Inside Out – July 07

I started writing this en-route to Frontline’s first event in Kiev amid rumours that Alan Johnston would finally be released. The nightmare for the Johnston family, his loved ones and colleagues looked set to end. At the same the staff of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) were just coming to terms with the murder in Mosul of Sahar Hussein al-Haideri, their “top reporter in Iraq”, and a 45 year-old mother of four. A group affiliated with al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Sunna, has claimed responsibility.

IWPR had already relocated Haider and her family to Damascus after an earlier death threat.  Why Haideri decided to go back to Mosul (she wasn’t on assignment) is unclear, but whatever her reasons the gunmen were waiting for her.

In Afghanistan, within days of Sahar’s murder, Zakia Zaki was shot dead while sleeping in her own home with her 8 month old son and Sanga Amach, a 22 year-old presenter was murdered close to her new western-backed TV station. As those who promote safety in journalism are pleading for more support to train local journalists, these murders underline the terrible truth that no amount of training can stop contract killings of local journalists.

The gunmen and their paymasters know they won’t be arrested or put on trial and that the surest way to stop reporting they don’t like is to kill the messenger. And it can be no coincidence that women journalists were targeted in countries where forces with a perverted view of Islam have decided to end the role of women in media. Beyond wringing of hands and despairing there are hard questions for organisations and governments that finance and train local journalists. And what responsibilities do they have to provide lifetime support to the families left behind?

IWPR has already made an initial contribution and established a “Sahar Journalists Assistance Fund” but the wanton killing of local journalists may mean a restructuring of the IWPR training programme. Tony Borden, IWPR’s Executive Director, says he is “faced with the dilemma of death or despair, to continue or give up.”

Is it time that more effort to engage the powers that be to nurture independent journalism? At the very least those officials whose duty it is to uphold the law must commit to bringing those who kill with impunity to justice.

The Frontline Event in Kiev was a debate about the performance of the Ukrainian media since the Orange Revolution but there was no mention of Gyorgy Gongadze’s beheading 7 years ago. Most press groups believe he was murdered for his harsh criticism of the Kuchma government. Despite international pressure and plenty of suspects it’s unlikely that anyone will be prosecuted. And will Sahar al-Haideri’s or the Afghan journalists’ murderers ever pay for their crimes. What can be done?  That’s the question that no press rights group can answer.

IWPR is a not-for-profit media organisation that trains local journalists in conflict and post-conflict areas since establishing itself during the wars in the where until recently I served as a trustee.