Years after the terrorist attack that occurred a January morning at a French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, still leaves me uneasy. I still feel I am honoring those who were killed and injured when I wear my “Je suis Charlie” T-shirt.
During my AP U.S. Government and Politics class, my teacher mentions the beheading of Daniel Pearl, an American reporter who was killed by a Pakistani terrorist group in 2002. We are discussing the Middle East and the different terrorist groups around the globe and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s name is brought up. I recognize it from Asra Q. Nomani’s story about Pearl, her Wall Street Journal colleague and close friend. Nomani claims KSM is the man who cut through Pearl’s throat and killed him.
My teacher goes on to explain how he watched the video, and urges me not to as some things “you just can’t unsee, Smith.” He shakes his head and says that Pearl was just doing his job as a reporter and the murder was unfair. I know this, of course. It’s not breaking news to me that journalists should not be killed for reporting the news.
I think of my trip to D.C. last summer in which I attended the Al Neuharth Free Spirit Journalism conference and sat in on a session hosted by the Committee to Protect Journalists advocacy director Courtney Radsch. It was me and 50 other young and excited journalists, all seated in rows facing the Journalists Memorial, a glass wall dedicated for journalists who have lost their lives while on assignment. The memorial is rededicated each year to add more names of fallen reporters from the preceding year. So far, 2,291 names have been etched on the glass panel. The 2017 re-dedication is scheduled for June 5.
Most of these names belong to people who have been murdered, usually after visiting or living in a country that does not allow a free press.
I think of the book Radch gave to everyone at the Free Spirit conference, “Attacks on the Press” the 2016 edition, a compilation of stories from reporters who have undergone different levels of severe abuse for doing their job.
The first chapter, written by Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima, walks us through her experience reporting in Bogotá, Colombia highlighting the arms trafficking problem. She explains how she was kidnapped, gagged, beaten and raped in a field far from where she was staying at the time. The detail sends me chills.
Part of it might be because Lima reminds me so much of myself in the first few pages– how she describes herself as a young writer “who wanted to swallow the world,” and ignored her basic needs for sleep and food due to the level that she prioritized storytelling. The excitement and passion mirror my own.
She goes on to recount her horror story and then explains how she told no one for a while because she didn’t want to shame to loom over her the way she knew it would. She writes that she contemplated suicide and she still doesn’t know where she gathered her strength to return to the newsroom, but she does know where she gathered her motivation.
“I understand now that my love for this profession and for my work as a reporter was greater than the pain of my body and my soul,” Lima wrote.
Once again, I resonate. While I have never been through an experience such as Lima’s, nor will I pretend that I fully understand, I know we share the same love for journalism. I know we both find the profession important, the most important thing we can do.
In Nomani’s story about Pearl, she writes about how even in her worst nightmares, she never could have imagined what happened to her best friend. His murder, filmed by the terrorists and quickly circulated with parts of it broadcast on television screens across the country, follows her through her life.
I have not watched the video– nor do I plan on it– but the descriptions I have read from various news stories, including Nomani’s, sends me a fear that is indescribable.
But despite that fear, despite the millions of reasons not to go into what sometimes seems like such a dangerous profession, I think of the importance that the work journalists have done worldwide. I remember Lima’s words about how she did not give up after what happened to her in Bogotá, despite the difficulty.
“Words can indeed change the world,” Lima writes in her chapter.