It has proven to be a week of both tragedy and pride for journalism.
From the rubble and destruction of embattled Homs, the world came to know of Marie Colvin’s death. The award winning war correspondent had been covering the Syrian uprising, after having smuggled herself into the country where foreign correspondents had officially been barred. Colvin reported the events of the city with a clarity and confidence that gave coverage to a cause in dire need of exposure. Many watched her last interview with CNN in awe as she related her experiences in Homs, describing the death of infants and boldly stating: “It’s a complete and utter lie they’re only going after terrorists. The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.” She braved a city many had deserted due to the unrelenting siege it has been under by Assad’s forces. And she paid the ultimate price, after the building in which she was staying came under attack. Some say it was a targeted strike. This would of course be unsurprising; the coverage given by Colvin and those like her was pivotal in stirring up global outrage at the ongoing massacre, and therefore, a thorn in the side of the Assad regime.
Colvin was no ordinary war correspondent. She was a strong woman who believed in, and struggled for her cause, and a veteran that earned her a name as Britain’s premier war correspondent that other correspondents aspired to. During her coverage of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2001, she came under attack, losing an eye to shrapnel. Yet this did not deter her, and she continued her work, thereafter wearing a striking black eye patch – a clear symbol of defiance. Her belief in the importance of her work was made clear during a speech in November 2010, at an event appropriately entitled ‘Truth At All Costs’ in honour of journalists who had died in war zones:
“We go to remote war zones to report what is happening. The public have a right to know what our government, and our armed forces, are doing in our name. Our mission is to speak the truth to power. We send home that first rough draft of history. We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians. The history of our profession is one to be proud of.”
It was both tragically ironic and perfect that she spoke at this event. Colvin’s powerful words and dedication to her work will remain her legacy.
With Colvin was a second martyr for journalism and truth; 28-year-old Remi Ochlik was an award winning photojournalist who covered conflict zones around the world. Despite his young age, he recorded the Arab Spring extensively, covering Tunisia, Morroco, Egypt as well as Libya, and finally sacrificing his life in Syria. He earned recognition as one of the world’s foremost photojournalists, winning first prize in the general news category of the prestigious 2012 World Press Photo contest mere weeks ago. He will now no longer be able to attend the award ceremony.
Yet, with the week’s tragic losses comes success. Al Jazeera English (AJE), the young international news agency, found itself honoured with multiple awards this week. The channel of only five years beat the BBC and other giants to earn the coveted News Channel of the Year title at this year’s Royal Television Society Awards. That the prestigious British-based Society, the oldest of its kind in the world, should lend this honour to the channel is an unceremonious slap in the face to the many despotic rulers who have sought to undermine Al Jazeera’s credibility. The agency has developed a global reputation for reporting from the front line – often before others – especially in its coverage of the wars in the Middle East and the Arab Spring. Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Egyptian uprising was essential in creating global awareness. It was also the only news agency to remain in Bahrain during the uprising, winning an award for its gripping documentary on the unrest there.
Due to their extensive coverage, the channel frequently draws the ire of those in power. Prior to the establishment of its English channel, Al Jazeera Arabic, renowned for its extensive coverage of the Iraq war, had its Baghdad offices shelled by US forces. While covering the Egyptian revolution, the agency came under fire from the authorities and was banned. During its coverage of Libya (where it was the first to report the death of Gaddafi), in an exclusive interview with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the dictator’s son condemned the news agency for allegedly exaggerating events. Throughout its current coverage of Syria it has been attacked, with one pro-regime channel going so far as to accuse AJE of constructing a Hollywood style set to stage and film attacks in order to frame the Syrian government. In Bangladesh, where a politically charged and questionable crimes tribunal is currently underway, AJE’s brief coverage drew harsh criticism from the authorities for not toeing the regime’s script. The accusations are often as ludicrous as they are false.
As Andrew Nagorski, a veteran correspondent who was ejected from the Soviet Union in 1982 for his coverage of the region has noted: “Regimes kicking journalists or entire news organisations out of the country is a desperate calculation. I think you look back at it as a kind of badge of honour, and after all it’s a good indication that you were doing your job.” The world is coming to realise that to seek to undermine an institution like Al Jazeera is to risk undermining one’s own credibility.
Speaking truth to power has never been more important. In a generation of war and global conflicts, it is essential that the world be kept aware and conscious, through clear, objective, and unfettered reporting. While many news agencies function with an agenda that undermines their objectivity, it is due to the fearless work of those journalists who struggle for the truth – without bias – that we are kept genuinely informed, and can hold accountable those who commit crimes in their people’s name. For that we are grateful and honour those honest and courageous few who fulfil their roles with integrity. May their work continue and may they ensure our vision remains clear, always.
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