Foreign Policy Blogs

The cost of telling the story

Today has been a difficult day.

In the world of human rights, we often talk of the need to bear witness. This is why organizations like the UN, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others send investigators and analysts to distant lands to record and document possible abuses that may be occurring there. However many of us rely on the media – be it mainstream, citizen-based, or something in between – to tell us the stories and show us the pictures we should be paying attention to. Through them, we gain the tools to bear witness ourselves.

The people who bring us these stories often do so at great risk to themselves. Nowhere else is this more true than in war zones where every excursion in the field could be their last. This is the reality journalists in war zones choose to bear in order to give voices and faces to those who have no other means to tell their stories and to give the rest of the world a view into their humanity. The journalist’s role in this cycle is crucial, and one that we all take for granted.

That is until days like today.

While reporting in Misrata, the last rebel-held city in Western Libya, four Western journalists came under mortar attack. Tim Hetherington died shortly thereafter while a colleague, Chris Hondros, died later in the day from extensive head wounds caused by the attack. Both were critically-acclaimed photojournalists with extensive experience covering the horrors of war from Liberia to Afghanistan. Two other photojournalists injured in the attack, Chris Brown and Guy Martin, are reported to be recovering from their wounds in Misrata.

These two men were the vanguard of their profession, internationally recognized and acclaimed with Academy Award and Pulitzer Prize nominations. Their lives and careers could probably not be any farther away than the life of Khalid Ahmed Alghirani, a Libyan citizen-journalist reporting via Twitter from the mountain city of Zintan through the group OperationLibyia. Yet that difference did not stop these men from the same fate as word also came today that Alghirani died of a chest wound he received the day before from forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi. As the only English speaking member of OperationLibyia he understood, right up to the end, his role in letting the world know what was transpiring in Zintan. The twitter feed of OperationLibyia is now entirely in Arabic, another harsh reminder for us Anglophones of what happens when brave voices are silenced.

It remains entirely unclear what the future holds for Libya as every hypothesis offered by well meaning analysts seems to be debunked within days. But it is clear that right now, Libya is a country in serious pain. For those of us watching, reading, and listening to every scrap of information coming out of the country, days like today are especially painful as they represent not only more death and suffering, but of the silencing of voices that need to be heard. While their deaths should not be any more painful than the others killed in this conflict, many of us on the outside have experienced this conflict so far through their eyes. That perspective shifts the view of what their deaths mean, and also the ethics of what bearing witness should mean. They are deaths which, for better or for worse, will stay with many of us for a long time to come.

Days after the uprising broke out in Eastern Libya, a man named Mohammed Nabbous took to LiveStream to tell the world what was happening in Benghazi. “I am not afraid to die, I am afraid to lose the battle,” he proclaimed. He then bypassed government internet controls and founded Libya Alhurra TV in order to broadcast news out of Libya during the uprising. Yet a month after his internet debut, he was shot in the head by snipers while trying to investigate reports of government attacks in Benghazi. His pregnant wife Perdita reported the news in a heartbreaking audio clip on Libya Alhurra that still haunts me a month later.

That too was a difficult day. But despite the personal pain she must be going through, Perdita and the Libya Alhurra team have continued her husband’s work in reporting the news of the uprising via LiveStream. And in that, I will take some comfort as those who tyrants would silence can never be silenced easily or completely.

That is the legacy they have, but in doing so, they also pass responsibility onto us. Merely bearing witness is important but will never be enough; it is what we do with that information and how we empower others with it that matters. The last tweet Hetherington sent the day before his death reported, “In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.”

As the families of these courageous men prepare to put their loved ones to rest, it is now on us to honor them as well. After all, as journalists they did their part, and now it is time to do ours.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa