June 25, 2007
A Mighty Heart is the story of the deliberate, horrifying execution of Daniel Pearl, a top Wall Street Journal reporter, by Islamic extremists in Pakistan in 2002. Starkly and dramatically filmed in the chaotic streets where Pearl worked and was kidnapped, the film — which opened nationwide over the weekend — gives a taste of the difficulty and danger reporters encounter trying to find and tell the truth.
Pearl was a well-respected, cautious foreign correspondent. But like his colleagues, he had to take calculated risks to do his job. His murderers exploited those risks without mercy. You don’t have to see his beheading (which is not portrayed in the film) to feel its horror.
He was one of more than 460 journalists murdered in the course of doing their jobs in the past 15 years. But his case was unusual, not just in its deliberate cruelty, but because most of those responsible have been caught and tried or detained. More than 85% of the others on this list were murdered with impunity. No one was ever caught, let alone tried and convicted. In at least a third of the killings, there are clear indications that the perpetrators weren’t caught because they were members of or associated with the victim’s government.
The issue of impunity in journalist murders goes far beyond Pakistan: to the Philippines, where 22 journalists have been killed in the past five years. To Russia, where contract-style killings have become the method of choice to silence critics of corruption in the state and big business. And to our neighbor, Mexico, where journalists, particularly those investigating drug trafficking and organized crime, have been killed in alarming numbers, making it one of the most dangerous countries besides Colombia in which to report in the Americas.
Like Pearl, these reporters took calculated risks — the possibility of being arrested, kidnapped, beaten or killed — in telling truths that others did not want revealed. Why take such risks? They believed it was important, as do those who continue to investigate and report.
The more important question is: Why do their persecutors, their kidnappers and their murderers do it? Because they know it’s important. They know they cannot continue to oppress others, deprive them of human rights, steal their wealth, in the face of a free and active press. They must silence those who would hold them to account.
I am among hundreds of foreign correspondents who defend our colleagues not because of any belief that reporters have any more rights or deserve protection more than others. We do it because we know that reporters are the first to be attacked by anyone — government or criminal — who needs silence to commit crimes. Those who kill reporters must be tracked and caught and convicted, not just as a matter of simple justice, but to help stem and reverse the tide of eroding freedoms around the world.
This may sound like a hopeless task, but it’s not. Without intense pressure from the media, from Daniel Pearl’s strong wife, Mariane, and from our government, his murderers might have escaped without punishment, as have those behind the seven journalist murders in Pakistan that have followed his.
You cannot have a free society without a free press. Whenever a journalist is killed with impunity, we all lose.
Terry Anderson, a former foreign correspondent for The Associated Press and the author of Den of Lions, about his seven years as a hostage of Shiite Muslim radicals in Lebanon, is honorary co- chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists. The non-profit organization, created in 1981, is launching a campaign against impunity in the killing of journalists.