IT isn’t often that journalists are described as heroes. But once in a while, a reporter stands out above the fray, capturing world attention for her/his charisma, courage, devotion to duty and desire to tell the hard truth about a confused and complicated world.
Marie Colvin, the much-respected international war correspondent who was killed in Homs on Wednesday along with Remi Ochlik, a freelance French photographer, was definitely a hero — and an inspiration.
Perhaps Colvin’s death will change the course of history. If the general outrage prompted by Ms Colvin’s death results in a tougher international stand against the Syrian regime, her tragic death may represent a turning point in the Syrian government’s long and bloody war against its own people.
I know it’s unfair to focus on the killing of two people when thousands of innocent civilians are being massacred by the Syrian regime. But death — like life — is often unfair. Colvin died reporting the tragedy of war and what the UN finally had the guts to call ‘gross human rights violations’ in Syria.
We watch and read about the bombings and massacres under way in Homs and other Syrian cities. We are saddened and angered by the news. But we would not know about these and other examples of man’s cruelty to men, women and children without people like Colvin and Ochlik.Reporters — like other human beings — come in various guises and colours. As a journalist who has covered trade wars rather than what goes on in bloody battlefields, I confess to being immensely humbled by the courage of men and women like Colvin. War correspondents are definitely the bravest of reporters. And Colvin was more courageous than the rest.
Not surprisingly she provoked the ire of the Syrian regime. Her mother Rosemarie Colvin has said she believes her daughter was “murdered” by the Syrian authorities. She said she never tried to talk her daughter out of war reporting. “She was always determined and very committed to what she was doing and it just wasn’t something that I would try to talk her out of or get involved with,” she said.
Born in the US but based in London, Marie Colvin covered some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts over the past few decades. In 2001 she suffered a shrapnel wound sustained from a grenade explosion covering the civil war in Sri Lanka, depriving her of sight in one eye. In her last dispatch from the Babr Amr, Colvin said the people in the devastated city wanted to know: ‘why have we been abandoned by the world?’
The BBC journalist Allan Little has described her as “the best eyewitness reporter not just of her generation but of our age”. The day before her death, I remember listening horrified and spellbound as she told the BBC of her anguish at watching a baby die.
The report was matter of fact, harsh and cruel. It left me shaking with anger at the international community’s failure to end the Syrian tragedy.
Two years ago, speaking at a ceremony to honour journalists who had been killed doing their job, Colvin said that covering a war meant going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death and trying to bear witness. “It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash.” She said war reporters were driven by the conviction that “we do make a difference”.
Colvin’s case is by no means unique. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says that at least 46 journalists were killed in 2011, with Pakistan the deadliest country for the second year running.
The Committee said deaths during dangerous assignments — such as covering street protests — reached the highest level on record in 2011 as the Arab uprisings dominated the headlines.
Seven deaths were reported in Pakistan, followed by five each in Iraq, where attacks have continued despite the US withdrawal, and Libya, where a popular revolt against strongman Muammar Qadhafi escalated into a Nato-backed war.
“Seventeen journalists died while on dangerous assignments, many of them while covering the chaotic and violent confrontations between authorities and protesters during the uprisings that swept the Arab world,” the report said.
Photojournalists and camera operators accounted for 40 per cent of fatalities, more than twice the proportion CPJ has documented since it began keeping records in 1992. The group also reported an increase in the deaths of Internet journalists, who “rarely appeared on CPJ’s death toll before 2008”. CPJ said it was still investigating another 35 deaths in 2011 that may have been work-related. Forty-four journalists were killed in 2010, according to the group.
The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers’ annual World Press Freedom Review revealed that: “In the last 10 years, 36 journalists have been targeted and killed in Pakistan and none of their cases have been brought to court. In 2010, the country was the world’s deadliest for the press, and 2011 has seen no let-up.”
The victims included: “Syed Saleem Shahzad, the South Asia correspondent for Italian news agency Adnkronos International (AKI) and Pakistan bureau chief of the Asia Times website, [who] was tortured and killed in a targeted attack.”
Journalists — when they do their job well — are the conscience of the world and the guardians of truth and morality.
Long after Bashar al-Assad and his regime become part of history, the words and writings of journalists like Marie Colvin will live on, reminding us of the many ways in which war and conflict destroy the lives of ordinary and innocent men, women and children.Yes, Colvin is right: good journalists and their reports do make a difference.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.