Journalists Risk Their Lives
10:50 am
Wed March 14, 2012

Bill Knight - March 15

Most journalists occasionally are confronted by angry newsmakers (usually powerful ones). Some journalists get threatening calls or emails, rude posted comments or letters to the editor, and that’s about it. But this week, as the seventh annual Sunshine Week is underway, it’s appropriate to also note that some journalists are killed for being part of the handful of human beings whose job – whose calling – is to run toward danger.

 That’s not just sometimes unappreciated by the public. It’s almost unfathomable to newsroom professionals who cover sports, corporations’ annual meetings, school boards, the arts, and so on. It should be remembered, especially during Sunshine Week.

 Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, schools and others interested in the public's right to know. Sunshine Week also is a celebration of our open society with government operating with transparency, its work reported to the community by journalists willing to report – and to ask questions and find information on the public’s behalf. It can be dangerous. This winter has been particularly deadly globally, notes John Ensslin, president of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).

 He said, “Syria has been the source of the most heartbreaking news, where the indiscriminate shelling of the civilian population also claimed the lives of two journalists last week, veteran [American] war correspondent Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik. Their deaths came one week after New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid, who died of an asthma attack while covering the conflict in northern Syria. The loss here is incalculable,” he adds. “All three of these journalists put their lives on the line to describe in basic human terms the harrowing extent of the suffering by Syrians under daily bombardment.”

Their deaths came not long after the release of a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists showing that dozens of journalists died in the line of duty in 2011 – the highest level on record. Recent books echo the sacrifices made to find out information to share with the public: the late Anna Politkovskaya’s “Is Journalism Worth Dying For?” and Thomas Peele’s “Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash and the Assassination of a Journalist.”

Sometimes, trying to find and share news can seem daunting, or dire. Other times – like Sunshine Week – it seems valuable, thanks to people recognizing the need for journalism and responding positively to groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which joined the American Society of News Editors to co-coordinate national promotion of Sunshine Week. The organizations are joined by SPJ, the American Library Association, Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, Electronic Frontier Foundation, First Amendment Center, League of Women Voters, National Association of Broadcasters, National Conference of Editorial Writers, National Newspaper Association, Newspaper Association of America, Online News Association, Radio Television Digital News Association, and other groups to work for the public's right to know what its government is doing, and why.

It seems valuable, too, when “the audience” helps, like when British photojournalist Paul Conroy was recently rescued by 35 Syrian rebels – 13 of whom were killed in getting the wounded journalist to Lebanon.

Historically, war has been news where journalists died. Some are memorialized at the Freedom Forum in Washington; others include Joyce Kilmer in World War I, Ernie Pyle in World War II, Ian Morrison in the Korean War, Robert Capa in Vietnam, Steven Vincent in Iraq, Jean Leopold Dominique in Haiti, and Michelle Lang in Afghanistan. But the CPJ notes that journalists also are threatened for covering crime, human rights, politics, business and corruption, too. So Ireland’s Veronica Guerin was killed, as was Mexico’s Yolanda Ordaz de la Cruz, and Oakland, California’s Chauncey Bailey.

 SPJ’s Ensslin adds, “Colvin, Ochlik and Shadid all lost their lives while answering the highest calling of our profession, to tell difficult and important truths in the face of tremendous adversity.”

During Sunshine Week – which seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger – it’s not unwise to also realize that Reporters Without Borders documents 7 journalists killed worldwide this year, with 153 jailed and another 170 “netizen” citizen journalists imprisoned.

Bill Knight is a freelance writer who teaches at Western Illinois University. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of WIU or Tri States Public Radio.