Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Editorial

On January 31 this year, a court in Washington DC issued a judgment concerning the killing in Syria, seven years ago, of award-winning Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin. This resulted from a civil lawsuit brought by Colvin’s family. The court declared Bashar al-Assad’s regime liable for Colvin’s death and ordered the Syrians to pay $300m (£228m) in punitive damages. It concluded that Colvin had been targeted by the regime specifically because of her profession, “for the purpose of silencing those reporting on the growing opposition movement in the country.” The judgment made clear that “the murder of journalists acting in their professional capacity could have a chilling effect on reporting such events worldwide.”

Colvin, together with Rémi Ochlik, a French photojournalist, had been killed in February 2012 in a rocket attack on the media centre in the rebel-held Syrian city of Homs. Having crossed into Syria on the back of a  motorcycle, ignoring the Syrian government’s attempts to prevent foreign journalists from entering the country to cover the civil war, Colvin stationed herself in the western Baba Amr district of the city of Homs, and made her last broadcast on the evening of February 21, appearing on the BBC, Channel 4, CNN and ITN News via satellite phone, describing in detail the shelling and sniper attacks against civilians by Syrian forces. She said the bombardment of Homs was the worst conflict she had ever experienced.

An American citizen but based in London, Marie Colvin had worked for the Sunday Times since 1985, and had reported from numerous conflict zones around the world including Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and Libya. She lost the sight in her left eye due to a blast by a Sri Lankan Army rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) while crossing from a Tamil Tigers-controlled area to a government-controlled area, and after that she always wore an eyepatch. In East Timor, she was credited with saving the lives of 1,500 women and children from a compound besieged by Indonesian-backed forces. Refusing to abandon them, she stayed with a United Nations force, continuing to report for the Sunday Times. The besieged families were evacuated after four days.

Speaking to the media after the Washington court ruling, Colvin’s sister Cathleen said: “My heart goes out to the families of the many thousands of victims of the Syrian conflict. It is my greatest hope that the court’s ruling will lead to other criminal prosecutions and serve as a deterrent against future attacks on the press and on civilians. Marie dedicated her life to fighting for justice on behalf of the victims of war and ensuring that their stories were heard. This case is an extension of her legacy, and I think she’d be proud of what we achieved today.”

The Syrian government is not, of course, alone in deliberately targeting journalists in order to intimidate news-gatherers and to suppress criticism and dissent. Directing military and paramilitary attacks against members of the press is one method, often under cover of conflict, as in Colvin’s case. But other regimes across the Middle East routinely arrest, torture and execute Western journalists on trumped-up charges. Some readers of this Journal may recall the name of Farzad Bazoft, an Iranian-born British journalist, and a member of our Institute of Journalists, who worked as a freelance reporter for The Observer. While reporting from Iraq in 1989, investigating a mysterious explosion at a weapons factory, he was arrested by the Iraqi authorities and held prisoner at Abu Ghraib, where he was repeatedly beaten by the guards. There followed a secret trial in which he was accused of spying for Israel. Observer editor Donald Trelford said at the time: “Farzad Bazoft is not a spy. He is a reporter who went to do a story. He said in advance the story he was going to do. He told the Baghdad government where he wanted to go. This is not the action of a spy, this is the action of a reporter.” 

Bazoft was convicted of spying and was sentenced to death. Despite international appeals for clemency, he was refused permission to appeal his conviction. Farzad Bazoft was executed on March 15, 1990. In 2003, The Observer tracked down Kadem Askar, the colonel in the Iraqi intelligence service who conducted the initial interrogation of Bazoft. He admitted he knew Bazoft was innocent but claimed he was powerless to obstruct Saddam Hussein’s orders to have him convicted and executed. Saddam’s ordering of Bazoft’s execution is confirmed in transcripts of taped meetings seized during the US invasion of Iraq.

We should remember Marie Colvin, CIoJ member Farzad Bazoft and all the other journalists who have been murdered over the years by despotic regimes such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. They were honourable members of our profession and they died trying to bring us the news. We honour their sacrifice.

Andy Smith