Shortly after his release from a Libyan prison in 2011, American journalist James Foley warned against irrational risk-taking during a TV interview.
“It’s not worth your life. It’s not worth seeing your mother, father, brother and sister bawling. No matter what romantic ideal you have. I should have known that a long time ago.”
But Foley returned to the front lines and last Wednesday, he was shown to the world, kneeling in orange robes, before he was brutally butchered by a bunch of irrational Islamic State savages.
Comments that Foley was aware of the immense danger he was facing, and therefore should have known better, especially after his Libya ordeal, are downright myopic.
Are war correspondents driven by an adrenaline rush? Certainly! Egos? Perhaps. But most of all they are driven in their quest to report the truth (or a semblance of it) from the most godforsaken regions in the world.
It is easy to accuse certain media organisations of having an agenda, of failing to get their priorities right. Yes, they sometimes do, and I’m the first to admit it.
But if it weren’t for brave journalists like Foley, we would never have an idea of the suffering of millions of people in the most desperate of circumstances.
Many reporters spend hours on battlefields, dodging bullets to bring viewers at home mere minutes of rapportage of the suffering and injustices of people.
When you flinch at the gruesome sight of people being butchered in places like Gaza and Iraq, remember there was a journalist behind the camera, a journalist writing the story.
When we accuse the media of failing to look at something, you should look at Foley’s terrified face as a lunatic held a knife to his neck.
We often don’t realise that the only hope for millions of suffering people are these same journalists who are putting their lives at risk.
The intrepid war correspondent Marie Colvin, killed in Syria in 2012, had said: “The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people, be they government, military or the man on the street, will care when your file reaches the printed page, the website or the TV screen.”
Beyond the drama we witnessed on Wednesday there are other journalists suffering in silence. Al Jazeera’s Peter Greste remains imprisoned in Egypt after being falsely convicted of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that Greste and his two producers were incarcerated tells us a lot about what counts as "normal" and what is dangerous in places like Egypt. But of course, Egypt’s new regime is now embraced by the West.
There’s a meaningful quote from the brilliant film Hotel Rwanda, which focuses on the Rwandan genocide, which perfectly describes the way we react whenever we see wars and strife in some far-flung country.
A Rwandan asks a reporter how the world could fail to intervene when they witness such atrocities.
The reporter replies: “I think if people see this footage they'll say, ‘oh my God that's horrible,’ and then go on eating their dinners.”
Sadly that is the truth.
We increasingly witness genocide in countries like Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia with casual indifference. We do so because we think other country’s problems are not ours. But as the downing of a Malaysian passenger plane over eastern Ukraine proved, other countries’ battles could soon start impacting us.
Let’s hope that the execution of the American journalist wakes up the world about the devil on the other side.
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