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A voice silenced

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Robin Lustig | 11:01 UK time, Friday, 24 February 2012

The last thing I did before I left the office on Tuesday night was write a short note to the editor of the following day's programme: "If you want a voice out of Homs tomorrow, my old mate Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times is there."

Hours later, she was dead, killed by a Syrian army attack on a building which was being used by anti-government activists as a base for visiting journalists who'd been smuggled in across the border. The award-winning young French photographer Remi Ochlik was also killed; three other Western journalists were injured.

This isn't going to be yet another tribute to one of the bravest and finest journalists of her generation (although Marie Colvin was both exceptionally brave and exceptionally talented). But I think it may be worth reflecting on why war correspondents put their lives in danger and whether the risks they run are worth it.

At a time when the reputation of journalists has probably never been lower (phone-hacking, police-bribing, celebrity-harassing -- you name it, journalists have, allegedly, done it), why not pause, just for a moment, to analyse a very different kind of journalism?

On Wednesday night's programme, the Syrian opposition activist Mahmoud Ali Hamad was adamant: the bravery of correspondents like Marie Colvin is saving lives. If it weren't for their presence, and their reporting, he said, government forces would be killing even more people, with even more impunity.

Marie herself reflected, in an address delivered just over a year ago, on the role of the war correspondent. "Someone has to go there and see what is happening. You can't get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you.

"The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people ... will care when your file reaches the printed page, the website or the TV screen. We do have that faith because we believe we do make a difference."

The key issue for Marie Colvin, according to Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News, was to make sure that no one could ever say: "We didn't know." When people were being killed, when atrocities were being committed, it mattered to her that someone was there to bear witness and to tell the world.

The vast majority of journalists who are killed each year (46 last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists) are local reporters, killed in their home country. Their courage is even greater than that of the visiting correspondent, because they work in the knowledge that their homes and their families are constant potential targets -- and the truth they report is often a truth that their leaders, or other powerful interests, would much rather went unreported.

And as every foreign correspondent knows, the drivers, fixers, and translators who work with them often demonstrate the most stupendous courage. (Only once, in more than 40 years as a journalist, has a fixer walked out on me -- it was in Cambodia, during a military coup, when our fixer decided, quite rightly, that his family needed him more than we did.)

No journalist goes into a war zone believing it will be their last assignment. Risks are carefully assessed, precautions are taken, advice is sought. Only if the risks are deemed acceptable does the reporter head into danger. Every journalist who's been in Homs over the past three weeks, including the BBC's Paul Wood, with cameraman Fred Scott, has taken huge risks. Until this week, their calculation that those risks were within the bounds of what was acceptable seemed to have been borne out.

I have never forgotten the first words that were spoken to me on my first day in my first job: I'd been taken on as a trainee with Reuters news agency, and the then general manager, a big, bluff man called Gerald Long, welcomed us with the words: "I want you to understand one thing right away -- you're no use to me if you're dead."

Marie Colvin knew the dangers even better than most of her colleagues. She nearly lost her life in Sri Lanka in 2001, when she was caught in an army ambush and lost an eye. The man she had replaced as Middle East correspondent for the Sunday Times in the mid-80s, David Blundy, was killed just a few years later in El Salvador.

We should remember, though, that her death was just one of many this week in Homs. As I said on Wednesday's programme: "Most of those who died were people whose names we will never know: some of them civilians struck down by snipers as they ventured out to find food; others, fighters armed with light weapons taking on the full might of the Syrian army."

But the reason the death of a correspondent is worth marking is that it represents the silencing of a voice. And there are few voices as eloquent, or as powerful, as Marie Colvin's was.


  • Comment number 1.

    Marie Colvin - hours later - dead: killed by a Syrian army attack on a building which was being used by anti-government activists as a base for visiting journalists who'd been SMUGGLED across the border. The award-winning young French photographer Remi Ochlik was also killed; three other Western journalists were injured.
    Remarkably brave, but my issue is the secrecy, the smuggling, and what can really be afforded from a biased site; after all these brave people were not smuggled into the country to learn about Assad loyalists, to learn the whole picture. My issue is who sent them to cover only one side, the anti-government side?
    I agree with you that it is worth reflecting on why war correspondents put their lives in danger & whether the risks they run are worth it when they are smuggled into a country. My issue is who sent them, not their bravery.
    It is my belief that they are sent to build prejudice against the standing government; otherwise, would they not go in openly, with government permission, to cover both sides without discrimination, giving the world a true, unbiased look at what is happening? Is that not what journalists are supposed to do?
    Where is the loyalist coverage? Where was it in Libya? Where is it in Syria?

  • Comment number 2.

    Marie herself reflected, in an address delivered just over a year ago, on the role of the war correspondent. "Someone has to go there and see what is happening. You can't get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, & others are shooting at you. I would add, if I may very respectfully, the role of the war correspondent is to get both sides, write about both sides, provide the facts so that the world may know.
    Yes, good journalists make a difference, but when they are smuggled into country to provide coverage of just one side, it is not (in my opinion) good journalism, though it may be what they have been told to do.
    Yes, we need to know that Syrian activists, even civilians, are being killed and injured; surely we need to know that journalists, reporters, photographers are getting caught in the cross-hairs, but more so we need to know the motivations of who put them there to report blood and guts, but not both sides. When atrocities were being committed, they are generally not limited to one side or the other. But the Syrian coverage makes it seem that way.

  • Comment number 3.

    The courage is even greater for the home journalist because s/he knows both sides; their lives are horribly exposed. No journalist goes into a war zone on assignment where risks are not carefully assessed. Advice sought. So again I wonder who smuggled these brave & courageous people into a hot-bed of anti-government activity to report what? I refer to your reference re Gerald Long, who welcomed new journalists with the words: "I want you to understand one thing right away: You're no use to me if you're dead." Have we come to a place where this becomes a tragic, horrible untruth; in fact, the situation carries more poignancy, greater use, if the reporter is injured or killed?
    Who are these Syrian snipers? Who are these Syrian activists? In Syria’s commercial capital, Aleppo, posters plastered across the city tell the story of a community which has been largely VOICELESS in the violent events of the past year. The posters say opposition to the Intifada, or uprising.
    Since March 2011, what began as peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have increasingly turned into an armed rebellion. But many Syrians, so-called loyalists, describe the uprising as a crisis, or "azmah" in Arabic: a challenging phase to be overcome by the government eventually. Consistent proportion of Syrians have maintained a detached, if not hostile, position towards the “opposition”.
    Another Iraq? Another Libya?
    Various Sunni jihadist groups coming from Iraq to join the armed struggle against al-Assad have further worried Syrian minorities. A mid-December poll by The Doha Debates found 55% of Syrians wanted al-Assad to stay. Opposition is composed of several divergent groups. The so-called Local Coordination Committees of Syria are groups of loosely affiliated activists who organize protests; Syrian National Council is the main political opposition OUTSIDE Syria; Free Syrian Army is a group of defectors & civilians who have taken up arms. While this may sound cohesive, analysts say much of the opposition is not cohesive. They do not discount the possibility that outside terrorists are taking advantage of the unrest, as Assad has said so many times. FSA a cloak for other armed groups? This concern has been expressed by the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its latest report on Syria.
    FSA should limit its operations to protect protesters & refrain from attacking the army. There are also many doubts about the SNC. Their declarations are limited to the departure of the regime & then what?
    Another Libya?

  • Comment number 4.

    I still find it surprising in this well informed day and age that death with visuals plays higher up the news agenda. Syria matters every Syrian matters be they Shi'ite, Alawite or what ever religion ethnic group or religion.

    I wonder what role the media have been playing in stirring up inter-religious hatred by stressing difference for the purpose of benefiting their own commercial interest? It is well documented that this occurred in the break up of Yugoslavia exacerbating matters hugely. What of the media's role in this present conflict - I don't have access to the Syrian local press, TV and radio, but I do wonder?

    There is also the role of the arms suppliers - who is supplying arms and what is their agenda. And why are the Worlds media so silent on the matter - it can't be that it isn't known so it must be that keeping quiet serves the agenda of the World's media or their paymasters. Who wants to kill Syrians? And why aren't we being told! Is this a proxy war against Iran - if so it is to my mind a war crime.

    The Syrian Army is doing what it has to do in a professional military manner (even though the results are repugnant!) as they have to deal with rebellious factions shooting at them. They have a big advantage over the rebels as they are armed with long rage weapons and the rebels have, so far as we know, or are being told only hand weapons. By the way why have their arms suppliers (foreign arms suppliers!) not supplied any long range weapons - can this be a deliberate tactic by these foreigners to prevent the rebels from winning whilst at the same time keeping Syria in a disturbed state - all at the cost of thousand of innocent civilian lives? The whole thing is sick!

    In the end the Syrian people will have to live together in harmony so why is the West still encouraging and funding internal butchery?

  • Comment number 5.

    There are many journalists we consider ´professionals ´ and also many just doing a job-- biting at the heels of societies they know little about and scrounging the internet looking for views and arguments that support their prejudices or bosses.(eg. Europe etc.)

    Marie Colvin was a ´professional´journalist and one who´s passing is noticed with sadness.

  • Comment number 6.

    When I was in high school, far too long ago, one of the careers I considered was journalism. In those exciting years just after WW II, the life of a journalist traveling the world reporting from hotspots must have seemed glamorous to me and important as well. I have never lost my interest in the news and world events as the troubles of mankind deepened during the Cold War. But I am glad I chose to go into another career. My admiration for good journalism however remains keen and I can commiserate with your loss over your colleague Marie Colvin. Lately, though I have been dismayed as the work of good journalists such as yourself and others at other quality establishments is compromised by budget cuts and overly strong editorial compromises. I believe it was Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration of Independence, who said that a free press is as important as any political institution to the functioning of a democracy. He was surely right though I think journalism is often weakened by its reputation as a craft rather than a profession. The more I read and ponder over the direction of US policy and news reporting about Syria, the more disillusioned I become over the future of the world. It is clear to me that there is a dismaying amount of exaggeration and outright misinformation about the amount of fighting and destruction caused by the bombardment of a few cities by the Syrian army, in Homs, Dera'a, Idlib, and Hama. These are small cities compared to Damascus and Aleppo with over 5 million inhabitants where there has been very little reported fighting. Independent journalist Webster Tarpley was in Homs last week and he reported that he saw very little destruction and the photographs of a few buildings being shelled shown in major publications tends to corroborate this.

  • Comment number 7.

    Sharmine Narwani of Oxford University was also in Syria recently and she gave an interview with Paul Jay at the Real News Network, another news source that I respect. She said that she spent time in Damascus interviewing opposition people and received very little interference from the Syrian government. She believed that there was need for more reform in Syria but also said that the opposition inside the country was fragmented and leaderless. She was positive about the Arab League mission that made observations for a month all over the country. But she complained about what happened after the AL mission report was issued. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two GCC most opposed to the Bashar Assad regime ignored the report and continued to push for more armed opposition assistance. I read the AL mission report online and saw that it was generally positive about the assistance it received from government officials and blamed the opposition for much of the violence in Syria. This must have angered the Saudis and Qataris who expected much more condemnation of the Assad regime. Narwani was also negative about the Western press who she criticized for misreporting the casualty figures from the fighting. She said we need to hear breakdown of the casualty numbers because a large part of the casualties are of government soldiers and this is not what we are hearing in the Western press.

  • Comment number 8.

    Andrew Green, former British ambassador to Syria, has given an interview to the BBC News service. In the interview, he says there are three major reasons why the Assad regime remains in power. First two, are the political power it has and control over the army and the Mukhabarat (the secret police). But more importantly he says is the support of most of the population because of the fear of a sectarian civil war breaking out once the government loses control. They have two very real and vivid examples that everyone is familiar with: the civil wars in neighboring Lebanon thirty years ago and the ongoing sectarian war in Iraq. Both wars have devastated those countries resulting in hundreds of thousands if not by now millions of lost lives and making reconciliation impossible for a long time to come. The West went through devastating religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries and this profound experience necessitated the emergence of a new culture during the 18th century enlightenment movement.

  • Comment number 9.

    8. smartsceptic wrote: "the fear of a sectarian civil war breaking out once the government loses control"

    In many ways this is a very realistic and intelligent assessment by the Syrian people. One only has to look at so many countries freed from so called (or even real) tyrannies that descent into a far worse state after they have won their freedom. (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia etc etc.) I do wonder why journalists almost never investigate or write about this reality. Is it that their political masters are so invested in regime change they dare not? After all it is the people that matter in the beginning, middle and end.

    I also wonder what the role is on the military industrial complex in fomenting civil unrest just to sell arms. This section of 'society' thrives only on conflict and the fear of conflict.

    There are several important civil and sociological issues here. The first is why religion seeks to divide people. Then there is the role of the media in stirring up inter group hatred. And of course real grievances created by inequality fostered by a dire leadership. (The latter is happening all over the Western World at present with the favouritism and conniving relationship between the banks and the state against the interests of the people!)

    Solutions: - Truth and Reconciliation seems a good place to start. Admit that bad things happen on all sides, but acknowledge that in the future we all have to live together. Of course all religions need to reminded that all peoples are people of the one God and all people are made in the image of that God and so deserve equality in everything - a particular problem in the Middle East - perhaps the most irreligious place on the planet!

  • Comment number 10.

    Gideon Rachman, the Financial Times principal commentator on foreign affairs, has written a thoughtful piece on "the case for staying out of Syria"(FT, Feb 28, 2012). He makes the case for policy that balances the need for short term humanitarian relief versus longer term dangers as follows. "The human rights workers and journalists who risk their lives to tell the stories of mass atrocities play a vital and honourable role. But so do the less glamorous bureaucrats and politicians, sitting safely in their offices thousands of miles away, who must try to weigh up a response. It is their job to balance the humanitarian urge to intervene, with the public duty to think through the consequences. They must ask not just 'can we stop the killing?' but 'what happens next?' [and] they must also ask 'is it possible that, in intervening to stop one evil , we will create a greater evil in the future?'. This is not a popular question. For while the advocates of intervention deal in moral absolutes, those who hang back are moral relativists - weighing one evil against another. Inevitably, they often sound shifty and heartless. But, if they make the wrong decision, they culd be responsible for causing more deaths than they prevent." Rachman goes on to survey some recent cases of intervention that went wrong and other cases that went right. But on balance he thinks that the case for Syrian intervention is negative.

  • Comment number 11.

    When one goes to places where people are killing each other than one may be killed. No one should be surprised. Many lives are being lost, none more important than the next. Over time things will change, as they always do. Transitions in governments based on secret police and military oppression can only take place with violence. The current regime has built a network of those whose livelihood depends on them staying in power. The support tends to be for economic reasons rather than political loyalty...and fear....fear of the current regime and fear of the unknown if things change. The brutality of the government actions will create an environment that brings the army closer to the government for they will fear what will happen if things change and accountability for actions becomes the order of the day.


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