PRINT November 1993

Special Effects


“Somalia is the only place in the world where I wouldn’t go out without a gun,” said photojournalist Christopher Morris in a recent interview. That statement marks a definitive break in contemporary journalism: although there are people in South-Central L.A. who wouldn’t go out without a gun, and people in Bosnia who wouldn’t go out without a gun, there aren’t supposed to be journalists anywhere who go out with guns. Journalists are supposed to be neutral noncombatants—carrying a gun would connote a belligerence that they’re supposed to be recording rather than perpetrating. Falling into the hands of one side or the other in a conflict could present a real threat to the life of a journalist who is armed, as he or she could easily be accused of favoring “the other side.” That journalists can’t go out in Somalia without a gun—or in Bosnia without an armored vehicle—reaffirms the current reality of the New World Order: that its birth is attended by a horrific kind of violence that is all-encompassing, that is not just visited upon the putative enemy but on relief workers, doctors, journalists, the people who risk their own lives to minister to or report on those trapped in hell.

Actually, in Somalia it isn’t the journalists themselves who carry guns—it’s the “bodyguards” they have to hire in order to rent a vehicle. The bodyguards are actually there to protect the vehicles rather than the journalists, Morris points out, because without them, any of those well-armed “thugs” we hear about in news reports would steal the vehicle and rob or even kill the journalists before they could get so far as one ruined city block. So photographers and reporters routinely venture out with AK-47s, grenade launchers, and large-caliber machine guns manned by guys who know how to use them. CBS has reportedly been employing a “small army” of perhaps 80 people to protect its staffers. When U.N. peacekeepers confiscate guns belonging to the bodyguards, the journalists who sometimes have to pay to replace them then go back home and turn in receipts for heavy weaponry as job-related expenses.

All of which makes Somalia one of the most dangerous places in the world right now. So perhaps journalists who’ve been there weren’t surprised when four of their colleagues—three still photographers and a Reuters television soundman—were murdered there last July. They had gone to look at the bombed-out headquarters of General Aidid at the bidding of some men who claimed to be the general’s representatives.

Survivors of the attack say that the first journalists in the loosely knit five-vehicle convoy that followed a car full of Aidid’s men made their way through an angry mob of as many as 1,000 people. Two of the three photographers and a sound and camera team from Reuters television were able to get out of their vehicles and take some pictures. According to a Reuters story by Ralph Nicholson, it was only when they moved toward the house at the bidding of their guides to see “more bodies” that the mob attacked, beating them with stones, pieces of wood, and rifle butts.

The terror they endured can only be imagined. The body of only one of the men—22-year-old Dan Eldon, a Reuters photographer with dual British and American citizenship—was actually found near the site of the assault. The others ended up some distance away. Two Kenyans who worked for Reuters, photographer Hosea Maina, 38, and sound technician Anthony Macharia, 21, were found near the Bakara market, which AP reporter Angus Shaw called “a notorious warren of shanties, stalls and hideouts used by Aidid’s men.” The body of AP photographer Hansi Krauss, 30, was found three miles from where he was last seen alive, Shaw reported, on October 21 Road, “a stretch of highway roamed by gunmen.” Three of them had been beaten to death and one was also shot; the New York Times reported that two of the bodies had been mutilated.

A wounded and badly beaten Reuters television cameraman, Mohammed Shaffi, later recounted a story that was even more harrowing than published reports suggested. After being pummeled and shot twice, he ran to escape the rampaging mob. When he saw a parked vehicle full of people, he opened the door and threw himself in. “I shouted I wanted to go to the hotel,” he told a colleague, and they began driving. But the vehicle sped past the hotel and continued on to the same market where the other two Kenyans were eventually found dead. “I told them they were going the wrong way . . . but they laughed,” Shaffi remembered. Then one of the men reached around and tried to strangle him. “I screamed that I was a Kenyan . . . but they just laughed,” he said. “They told me (in English) that I was a Pakistani . . . a Christian.” After further pleading, and with Shaffi quoting from the Koran, the men finally circled back to the hotel and kicked him into the street, where he was found and taken to a hospital.

The deaths of these four brought the 1993 total of journalists killed for job-related reasons to 33, according to the New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists (49 were killed in 1992, while 66 died the year before). The story made the front page of the New York Times because the journalists involved worked for the Western media and because one of them survived to tell the story. But intimidation, physical attacks, and death are regular job hazards for journalists who are citizens or nationals of the country in which they do the daily work of reporting for local newspapers and magazines. Grim reports on what happens to individual journalists around the world, entitled Attacks on the Press, are published yearly by the CPJ. Journalists’ homes are invaded, they are beaten and tortured, kidnapped and imprisoned, often without charges and for long periods. These are the people who, as former hostage Terry Anderson points out in his preface to the 1992 edition, are sometimes derisively referred to as “locals” by foreign journalists.

Last March, for instance, a “local” journalist in Vietnam by the name of Dr. Doan Viet Hoat was found guilty of attempting to overthrow the government by publishing a newsletter on economic, social, and political issues entitled Freedom Forum. He was sentenced to 20 years hard labor and five years deprivation of citizenship-rights. Last December in India, 39 journalists were attacked, beaten, and had their camera equipment broken or stolen when Hindu extremists destroyed a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh; two-thirds of them were Indians working for local news outlets. When the Brazilian journalist Caco Barcellos exposed killings by the São Paulo military police, 15 of the officers named turned up at a reception for the book and threatened the lives of Barcellos and his guests. What in the U.S. might be a great career move or a gutsy bid for a movie deal in other places is a prelude to physical harm or death.

The “locals,” in other words, are the ones who don’t work for big organizations and who have to make do with meager resources and nonexistent backup. They have to risk their lives to report on local government corruption or drug-dealing, or simply to criticize an official’s decision. Because Americans and other Westerners are so inundated by news, and so aware of its manipulation, we often don’t realize what a precious commodity it is in other parts of the world. “As we have seen in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, in Africa and in Asia, the free flow of uncensored information is basic to the empowerment of people,” Anderson writes. “Journalists are vital to the process by which any country can move from autocracy to democracy, from dictatorship to freedom. And they pay a far higher price, far more often, because the dictators know how important they are.”

Anderson, the most famous of the news-gathering casualties, is well versed in the price that journalists can pay. It used to be fairly unusual that a Western journalist was subjected to the same abuse that local journalists routinely suffered, but the game has changed. Journalists who are wounded or who die are not simply being caught in the crossfire; they are being purposely targeted by combatants who want the press to go away and let them proceed unimpeded with their ethnic cleansings and their pitiless slaughter. In the wake of the four murders, many major news outlets either pulled their journalists out of Somalia or didn’t let them go back in. That’s exactly what the warlords want: for them, no news is good news.

Carol Squiers, a writer and curator who lives in New York, is senior editor at American Photo. She contributes regularly to Artforum.