March 31, 2004

Dying to Tell the Truth: The High Cost of Free Speech

An armed guard (left) protects journalist Herman P. de la Cruz (center), editor of the 'Zamboanga Scribe,' with CameraPlanet producer Jack Youngelston by his side. Courtesy of CameraPlanet

Sitting at the annual dinner of the Committee to Protect Journalists, you get a world perspective on free speech that's hard to understand as an American citizen. Here, the newspaper comes every morning, the TV news is on eight channels, Amazon.com has a billion books and ideas flow freely—or at least so it seems.

Around the world storytellers are risking their lives—and dying—exploring corruption, crime and governments that operate without any fear of repercussions.

Why do they do it? Why do they risk their lives? Why do they die?

When I took on the challenge of trying to understand why so many journalists are dying around the world, I had some thoughts about what I might find. I assumed that many, if not most, of the deaths were accidental—men and women in dangerous places caught in the crossfire. But after almost a year of research, I found that's simply not the case.

Tim Lopes was 51 years old when he was kidnapped, tortured and dismembered by drug dealers in Rio de Janeiro. Lopes had been writing tough articles about drug-related crimes in Rio's slums. But his murder silenced his voice, and forced his colleagues at TV Globo to rethink their reporting of the drug-ridden favelas. That was the idea.

Edgar Damalerio was a writer, radio and TV commentator in The Philippines. But as his daring reports on local political corruption began to make headlines, a local police officer drove up to his car and shot him dead. This suspected murderer mysteriously escaped from police custody before a warrant could be issued for his arrest. He's still at large. Damalerio is just one of 38 journalists executed in the Philippines since 1986, all of whose murders have gone unpunished.

And then there's the case of Daniel Pearl. I thought I knew that story from all the media coverage. But as we walked the streets of Pakistan with Pearl's associates, the ruthless and premeditated nature of his capture and murder came into stark focus. Pearl's death was meant to silence his reporting—and warn off anyone who would look too closely at Al Qaeda or the Islamic extremists in Pakistan.

Three deaths. Three murders. Three messages sent.

Which brings me back to America, where free speech is a constitutional right and journalism is protected by words written by our Founding Fathers.

But just how is our government doing when it comes to promoting and protecting free speech around the world?

Consider the case of Taras Protsyuk. Protsyuk was a Reuters cameraman who was based with 150 other reporters at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad on April 8, 2003. But when American tanks took aim at what they now say was a spotter on a balcony, Protsyuk and Jose Couso, a Spanish cameraman, were killed in the tank fire. So, you have a hotel full of international reporters and US tanks firing at people who were there exercising their rights as working journalists.

US Central Command did an investigation, but only released a press statement on the incident. To this day, the command has not published its full findings.

Whether journalists are murdered to suppress their message or killed accidentally during a military engagement, the effect is the same: Truth suffers. In the Pearl case, the injustice is clear. But with Protsyuk and Couso, their blood is on the hands of the very entity—the United States of America—that pioneered and championed a free press as a beacon of democracy around the world.

A free press is a fragile thing, and in many parts of the world it is in grave danger. For the US government to be any less than a passionate advocate of journalism is profoundly troubling.

The deaths at the Palestine Hotel were not at the hands of drug lords or corrupt government officials. They were killed by US fire. And accidental or not, a complete investigation and a publication of its results is essential in order for journalists around the world to remain confident that the US supports the free expression of ideas even when it challenges the current administration and creates an uncomfortable mirror.

Free speech isn't something you can suspend during conflicts and reinstate as suits the current political climate.

 

Steven Rosenbaum is the director of Journalist: Killed in the Line of Duty. The film is narrated by Christiane Amanpour, Tom Brokaw, Walter Cronkite, Anne Garrels, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, and hosted by Anderson Cooper. He can be reached at steve.rosenbaum@CameraPlanet.com.

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