The Year of Reporting Dangerously – Death Toll for Journalists Rises in 2007

Joel Simon
Published in The Huffington Post
December 18, 2007

Do you know the names Salih Said Aldin, Khalid W. Hassan, or Namir Noor-Eldeen?

All three were reporters for international media outlets who were killed in Iraq in the last year.

Aldin, a reporter for The Washington Post, and Hassan, who worked for The New York Times, were murdered in the streets of Baghdad. Noor-Eldeen, a photographer with Reuters, died when U.S. forces blew up his minivan while he was covering street clashes with insurgents.

They are just three of the 64 journalists killed around the world last year, according to a study by the Committee to Protect Journalists released today. That’s the highest number in a decade and the second highest we’ve ever recorded, topped only by 1994 when conflicts in the Balkans, Rwanda and Algeria swelled the total to 66.

The numbers are startling; 31 journalists were killed last year in Iraq, bringing the cumulative total since 2003 to 124 journalists and 49 media workers killed. Iraq is by the far the deadliest conflict CPJ has recorded in its 26-year history and perhaps the deadliest war for the press ever.

But the death toll has not gotten the attention it deserves, partly because the public has become inured to the overwhelming violence and partly because nearly all the journalists killed in Iraq are Iraqis. Many worked for Iraqi media outlets but more than one third worked for international news agencies.

While the U.S. military surge has unquestionably improved the security situation in Baghdad, it’s still far too dangerous for Western journalists to walk the streets of the capital. One experienced international journalist recently estimated a Western reporter would last about an hour before being kidnapped.

Because of the security situation, international news agencies rely on Iraqi reporters to do most of the street reporting. If you look at the bylines and credit lines in most U.S. newspapers you will realize that they are doing a remarkable job. But they are also dying at an alarming rate.

Insurgents and criminals who target reporters are the main threat, but the U.S forces’ fire is responsible for the deaths of 16 journalists, including that of Noor-Eldeen, who was killed in combat operations. None of these killings have been adequately investigated.

The U.S. military has also detained journalists for extended periods without charge, including A.P. photographer Bilal Hussein who was recently turned over to Iraqi criminal justice system after 19 months in U.S. custody.

International media outlets depend on local journalists not only in Iraq, but in places like Gaza, Pakistan, and Afghanistan where a Western journalist would be a highly visible target. As in Iraq, these journalists often face violent retribution. In April, Taliban fighters in Afghanistan beheaded reporter Ajmal Nakshbandi after the Afghan government refused demands to free jailed Taliban leaders in exchange for the journalist’s release. Nakshbandi was abducted along with La Repubblica reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo who was released in exchange for five Taliban prisoners.

It in no way diminishes the risks that international war correspondents confront to point out that the local journalists working in their own countries are bearing the brunt of the violence. When Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai was gunned down by a soldier while covering clashes in Burma it made international headlines. Meanwhile, seven local journalists have been murdered in Somalia and there has been little media attention.

Local journalists were also killed in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Russia, and Peru. Three journalists disappeared in Mexico. Most of the journalists who died this year were murdered, not killed in crossfire. In the vast majority of cases, no one has been held accountable. CPJ started a global campaign to fight impunity last month.

These unsolved killings are clearly terrible for the people of the country in which they occur because they breed fear and self-censorship. But because so much of our news begins with local journalists, the killings are also a tragedy for those of us in this country who care about what is happening around the world. If we want to know that’s going on, we have to rely on local journalists to hit the streets on our behalf.

Today is a day to remember those who gave their lives for the news. We need to not only remember them, but to demand that justice be done. Even though we might not know their names, many of these journalists, killed while doing their jobs, were after all working for us.