Byline of Fire
Byline of Fire
By Ashish Kumar Sen
Echoing the international reaction of horror at the tragic fate of Wall Street Journal's South Asia bureau chief, Daniel Pearl, Tina Susman recalls her sense of anger and disbelief on learning about the senseless murder in Karachi.
"I've always been mystified by people and groups who think that attacking journalists is somehow going to further their cause, and who so casually accuse journalists of being spies without the slightest evidence," says Susman, a New York-based national correspondent for Newsday, the fifth-largest metropolitan newspaper in the United States.
But unlike most people, Susman can readily relate to Pearl's situation.
In June 1994, Susman, who was covering the war in Somalia for Associated Press, was kidnapped by armed gunmen and held for ransom for 20 days. "Having been a hostage myself, I perhaps was able to empathize more with Daniel Pearl than most, to know the terror he felt once he realized what happened, and the fear he felt of what could lie ahead," she says.
Late last month, US government officials confirmed that Pearl, 38, who had been kidnapped on his way to interview a Muslim fundamentalist leader in Karachi, had been killed by his abductors. The confirmation of his death came in the form of a grisly videotape delivered to the US consulate in Karachi.
Condemning Pearl's murder, Terry Anderson, honorary chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists, called it a "cruel and pointless murder of a man who spent his life giving a voice to the voiceless."
Pointing out that Pearl's killers had not gained anything, not even publicity for their views, Anderson said in his statement: "The kidnapping of a journalist, or any civilian, is truly an act of terrorism. The perpetrators must be swiftly caught, convicted, and punished to the fullest extent possible."
The conviction in Anderson's words is understandable.
Anderson was bureau chief for the Associated Press in Beirut when he was kidnapped by a group of Islamic fundamentalists one Saturday morning in 1985. He was held captive for nearly seven years. In remarks following Pearl's abduction, Anderson said: "I knew how he felt. I've been in that position. I knew the kind of helplessness that you feel. There's nothing you can do or say to affect the situation. You're a piece of meat and you know it."
In Brussels, Christopher Warren, president of the International Federation of Journalists, called Pearl's murder a brutal reminder that journalists are increasingly targeted by the enemies of democracy and press freedom. "Journalism world-wide faces its gravest crisis when terrorists or political tyrants target reporters… There is an urgent need for an international campaign, involving the whole democratic community, to eliminate all forms of targeting of media and journalists," Warren said.
Statistics presented by journalists' organizations focus on a grim reality. On an average, at least one member of the press is killed every week somewhere in the world. So what makes Daniel Pearl's case any different?
Kavita Menon, Asia coordinator of the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists, says Pearl's kidnapping and murder heightened people's sensitivities to the dangers inherent in journalism. "Journalism can be a very risky business," says Menon. She adds, "That Danny's murder took place in an area teeming with foreign journalists, served to bring home the story poignantly."
Before he went missing, Pearl was staying at the same guesthouse in Pakistan as the Washington Post's South Asia correspondent, Pamela Constable. "I had seen him around, but didn't really know him," recalls Constable, adding, "We were concerned when he went missing, but when he didn't turn up, we all started getting extremely worried."
The anxiety felt by Pearl's colleagues was reiterated by Douglas Jehl, who has been covering South Asia for the New York Times since September 11. "Pearl's death", says Jehl, "was a crushing personal blow and a reminder of the enormous risks we take in many parts of the world trying to get to the truth." On loan to the Times' foreign desk, Jehl is a Washington-based national correspondent for the Times and was formerly based in Cairo as the Middle East bureau chief.
Jehl, who had known Pearl "on and off, for 20 years," had learned of his disappearance just as he was boarding a plane to come to Pakistan on a temporary assignment. "His kidnapping has been a terrible cloud over my time here, and his death was a very personal blow," Jehl says.
Besides the immediacy of the tragedy, Pearl's death has also forced correspondents working in the region to give serious thought to their personal safety. According to a report put out by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., and the subsequent international response, have generated a media mobilization on an unprecedented scale, and journalists covering this story face "considerable risks as well as restrictions from governments around the world that have their own reasons to silence independent reporting."
Admitting that journalists need to take the threat of kidnappings and murder much more seriously, a Pakistan-based reporter reasons: "We don't enjoy the safety or respect of being protected simply because we are journalists."
"In today's world we are often seen not as the carriers of truth but of propaganda against certain groups. Right or wrong - that is a fact. Journalists today live in a world where they are watched and in Daniel's case targeted," he adds on condition of anonymity.
Recently, the Washington Post advised its foreign correspondents not to take any unnecessary risks. Pamela Constable clarifies this direction. "If I were to get a call from an unknown person asking me to meet him somewhere, I now obviously would not go," she says.
Jehl echoes Constable's caution. "I think I and others recognize that it could have been any of us who could have ended up in Danny's position, and that we've all taken much the same risk in setting up meetings with people we don't know, but whom we hope can help us present a true picture of a complicated part of the world," he says.
He explains how most reporters have taken some extra security precautions, including simply being much more guarded in deciding whom to meet and where to meet with them.
This precaution may not necessarily provide adequate personal safety. Tina Susman's experience is an indication of this.
In Susman's view, avoiding meetings with people in secluded locations is obviously not the answer. The AP journalist, surrounded though she was by her translator and guards, was kidnapped in broad daylight, in the middle of a busy street. "I became more wary of crowds after that, because I learned how easily someone could get grabbed in a crowd, and I became more inclined to keep a physical distance between myself and strangers," she says. When covering large-scale meetings like protests and marches, Susman now stays on the fringe of the crowd or follows it from a short distance to ensure she has somewhere to run if the need arises.
There are other lessons imperative for media people covering crowd events. "I learned to never carry anything of great value on me, such as jewelry or large amounts of cash, because, of course, that's the first thing that's going to get stolen if you get grabbed or if the situation turns ugly."
In spite of the evident threat to their lives, journalists go to great lengths to get a story. The September 28 arrest by Taliban authorities of a British reporter who had crossed the border from Pakistan hidden in a burqa, merely highlighted this bravado. Yvonne Ridley of London's Sunday Express was held for 10 days in Jalalabad and Kabul and threatened with espionage charges. She was released on October 8 but only after extended negotiations with, and political pressure on her captors. The following day, French reporter Michel Peyrard and two Pakistani guides were arrested when Peyrard also tried to enter the country under cover of a burqa.
Many foreign journalists in Pakistan say following Pearl's murder, they've had to take a long, hard look at the kind of situations they put themselves into to get to a story. "Two months ago, many of us wouldn't have thought twice about traveling at will anywhere in the city of Karachi - but today we are more cautious. It's something we have to never lose sight of. Danger is everywhere and to be safe responsible journalists we have to understand all the dangers around us before going into a situation," says an American television journalist reporting from South Asia.
Susman arrived in Pakistan on September 13. She spent most of her time in Peshawar, where she covered life in refugee camps. In addition she focused on the mood of both Pakistanis and Afghans regarding the possibility of war, and on the general tension in the region. Susman confesses that she found this "a rewarding assignment".
"The full flood of journalists had not yet converged on the region, so I was able to go about my work in a relatively relaxed manner, without the hassles that come with thousands of other journalists," she explains. In spite of the weekly protests organized by some militant groups against the Pakistani government's cooperation with the United States, she never encountered any hostility. "Everyone I met, from police to refugees and even to the instructors in the madrassas, was happy to tell me what they thought of the situation and were extremely welcoming. I was struck by their passion about the subject, and by their eagerness to share their views with a foreigner," Susman says, adding, "They seemed genuinely happy that someone wanted to listen to them."
It took a serious car accident in Kashmir to compel Susman to fly back to New York. "I ended up missing the bulk of the story, which was a bit frustrating, but I was so relieved to be alive that I couldn't complain," she says.
The CPJ's research indicates that 37 journalists were killed in 2001. They either died in the line of duty or were deliberately targeted for assassination because of their reporting or their affiliation with a news organization.
Pearl was the tenth journalist to be killed while covering the terrorist attacks on September 11 and its aftermath. The first victim, William Biggart, an American freelance photojournalist who had rushed to the sight of the World Trade Center after the two planes crashed into the twin towers, was crushed to death by falling debris.
Ulf Strömberg, a Swedish television cameraman for TV4, was shot dead during an armed robbery in Taloqan, in the north of Afghanistan, on November 27. Earlier on November 19, Maria Grazia Gutuli, a reporter with Italy's Corriere della Sera, Julio Fuentes from the Spanish daily El Mundo, and two Reuters journalists Azizullah Haidari, a photographer and Harry Burton, an Australian TV cameraman, were killed during an attack by unidentified men on a road between Jalalabad and Kabul. The reporters were pulled from their car, taken behind a rock and executed. Prior to that, on November 11, Johanne Sutton, with the French international radio RFI, Pierre Billaud, with French radio RTL, and Volker Handloik, a freelance reporter for the German weekly Stern, were killed during an attack by the Taliban on an armoured troop transport driven by soldiers of the Northern Alliance.
In spite of this spate of deaths over a brief stretch of five months, Kavita Menon says the high mortality rate among journalists covering the war in Afghanistan is not an aberration. According to CPJ statistics, Algeria has been the most dangerous country for journalists over a 10 year period. Next come Colombia, Russia and Bosnia.
"I just think Algeria gets forgotten because unlike in the Balkan wars, when so many Western journalists working for major news organizations were among the casualties, those targeted in Algeria were mostly local journalists," Menon says.
Hanson Hosein, a Canadian Broadcast Corporation correspondent is presently working in British Columbia. Formerly NBC News' Middle East producer, based in Tel Aviv, he covered events in that explosive region for three and a half years until February 2001. The greatest danger to journalists covering the Middle East is simply getting caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, says Hosein. "That's where you face the possibility of getting killed as a bystander, rather than as a journalist who has been targeted."
As a journalist with an obviously Islamic name, he was often the subject of extreme scrutiny by Israeli military and security officials, but more often than not, after explaining his credentials, was allowed to do his job. "Ironically, my most difficult altercation with security as a journalist was at the airport in Karachi in 1998," says Hosein. "You would think that someone with an Indo-Islamic background, who had frequently been asked whether he was a Pakistani, would have no problems getting into the country… In my experience, border officials in developing countries are highly suspicious of the international media. You always need to make an extra effort, and take extra care, to do your job."
In spite of the tragedy of Daniel Pearl's kidnapping and murder, Constable applauds General Pervez Musharraf's government for doing "all it can" to control the situation in Pakistan. Constable, who has been covering South Asia for the past three years, adds: "I feel this [incidents of terrorism] is the final defiant flailing of the tail of terrorism, and there is nothing much the government can do to stop it."
Covering the war on terrorism also poses new, and often unpredictable dangers. For one, there are no defined frontlines. Another problem some journalists face in foreign countries is a lack of understanding. At times they get air dropped in places and are not properly briefed as to the security precautions they should be taking. "It is our job to seek that information," admits a Islamabad-based western television journalist, adding, "If we do not we are only doing a disservice to our families, our colleagues and ourselves."
Till Pearl's murder, journalists operating in stressful conditions often made light of the situation by referring to each other as "walking ATM machines." This dark description is, however, not too far from the way their abductors see them.
Describing her kidnapping in Somalia, Susman says she's certain she was abducted because she was an American. "They [her captors] figured that an American would bring in more money than, perhaps, a Kenyan or other journalist. I know this because the Kenyan photographer with me during the kidnapping was not taken along with me," she reflects. She was eventually rescued by Somalis who were working on behalf of a Somali businessman, who was in touch with elders opposed to the kidnapping. The businessman managed to work out some sort of operation whereby she was left unguarded for a short time. During that time, his men came in and took her away. No ransom was paid.
Constable says being a foreign journalist has its share of ups and downs. "Being foreigners, we are more noticeable, and so are more obvious targets for people who might not like the press. On the other hand, because we are foreigners we have money, passports and the capacity to move. It's the local journalists who help us a great deal, who get into more trouble because they don't have that added cushion," she says.
Admitting that Western journalists, especially American ones, do get a lot more attention when killed or kidnapped, Hosein says the public's interest in Afghanistan, and in the world post-September 11, has made it stand up and notice how journalists work. Anyone who wants to be a foreign correspondent nowadays must accept that no matter where they are based, there's a very, very good chance they will be caught in a dangerous situation, says Susman. "They need to be prepared for that, and if it's not something they can accept, they should probably consider another career."
Susman's attitude is that it's far better to err on the side of caution and to ask as many questions as possible before hitting the street, even if some people might think the questions are silly. "People who don't ask questions, and who just charge in without really learning the lay of the land and the ways of the people, stand a much better chance of becoming victims simply because they are more likely to stand out in the crowds and be easy targets," she says.
Today, most major news organizations, including the Associated Press, require correspondents to take part in a combat-training course, which includes how to handle a kidnapping. "[The training] reveals whether you're the kind of person who can handle yourself in that kind of situation. If not, it's a good idea not to go into a place where it can happen," says Susman.
Hosein shares this outlook. As an overseas journalist, he says, you have to understand that it is your job "to deliberately put yourself in harm's way to get the story. And although we all understand that no story is worth dying
for, journalists do take risks that an average person would not."
Covering the Middle East is mentally taxing, and can be highly stressful - especially if you live there, and are not "parachuting in" from your home base in London or New York. "There are the occasional adrenaline rushes when you go to the 'front lines' to cover what we call 'bang bang.' It's dangerous, but you understand the ground rules before you get there. The risks are high and you have to be very careful," warns Hosein.
But it can be argued that a foreign journalist's job is even more crucial when covering a story in a dangerous environment. It's up to the journalist to find a way to tell the world what's going on and do it as accurately as possible. "That's what we're trained to do. It's an important job. And we fully understand the risks," Hosein says matter of factly.