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Stanford Report, March 6, 2002

Journalists on front lines of history, panelists say


Did Daniel Pearl die for nothing?

The question echoed through the room on Thursday afternoon during a panel discussion of the same name. "Did Daniel Pearl Die for Nothing? Journalists on the Edge of Danger," sponsored by the John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists, featured two war zone reporters, Ian Stewart and Serif Turgut, and history Professor Norman Naimark.

Knight Fellows Serif Turgut and Ian Stewart discussed the perils of being a war zone reporter on Thursday during a panel discussion titled, "Did Daniel Pearl Die for Nothing? Journalists on the Edge of Danger." Photo: Steve Castillo

All were qualified to discuss the dangers journalists face in war zones: Stewart, a former bureau chief for the Associated Press in West Africa, wrote Freetown Ambush: A Reporter's Year in Africa; Turgut reported for ATV Turkish Television in the Balkans and other war zones; and Naimark wrote Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe.

But none could justify the loss of one journalist in exchange for a story.

"No story at all is ever worth dying for. If you're killed doing a story, you're never going to tell another story," said Stewart, who survived a gunshot wound to the head in Sierra Leone in 1999.

Telling people's stories, especially the stories of those it seems the world has forgotten, is what compels journalists to risk their lives in war zones, Stewart and Turgut said. The physical threat is real: The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 37 journalists were killed in 2001 because of their work, which often involves reporting on people suffering in foreign conflicts.

"So many people are left without a voice. So what drew me, and I suspect what drew Danny Pearl, was to try to defend and give back a voice to these people," Stewart said.

Journalists understand that they have a clear role to play when covering a war, Turgut said.

"We are not the soldiers with the guns, not the judge or the diplomat to solve the problem, but we are the only ones that can be a voice for civilians," she said.

In addition to being a voice for the disenfranchised, journalists act as sources for citizens and scholars, according to Naimark, the Robert and Florence McDonnell Professor in Eastern European Studies. Journalists and scholars share the "same passion and commitment for understanding, for providing information and insight," he said.

Journalists and scholars alike want to shed light on the complexities of the world using their articles and books, but they also want to call citizens and politicians to action.

"I write for the general public so they will be appalled and will get involved, and I also write for the Beltway in Washington," Stewart said of his target audience. "We can't stop wars, but we hope our words and images can provoke people to do that."

Journalists have brought to light gross violations of human rights in many areas of the world, especially the Balkans, and have provoked international intervention, the panelists said.

Journalists also provide valuable context for scholars who study the conflicts -- whether they occurred 100 or 10 years ago, Naimark said.

"Not only do we count on journalists like Daniel Pearl to bring to our attention human rights violations that governments would just assume we ignore, we count on them as historical sources," he said. "Like all sources, they have to be checked, counterchecked and checked again. But I was struck by how much I relied on the work of journalists to reconstruct the history of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans," he said.

Naimark uses newspapers as a teaching tool to help students understand the context of certain periods in history. He sends them to back issues of the New York Times and London Times and says, "go read."

"What that does is take you back in time and place and helps you document what people thought at that time," Naimark said.

While the mission of journalists and scholars is similar, the circumstances of their work are vastly different, a point that Pearl's and other journalists' deaths painfully demonstrate.

"Journalists are called, by their professional ethics, to the places and actors in the contemporary world," Naimark said. "Scholars are called to libraries, and those are our homes and they're very safe. Journalists live in a different world -- the real world -- which can be very, very dangerous."