It’s been a rough week for news reporters, the kind that goes out to unsafe places to report back to us on what they find. Veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin died yesterday, along with French photographer Remi Ochlik. The day before, Rami al-Sayed, one of the main sources of video material coming out of Baba Amr, was killed while filming yet another atrocity committed on his city by Assad forces. A week earlier, we lost Anthony Shadid, probably one of the most insightful writers on the Middle East in his generation. Reports from Afghanistan indicate Samid Khan Bahadarzai, a local journalist, was beheaded on Monday by members of the Haqqani network when he started to ask the wrong questions.
Sure, war reporters know the risk of their profession. Many of their colleagues have died before them. And, unfortunately, many will undoubtedly follow. Still, with each of their passing we loose yet another set of eyes into the world, eyes we need and rely upon to make sense of what is happening around us.
I have never had the privilege of meeting any of these journalists, but following their work has been an important part of my ongoing process of digging beneath the surface of current events, trying to understand what’s really going on on my quest to get a grasp of that elusive big picture. From the safety of my home I followed along on their journeys, seeing parts of the world and aspects of a story I would not encounter otherwise. Theirs were voices that did not engage in the daily chorus of breathless breaking news reporting. They often did break important stories, but took their time to piece together a thoughtful and contextualized report of circumstances and life on the ground in places many of us knew little about. With their help I wouldn’t get bogged down on minutiae of a story, but keep the larger context in mind as I followed a variety of new sources on the matter. They made me look when I didn’t really want to see, and had me pay attention to stories and events that truly matter. I am smarter for all the questions they have asked.
There are reports that Colvin and Ochlik were deliberately targeted by the Syrian army. Other news reporters operating in Homs, amongst them Stuart Ramsay from Sky News, have reported on having their satellite signals blocked when they tried to file their reports. Rami al-Sayed is said to have been tracked down by the cellphone signal of his livestream, one of the few ways we had the possibility to a real-time view of the situation in Homs. Last year I remember reading of a Syrian journalist who was found dead with his eyes gouged out. And then there was French reporter Gilles Jaquier, whose death by mortar round in Homs in January still leaves many open questions. Shooting the messenger is not a new phenomenon, but Assad’s forces seem to have elevated it to an art form, and according to an article in the Guardian, even declared it formal policy.
It is a confusing world out there, especially regarding Syria, given its wider implications for the region, and in particular, regarding the tensions surrounding Iran’s regional influence and its nuclear programs. I don’t always see all the pieces on that chess board, who is a proxy for whom exactly, and why are particular pieces being moved in any given way. Therefore, having reporters on the ground who can help me make sense of these questions is more important than ever. This is why the loss of such experienced voices like Colvin and Shadid, and even al-Sayed with his intimate knowledge of the people of Homs, is particularly devastating. It also explains why governments like the Assad regime really don’t want reporters around seeing anything but their approved version of reality, reiterating once more just why the work these journalists did was so important.
My heart goes out to the families of these reporters, who all have gone way before their time. Meanwhile we wander on, partially blinded, because their watchful eyes no longer see.