From the May 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 5)

From the Editor

Light Brigade in Conflict’s Dark Corners

Alice Chasan

In terms of magnitude alone, there’s no contest. The fact that since last fall eight journalists have died covering the war in Afghanistan, one perished in Pakistan while following the terrorism trail, and one in the Israeli-Palestinian cross fire pales in comparison with the death tolls in New York, Washington, Pennsylvania, Afghanistan, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank that preoccupy Americans’ hearts and minds.

But truthfully, it has always been a devil of a job to convince Americans that a journalist’s death in the line of duty carries a special significance. Not because journalists’ lives are intrinsically more valuable than anyone else’s, but because their work is essential to a democratic society. While Americans tend to resist this principle, elsewhere the marvel of our First Amendment protections and the centrality of the press to the vitality of public life are self-evident, serving as models for countries emerging from oppression.

Most Americans hold journalists in the same low esteem they reserve for used-car salespeople. Whatever its origins, the distrust has only been compounded by the confusion in contemporary culture between journalism and entertainment. I would like to believe that Americans cut through that media-induced haze when they reacted so empathetically to the abduction and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.

Maybe some connected with his story because the United States is at war and Pearl was a compatriot. Perhaps he came across to others as the ideal friend or brother, son or husband. To judge from the reactions reflected in casual conversations, call-in shows, and letters to the editor, this time most Americans joined the rest of the world in recognizing why a journalist’s murder mattered so much. Pearl’s killers tried to violate everything most valuable in a free society—the primacy of truth in the process of understanding, the centrality of understanding to the empowerment of ordinary people, and the latitude we must afford to those whose job it is to gather information and report it to us in a coherent, compelling form.

Now comes the truly hard part: convincing Americans nursing their domestic wounds that the deaths of the nine journalists from Afghanistan, Australia, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, and Sweden who have lost their lives covering the conflicts in Afghanistan and in the Middle East carry equal weight. Perhaps Raffaele Ciriello, an Italian free-lance photojournalist killed  on assignment in Ramallah in mid-March, can convince you himself.

Visit Ciriello’s Web site, titled “Postcards from Hell.” There he documented his 10 years in war zones including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Lebanon, and Somalia. When four journalists covering the war in Afghanistan—Maria Grazia Cutuli of Milan’s Corriere della Sera, Julio Fuentes of Madrid’s El Mundo, and Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari of the Reuters news agency—were murdered in an ambush last November, Ciriello dedicated his Web site to Cutuli. His commitment to chronicling strife finally took Ciriello to the dark heart of the Israeli-Palestinian war, where he became the first journalist killed in the Intifada that began in September 2000.

As you view Ciriello’s images, or read this month’s cover story dedicated to my fallen colleagues and those still on the front lines, think about why they put themselves in harm’s way. Serving as your proxies, they risk and sometimes lose their lives to bear witness in the most dangerous places.

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