Marie Colvin was marked to die. She was targeted by dictator Bashar al-Assad as surely as the shadowy powers in the royal court of Saudi Arabia plotted the murder and dismemberment of the critic Jamal Khashoggi. He was dead from the moment he walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to collect a wedding license. She was dead from the moment al-Assad’s artillery picked up the signal of her satellite broadcast in February 2012.
She had hunched her way two-and-a-half miles through a drainage tunnel only four-and-a-half feet high to reach the besieged remnants of Homs, where 28,000 starving families with no electricity sheltered from daily shelling. It was her second visit in a week, her first report bannered by The Sunday Times (U.K.). Assad was more straightforward about her death than the Saudi’s absurd concoctions. “It’s war and she came illegally to Syria. She worked with terrorists, and because she came illegally, she’s been responsible for everything that befalls her.”
This week’s release of A Private War, a movie featuring a blazing performance by Rosamund Pike as Colvin, is based on the intimate portrayal of her in Marie Brenner’s new book of the same title. Marie Colvin thrust herself into six killing zones. She lost sight in one eye when a grenade exploded in her face in Sri Lanka, but she remained glamorous and graceful, conspicuous in a stylish black eye patch, determined not to be a “smelly pseudo man.” All her life she was driven by a fierce conviction that only first-hand, detailed reporting could make a difference to lives ransacked by war. In East Timor she saved more than a thousand women and children by insisting on their evacuation.
“Why is the world not here?” was a question she asked many times —in East Timor, Libya, Kosovo, Chechnya, Iran, Iraq, Syria. But she also relished being alone and scooping the opposition. Brenner writes that Colvin’s was one of the first convincing reports predicting al-Assad’s genocide. ‘Bearing witness’ is a cliché, but not to Colvin. It was the continuing theme of her life. “The next war I cover,” she wrote in 2001, “I’ll be more awed than ever by the quiet bravery of civilians who endure far more than I ever will.”
Seventeen years further on there are fewer journalists and photographers to report on humanitarian crises. Their publishers have been deprived of revenues by social media juggernauts – and reporters and editors are themselves more in danger than they ever were. We are innured to the fatal roulette of reporting, that men and women knowingly hazard their lives. They get caught in the crossfire of a battlefield; they walk on a landmine; they are mistaken for a combatant. But the majority of journalists’ deaths are not bad luck. They are planned assassinations. Between 1992 and 2018, the crossfire of combat killed 299 journalists, 170 died on dangerous assignments. But no fewer than 849 of the victims were murdered at the instigation of governments — too often their own — and by regional and military authorities, criminal gangs, drug traffickers, terrorists, corrupt businesses, all of them maddened by a press trying to do its job at home and in “foreign parts,” independently winnowing verifiable facts from complexity, exposing wrongdoing and generally admitting error.
The mainstream press struggles to do this work while social media sites run amok. The Trump-obsessed pipe bomber Cesar Sayoc, Jr. had a megaphone on Facebook. Twitter refused to take down his tweet inciting an assault on a Democratic television commentator. Robert Bowers swam in the far right digital sewer of Gab for neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Immediately before his anti-Semitic massacre in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life synagogue, he used Gab to disseminate his final message: HIAS [Hebrew immigrant aid society] likes to bring in invaders in that kill our people…Screw the optics, I’m going in ‘Screw the optics, I’m going in’). Odious social media sites like Gab thrive on hate and lies. They are the brutal reality behind the “optics”, the anti-Semitic code words like George Soros, globalism, conspiracy. Facebook and Twitter endanger democracy itself. They took money from subversive Russian agitprop campaigns designed to hoodwink American voters Facebook harvested private information from more than 50 million accounts. Twitter bought 36 million robot accounts to reach half the 200 million registered voters. Facebook for years enabled Myanmar’s generals to run a vicious defamation of the minority Rohyinga Muslims, the prelude to the expulsion in 2017 of 700,000 Rohyinga, who were murdered, raped, and tortured, crimes a United Nations report considers genocide. Facebook executives did nothing, masters of procrastination and equivocation while advertising dollars roll in. Meanwhile, two Reuters reporters who were arrested in December 2017 after disclosing atrocities, have been sentenced to seven years in prison for breach of official secrets
Yet while the mainstream press accepts legal and moral responsibility for whatever it publishes, social media is excused liability. It enjoys broad immunity thanks to Section 230 of the Criminal Justice, a gift from legislators who envisaged it would usher in a universe of honest exchanges in search of mutual understanding. It’s a license not afforded the mainstream press which accepts legal and moral responsibility for all it publishes—yet it is the mainstream press that is under constant attack by the president.
One of the pipe bombs directed at perceived critics of President Trump was for CNN. In his first remarks he spoke of unity, but a day later, he was back on a Twitter rant: “A very big part of the anger we see today is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News.” Perhaps he was stung by the Washington Post comment that “amid heated rhetoric the targets of Trump’s words became targets of bombs.” It was rough to infer direct blame for the pipe bomber, whose motives were unknown, but Trump finds it impossible to stay civil. He powerfully condemns anti-Semitism after Pittsburgh but then he is reckless in fomenting distrust and “misinformation.” In the week of Khashoggi’s murder, he praised a bully congressman for body-slamming a reporter and mimicked the assault (“my kind of guy”). The mood he creates at his rallies was reflected by a supporter walking around in a T-shirt emblazoned, “A Rope. A Tree. A Journalist. Some assembly required.” He is unscrupulous in demonizing media save for his glee club on Fox News. Whatever journalists do to protect people from fraud, cheating, drug dealing, or risk their lives in foreign reporting, in Trump (and Stalin) parlance they’re still “enemies of the people.”
This year the Committee to Protect Journalists reports 28 journalists were murdered because of their work.
Javier Ortega and Paul Rivas, two Colombian journalists, were kidnapped and killed while reporting drug violence at the Ecuadorian border in April. Their deaths excited little attention in the Western press until this week, when The Guardian cited it as an example of the dangers of reporting on drug violence in Latin America.
In Slovakia, prime minister Robert Fico attacked the press as “filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes” and “idiotic hyenas.” Less than two years later, Jan Kuciak, investigating tax fraud among Slovenian businessmen with political connections, was shot dead in his apartment in February along with his fiancée. The mass protests that followed forced the resignation of Fico and his entire cabinet.
Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta disclosed smuggling, money-laundering and corruption implicating the highest levels of the Maltese government. She was killed by a car bomb in October 2017
Reporters Without Borders cites these murders as evidence of democratic decline in Europe and symptoms of heightening anti-press rhetoric in countries like Hungary, Albania and Austria. And now the US.
Rarely do the local crimes attract international attention. Most journalists die in anonymity. Almost nine out of ten times, their killers are not brought to justice.
Foreign correspondents reporting armed conflicts, like Marie Colvin and her photographer Paul Conroy, who was injured in the attack, are targeted for murder, detained or kidnapped. International humanitarian law prescribes protections in Article 79 of Protocol 1 additional to the Geneva Conventions. Some 174 nations have signed and ratified. America has signed but is one of only five yet to ratify.
Correction, Dec. 10
The original version of this article misstated that journalists are protected under “Protocol 77 to the Geneva Convention.” They are protected under Article 79 of Protocol 1 additional to the Geneva Conventions.