Sun, Sep 07, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Beheaded journalists’ commitment to cause deserves tribute

By Nicholas Kristof  /  NY Times News Service

My heart broke for Steven Sotloff, the second US journalist beheaded in Syria, not only because of the barbarity the Islamic State group inflicted on him, but also because he died trying to buck the trend in news coverage.

Over the past couple of decades, we have all seen trivialization of news, a drift toward celebrity, scandal and salaciousness.

So far this year, nightly newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC have offered a combined total of three minutes of coverage of the civil war and impending famine in South Sudan, and nine minutes about mass atrocities in the Central African Republic, according to Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report, which tracks such things. In contrast, the missing Malaysian airliner drew 304 minutes — almost five times as much as the Syrian civil war.


That is why this is a moment to honor Sotloff — and James Foley, the other US journalist executed, and so many others out on the front lines — not just for his physical courage, but also for his moral courage in trying to focus attention on neglected stories. He shone a spotlight in dark nooks of the world to help shape the global agenda.

It was a struggle for him.

“I have been here over a week and no one wants freelance because of the kidnappings,” Sotloff e-mailed another journalist while in Syria before his kidnapping, according to Reuters. “It is pretty bad here. I have been sleeping at a front, hiding from tanks the past few nights, drinking rainwater.”

One of the biggest changes that I have seen in my career is that journalists and aid workers have become targets. Virulent extremist groups now see journalists as enemies, and subject captives to abuse and torture. For instance, the Islamic State reportedly waterboarded Foley before murdering him.

In addition, in conflict areas, any petty criminal with a gun can kidnap a journalist or aid worker and sell him or her to a group that will demand a ransom. European nations pay these ransoms, which both enrich the terror groups and create an incentive to kidnap other foreigners.

A New York Times investigation found that al-Qaeda and its direct affiliates had raised at least US$125 million from kidnappings since 2008. That is a powerful business model for a terror group, and it is one reason journalism and aid work is more dangerous today.


Last year, 70 journalists were killed for doing their jobs, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Over the past few years, some 70 journalists have been killed while covering the Syrian conflict, and about 20 are missing.

Most of those are Syrian, and let us remember that the greatest danger is faced not by the Western journalists but by local ones — or by the local translators and drivers working for Western journalists.

In Darfur once, my interpreter and I were frantically interviewing villagers as a warlord was approaching to massacre them.

Finally, my interpreter said: “We have just got to go. If they catch us, they will hold you for ransom. But they will just shoot me.”

We fled.

One way to honor Foley and Sotloff (and Daniel Pearl and many others killed over the years) would be for the US to speak up more forcefully for journalists imprisoned by foreign governments — often by friends, like Turkey or Ethiopia. Think of Eskinder Nega, serving an 18-year sentence in Ethiopia, or Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a Thai serving 11 years for publishing articles deemed insulting to the king of Thailand.

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