Top AP editor honors journalists who died in pursuit of the newsJune 9, 2014
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor
The Associated Press
Rededication of Journalists’ Memorial
Newseum, Washington, D.C.
I am glad to be here with you but I suspect each of us would much prefer that we didn’t need to be here.
Instead, we are gathered because we must be here to salute the men and women named in this memorial and the ideals they died to uphold.
Because too many are dying. Over and over and over we are called together to grieve again.
Nearly 100 last year and more than 1,000 since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The numbers are growing so fast that the Newseum now offers 10 of the fallen as representatives of the many others killed last year.
Killed in Russia, Syria, Egypt, Mali, India, Brazil, the Philippines. Killed for doing what so many journalists -- particularly those in the comfortable confines of the United States -- can too easily take for granted.
Killed for being a journalist.
Why, then, do these men and women keep going?
Why keep reporting on the actions of cartels in Mexico despite the blunt messages to stop left with the butchered corpses of other journalists?
Why keep going back to Afghanistan, as the troops withdraw and the world’s attention begins to drift away?
Here is what photographer Anja Niedringhaus said to that question: “Because it’s what I do.”
Within a few weeks of saying it, Anja was dead, shot by an Afghan policeman as she sat in a car with her AP colleague and friend, Kathy Gannon, who was badly wounded.
Why did he shoot? We don’t know for sure and may never know.
The irony, of course, is that Kathy and Anja were covering the distribution of ballots for Afghanistan’s presidential elections, by any measure a hopeful sign of empowerment for the Afghan people.
That hope was why Kathy and Anja wanted to be there. To bear witness to the good after so many years of covering strife and conflict and pain and death among a people they had come to care about a great deal.
Bearing witness … whether journalists are covering a distant land or their native soil, the root of their calling is to record the world around them, to ask questions, to expose what others would prefer to keep hidden.
Why do we do it?
And why should anyone care that we do?
Journalists are a proxy for citizens. They ask the questions and seek the answers on behalf of citizens.
They are also proxies for the threats to citizens.
If there is a despot’s handbook, the first page must say: Menace and silence the journalists and the citizens will get the message. Don’t talk back. Don’t fight. Don’t challenge.
Across the world, journalists are not submitting. They fight for the right to freely chronicle the actions of the powerful and the humble.
Is that a lonely fight?
It must be.
But it need not be. We owe them our support, our attention. The attention of our audiences.
Because indifference only empowers the killers.
The drumbeat of death being met with a collective shrug.
You’ve seen it.
People feel bad for a bit; offer a tweet or two of mourning, but are soon back to posting selfies.
What would you rather do at the Newseum? Get filmed doing a practice newscast or come mourn a bunch of journalists whose names you cannot pronounce and home countries you may not be able to find on a map.
Memorials and speeches like this, they make people feel uncomfortable.
Let’s look for a minute at why these journalists died.
• They took pictures that someone didn’t like.
• They shot video that someone didn’t like.
• They asked questions someone decided were out of line.
• They wrote things that someone thought shouldn’t be written.
• They expressed ideas that someone disagreed with.
Now look at the smart phone glued to your hand.
How many times a day do you post something? How many photos do you share? How many snotty remarks or bad jokes?
What if your critical comments about a local restaurant or sports team earned you a visit from thugs who knocked you around and threatened your children?
What if your unflattering photo of a law-maker got your business license revoked?
What if on the way to lunch one day, you took a quick video of a street protest and suddenly guys in uniforms snatched your phone and hauled you to jail?
Think it couldn’t happen?
It happens every day. Hundreds of times a day.
When might it happen to you?
There will always be people who believe they have the right to tell others how to think, what to believe, how to behave.
Too many of them try to enforce their view of the world with violence.
There will always be people who disagree, citizens who try to change things.
It is the job of the journalist to report on all of that. Even when it’s much harder to do than most of us can imagine.
Why do we do it?
Longtime journalist and journalism professor Terry Anderson posed the question for a recent essay for CPJ: “Is covering the news worth the risk?”
The question has resonance for Anderson, who spent more than seven years a hostage of Islamic Jihad and has explored the topic often since his release two decades ago.
One citizen journalist reporting on events in Syria, answered Terry’s question this way:
“…and hope that what’s good in the people prevails over the evil.”
These issues are not new.
Those who recall their U.S. journalism history know John Peter Zenger was part of a legal case that laid the groundwork for truth as a defense against libel.
Zenger had much more in common with today’s web-hosting businesses than crusading journalists.
For Zenger was the printer. He was hauled to jail by New York’s colonial governor for literally putting the ink on paper. Not for writing the anonymous columns that called the governor crooked for offering sweetheart deals to cronies, packing judicial benches and jury boxes alike and using the law to intimidate anyone who opposed him or his pals.
The law of the day was on the governor’s side. The offense of seditious libel essentially was writing or printing anything in opposition to the sitting government.
This was 1732 and New York was a bustling colonial hub for Great Britain. The U.S. Constitution and the protections of its First Amendment were nearly six decades in the future.
Six decades -- three generations -- a long way into the future.
Yet the idea that Zenger’s attorneys voiced … that you cannot libel someone if what you say about them is true … was not forgotten.
Indeed, it was one of the many rights that colonists fought the American Revolution to enshrine and preserve.
On this wall, among these faces and these names, are men and women who have planted the seeds of such freedom in their own countries.
They and the colleagues who carry on despite threats that you and I may never understand, who carry on in the face of torture, years in prison, threats to their families, despite grief and intimidation and fear … these men and women deserve a few minutes of your time.
This display is not some quilt of portraits that we gather once a year to remember with solemn speeches.
Each one of these photos is a son or daughter, a father, brother, mother, sister, beloved friend who chose this terrifying and wonderful profession because they believed in facts.
In the cleansing power of truth.
Remember them, and what they stand for.
Remember them, every time you pick up a newspaper, turn on a newscast, watch a live video from somewhere.
Remember them every time you pick up your phone.
Remember them. Whisper a quiet word of gratitude.
And vow that you will never forget what they have sacrificed and why.
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