Two months ago, the Kurdish journalist Muhanad Akidi was captured by the Islamic State while reporting from the Iraqi city of Mosul. He was 37 years old and worked for a local news agency. On Oct. 13, he, his brother and two other civilians were reportedly executed by militants because they refused to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State. His murder follows the death of an Iraqi cameraman, Raad al-Azzawi, who was publicly killed by the Islamic State earlier in October.
The individuals who murdered Mr. Akidi and Mr. al-Azzawi are unlikely to be brought to justice. The same holds true for the men who beheaded the journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Unfortunately, most individuals who kill journalists are never held accountable—as many as nine out of 10. In the past 10 years, more than 500 journalists have been murdered, many in grisly circumstances. November 2 marks the second International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, which seeks to highlight the targeting of journalists and others for “exercising their right to freedom of expression.”
This initiative builds on the work of the U.N. Security Council, which passed Resolution 1738 in 2006, which referred to the urgency and importance of protecting journalists. The resolution is welcome, but clearly has not had the desired impact. Continued attention to the right to freedom of expression, which is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is needed. The United Nations should consider developing international protocols for responding to the jailing of journalists, as recommended by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The urgency of the issue is most evident in Syria. More than 70 journalists have been killed since the civil war began in 2011, and approximately 30 remain unaccounted for. Many war correspondents no longer travel into Syria for fear of kidnapping or murder. Journalists also face threats in nearby Egypt and Turkey. Since the military assumed power in Egypt, 44 journalists have been detained by the government. Three Al Jazeera reporters were convicted in June of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood and filing false reports. Lina Attalah, the chief editor of Mada Masr, an online newspaper, said, “There is a feeling that we are not able to practice the journalism we had hoped to after the revolution.” In Turkey, the government continues to jail journalists at an alarming rate.
The tumult of the Arab Spring is one reason for the targeting of journalists, but the conditions of the new media age also play a role. Individuals equipped with cell phone cameras can now work as journalists, a development that can help launch democratic movements but has also put these individuals in danger. Meanwhile, the diminishment of traditional foreign news reporting, sponsored by newspapers and television stations, has led to a greater reliance on freelance journalists, who do not receive the same degree of institutional support. Many freelancers have to pay for their own protective gear and war-zone insurance.
The witness of these individuals remains as urgent as ever. Without a journalistic accounting of what is happening in Syria and Iraq, the public cannot make informed opinions about international interventions. The government should not be the only source of information, especially during times of war. As Jan Eliasson, deputy secretary general of the United Nations, has said, freedom of expression is “the lifeblood of democratic and informed discourse and debate.” Today, the lack of reporting from Syria makes the rise of the Islamic State all the more difficult to comprehend. The United States should play a leading role in pushing for freedoms for journalists abroad. It should also review its policies toward journalists at home, who have been hamstrung by the vigorous prosecution of leaks by the Obama administration. The United States must lead by example.
Journalists do not always act for noble reasons. Some are motivated by professional vanity or the thrill of the hunt; but many exhibit sincere empathy for their fellow human beings. Before he was captured, James Foley wrote that he was inspired to “expose the untold stories” he encountered in areas of conflict. Many more journalists, like Mr. al-Azzawi and Mr. Akidi, die without being able to tell their own stories, but their willingness to work in countries with strict prohibitions on journalists is a testament to their courage.
Pope Francis has shown a special regard for journalists, reaching out to the families of both Mr. Foley and Mr. Sotloff and praying during a papal flight for a journalist killed in Gaza. The pope seemed to sense a connection with these reporters. Perhaps it was their concern for the person, for the stories of the poor and forgotten. The best journalists seek to give a voice to the voiceless, an impulse that all Christians can surely appreciate and should seek to protect.