Shooting the messengers


Journalism has become a risky profession. Until perhaps the end of the Vietnam War, its practitioners generally obtained ringside seats from which they could record what one commentator memorably described as “the first draft of history”.

But Vietnam, in which the military accredited hundreds of reporters and cameramen from all over the world and transported them wherever they wanted to go, taught Washington a lesson. What might have been a hard-fought conflict waged largely unseen, far away from the folks back home, became a running horror story. Besides shocking images of distraught Vietnamese civilians caught up in the fighting, there were endless shots of traumatized and shell-shocked GIs, which complemented the regular flow of Stars and Stripes-draped coffins being met in the US by all-too-well-practiced honor guards. To a significant degree the US military were defeated because Americans could read and see on their TV screens exactly what was happening to their sons and daughters.

The Pentagon never again permitted journalists to run riot in one of their war zones, not so much to protect operational secrets but rather, military incompetence. Moreover, international coverage of the war had probably provided North Vietnam with undreamt-of propaganda. The Communist leadership in Hanoi would never have given journalists such unfettered access to the battlefields.

Vietnam also saw the birth of a tribe of self-funded freelancers, some of whom won international renown for their war stories which “beat” the big budget print and broadcasting correspondents. In time, media organizations began to cut their expensive staffers and rely increasingly on commissioning far cheaper freelancers, some of whom they did not even bother to pay.

Last year 82 journalists were killed, including 13 by drug-lords in Mexico and 12 in Afghanistan. Many of these victims were freelancers. This year 52 reporters and their often-essential fixers have already been killed. To this grim total must be added those who have been injured or imprisoned. And what is so disturbing is that it is no longer the independents that are mostly falling victim. What is left of the big media battalions, including the top independent news agencies, Reuters, Associated Press, United Press International and Agence France-Presse are also now in the firing line.

Two Reuters journalists are due to stand trial in Myanmar for exposing the massacre last year of ten Muslim Rohingya by the army and local Buddhist bigots. Even though a government investigation has largely confirmed the details of this crime that the two reporters exposed, they are still to be tried for breaching Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, originally put in place by the British colonial authorities.

This prosecution is clearly designed to warn off other correspondents from covering the state-sanctioned crimes committed against Myanmar’s Muslim minorities. It is, therefore, a clear admission by the government that there are many more atrocities that could be exposed by brave and tenacious pressmen, if they dared.

All states need to protect their secrets. But what these two journalists did was not in the least bit treasonable. Far from a possible 14-year prison sentence, the men should be given a medal. If they are actually convicted, perhaps the Nobel Committee should award Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo the next Peace Prize. They clearly deserve it more than the leader of their country Aung San Suu Kyi.