Andreas Whittam Smith: Some of the bravest people I know are journalists

'Look, said my colleague, unless the bombardment makes the cups rattle, there is nothing to worry about'
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The Independent Online

Among war reporters, nothing is unusual, or reprehensible, about the actions of Yvonne Ridley, the Sunday Express journalist arrested in Afghanistan. She applied many times for an Afghan visa so that she could cover the escalating humanitarian crisis. After repeated refusals, she decided to go anyway. If you want to be legalistic about it, you could say that she and her paper believed the public interest in bringing news of the starvation of millions of homeless people outweighed the illegality of her disregard of entry procedures.

I say there is nothing unusual in Ms Ridley's decision because the best reporters become obsessed with finding out what is actually going on. Once they have an objective, they do nothing else, they think and dream only the story. A headline in one of yesterday's newspapers described SAS men as fearless, brave... and appalling egomaniacs. Those words can be equally well applied to reporters in war zones, or areas where civil war rages, except in one respect. Strike out the word "fearless"; these are people who have learnt to master their fears.

To give an example: when I was editor of this newspaper, I went briefly to Sarajevo during the siege to spend time with The Independent's correspondent. I hadn't been there more than an hour or so when I heard what appeared to be gun fire dismayingly close to where we were drinking coffee with other reporters.

Nobody took the slightest notice. Thinking that perhaps they should, I mentioned the racket. Look, said my colleague, our rule is that unless the bombardment makes the coffee cups rattle in their saucers, there is nothing to be concerned about.

Is it going a bit far to equate the bravery of war reporters with that shown by members of the SAS? I don't think so. Reporters are unarmed. The most they will do to protect themselves is occasionally to don a flak jacket. And in practice, flak jackets are rather useless because the locals often seize them off journalists' backs.

Newspapers and broadcasting organisations cannot punish those who attack their staff in a war zone. If you attack a journalist, there will be no retribution. There is no rescue force at hand. All the Sunday Express can do is to work with the Foreign Office. It isn't much.

It sometimes appears that war reporters lead charmed lives. In the past, "casualties" have seemed surprisingly low. But this has changed. Journalists were killed in some number during the Balkans conflicts and have been since in Africa and Asia. And now, shockingly and sadly, in Northern Ireland.

Martin O'Hagan, a reporter in Belfast for the Dublin-based Sunday World, a sister paper of The Independent, was shot dead on Friday night. He was the first reporter to die "in action", so to speak, in the province. This was no accident: the Red Hand Defenders said that they had carried out the murder for "crimes against the loyalist people".

This should remind us that the greatest courage of all is required by reporters covering civil war in their own community. The correspondents I met in Sarajevo aren't there any longer. They could leave. But our own David McKittrick and many of his colleagues live in Northern Ireland. It is their home. As a result, they are more subject to threat and more vulnerable than reporters covering conventional conflicts.

Mr O'Hagan was killed as he walked home with his wife on Friday evening. He had lived with threats for a long time. For he wasn't writing gardening notes; he focused on paramilitary groups and drugs. Just before his death, Mr O'Hagan received what proved to be his last warning: "O'Hagan you're for it. We've got you clocked". Mr O'Hagan neither reported the incident to his editor nor stopped what he was doing. His last action was to protect his wife from the bullets.

During the coming weeks, we shall probably learn about the bravery of troops sent into Afghanistan to root out terrorists. They will deserve every word of praise. Journalists will follow, and to the extent that they are organised and herded about by the armed forces, they should not come to much harm.

But reporters are rarely content for long to follow the guided tour. And when they strike out on their own, they are just as much at risk as the soldiers, and much less well protected. I salute them.

aws@globalnet.co.uk

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