Butchered in blind hate on a road far from home

`Dead reporters are not romantic figures. They're broken bodies who leave behind broken hearts'
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The Independent Culture
IT IS not the grim television footage of a young man's body lying in an overgrown garden in East Timor that haunts the mind. Rather it is an image of the same young man smiling at the camera as he poses for an identity card photo. When was the photograph taken? Years ago or maybe just months. We do not know. Whenever, it was when Sander Thoenes was still alive to smile, before his last journey to Dili and his murder at the hands of pro-Jakarta militiamen.

When I heard that a journalist working for a British organisation had been killed my first instinct was to wonder whether it was a friend or close colleague. I have known a few friends who have "gone south" in war zones; it is, we are told, an occupational hazard. But the shock of hearing of any new death is always powerful. This time around it was not somebody I knew personally, but as a fellow traveller in war zones I feel an immense sense of pity and waste for the death of Sander Thoenes. That is why his smile and bright blue eyes are so haunting: what the hell was the point of this death? To die on a road far from home, murdered by men who did not know who he was or where he came from, who could see nothing beyond his white skin and who butchered him in a blind hate. Today I say a reporters' prayer for your soul Sander Thoenes: go well wherever you go. I didn't know you but I know a lot of men and women like you.

The militia in East Timor killed Sander Thoenes because they believe the western media support the pro-independence movement. At least this is what we are told. The truth is that the militia killed a western journalist - and attempted to kill several others, including two BBC correspondents - because they were told to do so by the uniformed goons of the Indonesian army and police. The Generals do not want reporters snooping around, uncovering atrocities. They do not want the world to know that the result of the referendum in East Timor was a fair reflection of public feeling. That is why reporters are being targeted: it is not wild and random violence. The climate of hatred which led to the murder of Sander Thoenes is the direct responsibility of the Indonesian armed forces.

But there is also a debate within journalism, an argument about how much risk we can and should take? Let me be honest: I am not a hero. I make no apology for always putting my own life first. It is not always an easy call. Time and again I have found myself in situations where I might easily have been killed or wounded. But more often than not the danger has erupted out of circumstances I could not have foreseen.

Let me give you an example: last January I found myself in Sierra Leone covering the civil war. Early one morning - before the end of curfew - I set out to join a Nigerian military column on a search mission. I had an armed escort, vital because of the curfew restrictions. He told me he knew the password for the roadblocks we would encounter on the way to the base. But I reckoned without the panicky nature of my driver. At one roadblock on a steep hill, a soldier ran towards the car shouting. The driver panicked and allowed the car to start rolling backwards. The soldier screamed, cocked his rifle and a for a few seconds I thought we were about to be shot to pieces. My escort shouted the password out the window and luckily, in spite of the commotion, the soldiers at the roadblock heard the word. They put down their rifles. We were a second or so away from eternity. All because one man panicked.

The hardest decisions you ever have to make are those which involve leaving a trouble spot. But dead reporters tell no stories. Dead reporters leave behind loved ones who had no choice in the matter. Dead reporters are not romantic figures. They are broken bodies who leave behind broken hearts. In the light of this, the adverse comment about the decision of most western correspondents to pull out of Dili during the militia rampage is nauseating. I have read that BBC managers ordered their staff out of the city, terrified that they would have the blood and insurance claims of murdered staff on their hands. That is insulting nonsense. Believe me I have operated in enough hellholes to know that the decision about when to leave is always finally made by the person on the ground. Of course you consult - sometimes on a minute-by-minute basis - with London. They are the people who perform the magic task of getting you out of places that no sane pilot or boat captain or driver would want to enter. But no manager or news editor has ever told me to leave against my wishes. And even if they did, would somebody please tell me what is wrong or immoral about trying to preserve the lives of the people who work for you?

God spare me from the armchair generals in London who insinuate that in spite of life-threatening danger the chaps should hold the fort. I have no problem with somebody deciding to stay; that is their right and involves a great deal of personal courage. But it is equally brave to make the decision to go, knowing that to make sure of your own safety you must leave a dramatic story, perhaps feeling that you are abandoning the struggle for truth, almost always having to say goodbye to people with whom you have formed close emotional bonds.

Last year 31 journalists were killed in the line of duty and another 19 cases are being investigated by the International Federation of Journalists. Much of the time the killings were carried out precisely because powerful figures or institutions feared the revelation of uncomfortable truths. Yes, people can get killed by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but what Timor has reconfirmed is that specific targeting of the press is the single greatest danger we face in the post-cold war era of small, vicious wars.

You can protect journalists with body armour and armoured vehicles; you can make sure they have all the communications equipment they need to get them out of trouble. You can make sure that you only send people with common sense to war zones (difficult enough in journalism). The BBC and other organisations have full-time security departments devoted to ensuring the safety of their news teams.

But in the longer term, how do we create an environment where reporters can operate without the fear of being picked off and targeted? I am not talking here about the routine hazards of war: the bomb or mortar round or stray volley. It is the deliberate targeting of journalists that we need to focus on.

One solution is to fight for an end to the culture of impunity, the sense that people can be killed without any sanction. Let us pursue and lay charges against the military goons in Jakarta who bear ultimate responsibility for the murder of Sander Thoenes. And if we do - through a war crimes tribunal - it will send a powerful message to the other gangsters who believe the sword will always be mightier than the pen.

Fergal Keane is BBC news special correspondent