Attacks on the Press 1999: Preface

By Philip Gourevitch
Nearly a hundred years ago, in Boston, the Congo Reform Association published a pamphlet by Mark Twain, titled King Leopold’s Soliloquy, A Defense of His Congo Rule (1905). The text is an imagined monologue by the Belgian monarch, delivered as he reads through stacks of literature protesting the systematic murder and mutilation of his Congolese subjects by his colonial agents.

Leopold has nothing but scorn for the pamphleteers who document his crimes. “Blister the meddlesome missionaries!” he fulminates. “They seem to be always around, always spying, always eye-witnessing the happenings; and everything they see they commit to paper.” But he insists that he has never met a critic (however truthful) who could not be discredited, converted, or suppressed by the application of cash or brute force–that is, until he opens a pamphlet containing photographs of mutilated Congolese. Easily portable cameras were a technological novelty at the turn of the last century, and the despot quakes before the evidence of “the incorruptible Kodak”: The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn’t bribe. Ten thousand pulpits and ten thousand presses are saying the good word for me all the time and placidly and convincingly denying the mutilations. Then that trivial little Kodak, that a child can carry in its pocket, gets up, uttering never a word, and knocks them dumb! Even now, a century of technological and information revolution later, the photographs in Mark Twain’s impassioned pamphlet-images of stump–armed Africans, whose hands have been chopped off by servants of the Belgian crown–remain exquisitely sad, and excruciatingly familiar. In fact, they might have been taken last year, not in the Congo, although that country remains immiserated by war, but in Sierra Leone, where the senseless amputation of civilian innocents has been the signature of a rebel movement that became a partner in the government in 1999.

Last year, not surprisingly, Sierra Leone also became the most deadly country on Earth for journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists has confirmed that 34 were assassinated around the world last year–up from 24 in 1998–and that 10 of last year’s victims were killed in Sierra Leone. But we in the American press hardly seemed to notice the story at the time. How many of our readers, viewers, and listeners really know what happened in Sierra Leone, where so many of our colleagues met their deaths? How many of us know? In failing to cover such a story, we do the enemies of free speech a great favor.

In the pages that follow, you can read all about these perils, and about the regimes that make it their policy to abuse press freedom because they fear a free press and rightly recognize it as their enemy. Each November, in New York, CPJ honors several journalists from around the world who have defied real danger to pursue their work in the teeth of hostile regimes. At these ceremonies, we also honor the memory of those who were murdered as journalists. We remind ourselves that even when they are not killed, journalists in much of the world are as likely to be assaulted, exiled, jailed, ostracized, or tortured as to make a comfortable living.

Invariably, we who hail from the exceptionally well protected and free press of the United States wonder how best we can support our colleagues abroad, for whom being a journalist is synonymous with being in danger. One place to start showing our solidarity is by covering the world more intensively. Or was Mark Twain’s King Leopold right to dismiss press reports of his crimes as a passing diversion because readers and viewers of the pamphlets against him would merely shudder, then turn away? “Why, certainly,” he says, “that is my protection…. I know the human race.”

Philip Gourevitch is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His book, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the George Polk Book Award, and the Cornelius Ryan Best Book Award from the Overseas Press Club.