Threatened in the kitchen of a militia family in Idaho, stoned by a group of teens in a Beduin village, held at gunpoint in Nigeria – for me, these were among the more frightening moments in my reporting career. And I’m not a war correspondent, only a writer fascinated by personal stories that ultimately illustrate the larger picture.
Ask just about any journalist, and you’ll hear true adventures about dangerous gigs and near misses, particularly here in the Middle East, where the frontier is never far. Gutsy journalists, photographers and fixers routinely take risks to get their stories. Even if you’re one of those folks who is always raging against the media, imagine a world where journalists weren’t willing to be embedded in conflicts or behind enemy lines.
In a recent story in Haaretz, Ofer Aderet described how Israeli journalist Israel Finkelstein joined the Jewish Fighting Unit, better known as the Jewish Brigade, in February 1942. He described seeing Jewish soldiers “from all corners of Eretz Yisrael, from towns and villages, from Hanita in the north to Beersheba in the south, from Jerusalem to the Jezreel Valley, from Haifa to Gedera, from Tel Aviv to Kfar Giladi – all of them... faithfully performing their duties.” Only someone actually on the scene could have reported home to his people with the passion Finkelstein did. Nor was he unsure about which side he identified with. His was life-or-death journalism, and fortunately he survived.
Too many journalists haven’t survived their assignments. May 3 was World Freedom Day, a celebration of free press and a time to remember the reporters who died covering stories. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 61 journalists were killed in the line of duty this year. Even if we question the credentials of a few of these, that’s a scary number.
THE MOST dangerous country in the world for journalists is currently Syria, where 17 journalists died in 2014 – including Anthony Shahada, whom I met when he was treated at Hadassah University Medical Center in 2002 for a bullet wound he received covering the conflict here. To mark World Freedom Day, the United Nations Economic and Social Council gives out a yearly prize, named for Guillermo Cano Isaza – a Colombian journalist who was assassinated in front of the offices of his newspaper in Bogota in 1986. The winner of the 2015 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize this year is Syrian journalist Mazen Darwish. He’s in prison, detained since February 2012.
It was in Syria where Steven Joel Sotloff also met his death last year. This week would have marked his 32nd birthday.
Sotloff ventured into the most dangerous places with confidence that his integrity and his identity as a journalist would protect him. He was wrong.
His other identity was as a Jew, an American, an Israeli. He was Florida-born and a Nefesh B’Nefesh immigrant to Israel.
Daniel Pearl, murdered in 2002 and the first journalist to be decapitated, was also a Jew.
It’s not only Jewish journalists who are killed, of course. Sotloff’s beheading by the Islamic State followed that of fellow American freelancer James Foley, a Christian.
The Islamic State has promulgated its creed that only journalists who are Muslim are welcome to cover stories in its realm.
According to the CPJ, “the apparent back-to-back murders of two American freelance journalists by the same group are unprecedented in CPJ’s history. The beheadings on camera in a two-week period of first James Foley and then Steven Sotloff appear to be an acceleration of a pattern – dating at least to Daniel Pearl’s killing in 2002 – of criminal and insurgent groups displaying the murders of journalists to send a broad message of terror.”
And terrify us they do. That impacts individual journalists, news services, and ultimately freedom.
NOT THAT the threats were nonexistent before. Remember that in 2000 the lynch-murder in Ramallah was filmed by a courageous Italian crew. The deputy head of the Jerusalem bureau of Italy’s state television channel RAI later published a letter of appeasement denying that RAI had any involvement in the filming of the incident. The woman journalist who headed that filming was forced to flee into hiding lest she, too, be murdered.
And how many TV networks here censured the dancing jubilation on the rooftops of Palestinian cities and villages (in Brooklyn, New York, too) as the Twin Towers melted? The stakes have certainly risen. The unembarrassed outpouring of understanding for the savage murderers of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo is a reflection of this move to placate the freedom- haters. Journalists – and I would say particularly Jewish journalists – face greater hazards doing their jobs in a world where many of the conflicts involve Islamic extremists.
We Jews are lovers of the written word, and Jewish publishers, editors, columnists and reporters have contributed to mass circulation techniques, methods of worldwide news gathering, and the development of political analysis. Pick a country – Italy, France, Brazil, Chile, Canada, Hungary, and of course the United States – and you’ll find prominent Jewish writers and photographers.
Everywhere, our concern for the “other” dovetails with liberal journalism’s ethic of covering two sides of a story, expressed in sympathy for any perceived underdog and fascination with exotic cultures.
Writes The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in his Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide: “The Jews in journalism tend to be among the more deracinated members of the tribe, because the mission of journalism is most attractive to people free of the burden of sectarian loyalty. (It is one of the unnoticed ironies of anti-Semitism that many of the Jews accused of controlling the media are notable mainly for their disloyalty to the dictates of tribe.)” So Theodor Herzl might have been described when he was dispatched from Vienna as the Paris correspondent for Neue Freie Presse to cover the Dreyfus trial. Fortunately, when he heard the crowd shouting, “Kill the Jew,” he didn’t identify with them.
THERE IS a moment in which reporters in the field have to engage strangers, asking them to bare their souls and confidences.
To elicit the story, reporters must efface their own identities, show understanding and empathy for the persons they are interviewing.
But in a world of global communication, rare is the contemporary interviewee who isn’t aware of the impact of the reported story. Post-modernism reinforces the validity of every narrative, based on facts or not.
During an interview, the subject of the story may switch to the reporter. While a band of rebels talks about ideology, one of them is checking your heritage, political and personal, on a smartphone. You’re no longer the unknown cipher working for a news agency. In seconds, the stranger can unmask you, learning how you portrayed his comrades in the past.
That’s likely what happened to Steven Sotloff, who expressed fears before his capture that he had been targeted.
On World Freedom Day, at the Jerusalem Press Club, members stood for a moment of silence in memory of colleagues and spoke about several from our region.
Eetta Prince-Gibson, a former editor of The Jerusalem Report, eulogized Sotloff, who had freelanced for the magazine.
During his capture, Gibson and other Israel- based publications lay low, trying not to reveal Sotloff’s Jewish identity.
How can we explain the willingness of this young man to take such personal risks to explore the issues of the Arab world? Idealism, according to Prince-Gibson.
“It was his way of contributing to the world.”
On World Freedom Day, we remember those who try to plug the crumbling dikes of freedom of the press. The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.