Last Wednesday afternoon, Pakistan-based reporter Daniel Pearl called home to his six-months-pregnant wife, Marianne, telling her he’d be late for dinner because a source wanted to share information for a terrorism story.
Pearl then drove to the local citizen-police liaison office to wait for a confirmation phone call from his source. The source called, Pearl hopped in a cab, drove to a hotel and vanished.
The fate of Pearl, who works for the Wall Street Journal, remained a mystery until Monday, when e-mail messages containing pictures of Pearl gagged and bound with a gun to his head turned up on computer screens at several newspapers. The attached message read ominously: Pearl is being held “in very inhuman circumstances quite similar in fact to the way that Pakistanis and nationals of other sovereign countries are being kept in Cuba by the American Army … If the Americans keep our countrymen in better conditions we will better the conditions of Mr. Pearl and all other Americans that we capture.”
Then, on Wednesday, another batch of e-mail messages came from Pakistan, this time promising to kill Pearl within 24 hours unless America released the detainees in Cuba, and that other American journalists in Pakistan would follow similar fates.
“We give all American journalists three days to get out of Pakistan,” the message said. “Anyone remaining after will be targeted.”
The legal rights of the detainees in Cuba are open for debate (although suggesting their treatment is equivalent to that of Pearl is absurd). But the injustice of taking hostages and threatening journalists is not.
Pearl is not the only one in peril. There are over 1,000 journalists, including many Americans, assigned to report the war. While they may not all embrace Geraldo Rivera’s theatrics, they are all risking their lives—nine have already died—to provide an unbiased account of the war.
The importance of journalists’ role in the war cannot be understated. The war is being waged on behalf of the American people; to pass judgment on the country’s war policy, people must rely on either official government reports or independent journalists, the latter being far more unbiased.
In general, U.S. government officials understand the importance of an independent media. To that end, the government is setting aside its differences with the press and making Pearl’s kidnapping a top international priority.
After seeing the e-mail messages, the CIA took the rare step of publicly announcing Pearl is not working for them, as the terrorists had asserted. In response to White House pressure, Pakistan is aggressively pursuing anyone potentially tied to the kidnappers and has made at least one arrest.
While the international attention being placed on Pearl’s plight is welcome, it may be an example of too little, too late. Journalists worldwide are increasingly being targeted, attacked and killed. Last year, at least 34 journalists were confirmed to be murdered on the job, including a photographer rushing to the World Trade Center who was found buried with a group of firefighters, and Robert Stevens, the photo editor at the Sun in Palm Beach, Fl. who died when a terrorist sent anthrax to the newspaper.
The situation is far worse overseas, where a clear pattern emerges: the more tyrannical and oppressive a government, the greater journalists’ peril. While reporters routinely fight for their rights in the United States, in oppressed nations—including Pakistan—they are literally fighting for their lives. By oppressing the free press, dictators starve their people of information and, consequently, power. Now terrorists appear to be following suit, targeting journalists in an effort to leave a frightening vacuum of information.
Greater diplomatic protection for independent journalists overseas is desperately needed. Terrorists who threaten or kill journalists—and the governments that condone the attacks—threaten everyone’s freedom. Democratic governments must insist on special diplomatic protection and safety for journalists reporting overseas.
Even without adequate protection, it’s unlikely American journalists will flee danger zones. Like journalists everywhere, the reporters serving in war zones strongly believe in their democratic role.
Pearl and his wife, who is also a journalist, certainly do.
“I am pregnant. I am going to have a baby. We are trying at our level to create a better world,” she said after her husband’s kidnapping. “It sounds like big words, but that’s our life.”
Alexander Conant ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in economics.