Journalism has never been more dangerous

'Daniel Pearl was killed by a small-time thug from another world. That is how it happens most of the time'
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The Independent Online

Daniel played the fiddle. He was a Jewish American boy from the East Coast, a graduate of the Ivy League. But he loved the music of the back hills – bluegrass, hillbilly, fiddle music from the Appalachians. Friends say he would stay up until the early hours playing fiddle, drinking beers and laughing. That was back in his days as a cub reporter on the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Daniel took his fiddle with him when he moved on to San Franscisco and then to Washington DC where he was a regular at Madam's Organ, a bar on 18th street.

These are scattered impressions of a man variously described by those who knew him as "funny", "loving" and "kind", a man who could light up the room. Daniel Pearl was 38 years old, a reporter at the height of his skills. The conflict in Afghanistan was the biggest story of his life, and by all accounts he covered it with distinction. He died because a group of fascists needed a vehicle to convey their hatred of the United States to the wider world. Daniel Pearl became the vehicle. After luring him to a restaurant in Karachi, they kidnapped him and later they cut his throat. And like every foreign correspondent who read the story yesterday I thought to myself: there but for the grace of God go I.

How many times have I set out for clandestine meetings or ventured into hostile territory with nothing but the vaguest assurances about my safety? It reminded me of the words uttered to one correspondent by his frightened wife: "How do you think it feels to mentally plan your funeral every time you head for one of those awful bloody places?" Yet Daniel Pearl wasn't one of the habitual risk-takers, nor was he an adrenalin addict. Pearl was heading out to meet a contact in the largest city in Pakistan, many miles from the chaos of Afghanistan. He was killed by a small-time thug from another world. That is how it happens most of the time.

Think of Kurt Schork and Miguel Moreno, shot in Sierra Leone by the Rebel United Front, or Abdul Shariff, shot before my eyes in South Africa. A Zulu sniper's bullet did for Abdul, and I will never forget his face as colleagues dragged him to a car. He was dead by the time he reached hospital.

When I read yesterday that Daniel Pearl's colleagues were heartbroken, I didn't have to struggle to imagine the scene. Memories came back of good friends killed in crossfire or murdered in ambushes. Forget the clichés about foreign correspondents being hard-bitten and cynical; like anybody else they weep for their lost friends. There is intense rivalry to be sure, but I have found more decency among the members of the "luckless tribe" (as William Russell of The Times described foreign correspondents) than in any other area of journalism.

When my colleague John Harrison was killed in South Africa in 1994, one of the first phone calls I received was from the ITN correspondent Mark Austin. He commiserated first and then offered his own material to the BBC. You do meet lowlifes from time to time, but they eventually tend to find themselves isolated. When you face the possibility of death or imprisonment, the camaraderie of colleagues is a precious thing.

Which brings me naturally to the subject of this newspaper's former correspondent in Harare, Basildon Peta. I was in Zimbabwe when Mr Peta was forced to flee the country. The headline on the pro-Mugabe paper The Bulawayo Chronicle read: "Lying Scribe Flees." As I was contemplating this piece of journalistic rubbish, a large band of Mr Mugabe's supporters came down the main street. They were members of the Youth Brigade and I haven't encountered a more menacing, surly group of hoodlums since the bad days of Rwanda. I have no doubt that the Youth Brigade and the CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation) men who control them were delighted with the headline. It helped to reinforce the central myth of Robert Mugabe's tyranny: Zimbabwe's troubles are all the consequence of a dark conspiracy, fostered by colonial Britain and its local lackeys.

Mugabe regards a free press the way the rest of us regard cholera. That is why he has banned foreign reporters and threatened them with long jail terms. It is why local journalists have been arrested and tortured and newspaper offices attacked. In the midst of all this Basildon Peta has been a brave voice. His writing in this newspaper and the Harare-based Financial Gazette has been a model of judicious analysis. Yes he has written polemical attacks against Mugabe's restrictions on press freedom. These are not aberrations but the responsibility of any journalist confronted with a system that seeks to deny the truth.

When he was arrested and wrote an account of his imprisonment, I read the piece with a mixture of indignation and relief. A curious blend but appropriate in the circumstances. I was indignant because a man was arrested for nothing more than organising a demonstration against a wicked law. I felt relief because Peta's account of his imprisonment did not suggest any terrible ill treatment. It was smelly and uncomfortable, but nothing like the horrors I have encountered in other parts of Africa. The truly significant thing was that, by voicing his opposition to draconian legislation, he had become a target for Zimbabwe's secret police.

So when I read on my return from Zimbabwe that Mr Peta had been accused of exaggerating his sufferings, I was dumbfounded. He was branded a liar by other newspapers because he failed to tell the world that the police had allowed him home to collect some medication. Never mind that his omission of this fact was a deliberate attempt to protect compassionate police officers.

I suspect the alacrity with which The Times in particular seized on Mr Peta's situation was spurred by more by a desire to embarrass this newspaper than any real concerns it had about journalistic accuracy. Every newspaper in Britain has carried reports from war zones in which correspondents have lapsed into self-dramatising prose. It is a tradition as old as war-reporting itself, and the Times's stance on Mr Peta strikes me as unusually sanctimonious.

I do not believe that newspapers should defend the likes of Basildon Peta simply because they are under siege from Mugabe's thugs. That would, as The Times pointed out, be simply to join the ranks of the truth-deniers. Instead, I would suggest they consider the damage inflicted on a brave individual and his cause and measure it against his supposed offence. Strip away Basildon Peta's prose and go to the heart of the story. Ask yourself if he told the truth about the essential facts and the answer must be yes. He was arrested by a police force noted for its corruption and brutality and held against his will. Fact.

This was after he had been named an enemy of the state. If you told me he'd made up the story of his arrest, I would join The Times in crying foul. But not even Mugabe's henchmen could deny that he was arrested because he was a troublesome reporter. It has never been more dangerous to practise the trade of foreign correspondent; those who rush to judgement in London would do well to remember that.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent