A Plea for Mercy

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A Plea for Mercy

For KCRW, this is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

On a good day, journalism can be a lot of fun. You meet fascinating people, go to interesting places, and do things that other human beings never could. It can also get you killed.

Last year, 63 journalists died while working around the world, and at least 807 were arrested. Not surprisingly, most of the dead were in Iraq, where the insurgents fighting the U.S. occupation do not distinguish between soldiers sent to kill them and reporters trying to tell the story of both sides.

We've gotten horribly accustomed to seeing grainy videotapes of forlorn hostages, pleading for mercy with their eyes. Standing above them, posing with weapons like cowboys, kidnappers see reporters and aid workers as easy marks, foreigners who don't shoot back. Even so, it's a tragically useless exercise: The kidnappers' demands are almost invariably never met.

The latest kidnapping, that of Jill Carroll, a 28-year-old freelancer on assignment for The Christian Science Monitor, points to the harrowing difficulty of working in the streets of Iraq and simultaneously staying out of harm's way.

Her abduction on January 7 was accompanied by a threat that she would be killed unless the U.S. frees the handful of female prisoners it is holding in Iraq. Carroll is one of at least 31 journalists known to have been abducted in Iraq since the beginning of the war in 2003. In that time, at least 60 journalists have been killed in Iraq, as have 23 members of their support teams. Carroll's translator was shot twice in the head and left to die.

Given those figures, the Iraq war is on its way to becoming a deadlier conflict for journalists than the Vietnam War, in which at least 66 journalists were killed between 1955 and 1975.

Joel Campagna, senior Middle East coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that news organizations are constantly trying to mitigate the risk of sending reporters and crews to Iraq.

"In terms of expenditure on the safety of journalists," he said, "it's probably the most expensive conflict in history, and the casualty toll is reflective of the danger."

Most news organizations provide armed bodyguards for their staff, who live in fortified compounds, reachable only through checkpoints and cement barriers.

But Carroll, who speaks some Arabic, was working as a freelancer and had no bodyguards.

Scott Bosley, executive director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said most freelancers fully understand the risk they take when they decide to work in Iraq without a full-fledged security team, something beyond the means of most independent reporters.

Harsh as it sounds, Bosley said, freelance reporters are responsible for their own safety.

A delegation from the Council on American-Islamic Relations arrived in Baghdad on Saturday and called for Carroll's release. Nihad Awad, the group's executive director, said she had been "friendly and respectful of the Iraqi people, not an enemy."

In her writing, Carroll showed an acute awareness of the dangers she faced. In a story last April in the Monitor, Carroll and her colleague Dan Murphy used the perilous airport road in Baghdad as a metaphor for the dire situation in Iraq.

"The danger of the airport road," they wrote, "speaks to the wider problem of securing a country in the face of a dispersed and committed insurgency blended within the civilian population."

In American Journalism Review, Carroll wrote that as kidnappings and beheadings increased in Iraq, Western reporters sometimes became virtual prisoners in their hotel rooms.

"When they did go out," she wrote, "they would travel with two cars: one up front with the reporter, and a 'chase car' following in case the first vehicle was attacked."

But Jill Carroll had no chase car, or any other protection, on the day she disappeared.

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan