captive for five days in Syria in December 2012 but there is dispute to this day as to the identity of their captors. CBS Newsmen James Brolan and Paul Douglas were lost in 2006 in Afghanistan. Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal was abducted and murdered in Pakistan in 2002.

Matthew Fisher in the Calgary Herald/Postmedia News paid glowing tribute to female American and Canadian journalists after the injury to Kathy Gannon in Afghanistan in April. He pointed out that women have provided some of the most outstanding reporting from the region. He wrote 'The most experienced of these intrepid women have been Gannon, Lyse Doucet, her brilliant Canadian colleague from the BBC and Carlotta Gall of The New York Times, whose fine new book, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, points the finger at Pakistan.'

Lyse Doucet and Stanley McChrystal
Kimberly Dozier. Photo: Penn State
Fisher reminds us of the spectrum of North American women who have ventured into conflict zones to bring the story to the world's citizens; these include Laura King of the Los Angeles Times who in recent years has been based in Cairo. Canadian Christie Blatchford of the Calgary Herald is the author of Fifteen days: Stories of Bravery, Friendship, Life and Death from Inside the New Canadian Army, recounting the impact the Afghanistan conflict had on her compatriots in Kandahar. Kimberley Dozier of CBS News covered the fall of the Taliban in 2001, nearly losing her life in 2006 when a car bomb tore through a nearby foot patrol.

Now as 2014 moves on there are fewer and fewer western correspondents in the region and likely only one or two – Britons Ian Pannell and David Loyn of the BBC come to mind – who remain in Afghanistan. I keep thinking of the ebullient Canadian woman I encountered on a bus in Edgware Road in March who had only praise and affection for these countries but who in the next month would lose many colleagues in Syria and Afghanistan. As I put this article to bed in mid–May the aforementioned Lyse Doucet, the woman on the bus, continues to bring into our living rooms the searing images and tragic scenes of deprivation at great danger to herself. The first journalist back into Homs after the two and a half year siege, she is one of the survivors. One can only hope she does not become another in the list of great talent lost in a region of unending conflict.

Post script: I have just heard about the murder in Central African Republic of 26–year–old Camille Lepage, the brilliant photojournalist who had already made an impact in worldwide newspapers. Whether American, Canadian, British or of any nationality, the much maligned 'media' also include people of courage willing to sacrifice their lives to bring us stories to stir our conscience and to jolt complacent leaders into action.

And may the endless killing and suffering of innocent people across the region come to an end.

Carol Gould is the Philadelphia–born author of Spitfire Girls and Don't Tread on me–anti–Americanism Abroad, and has been a guest panelist on BBC Any Questions? as well as broadcasting on Sky News, BBC Breakfast and al Alam TV. She was Commissioning Editor at Anglia TV Drama for ITV/PBS for eleven years. Twitter: @Karashgould

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