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On the Media: Journalists test the limits of safety for war story

The headliners were four New York Times journalists who survived nearly a week of beatings, threats and the unknown. They wrote an account about the savage and terrifying ordeal they endured as captives of the ragtag irregulars who now make up the Libyan army.

The story landed on The Times’ front page this week, and it had to take your breath away — for the mad courage of journalists who plunge into war zones and for the sheer luck and resilience that delivered them out the other end of a dark wormhole.

A reader who just heard about the ordeal on cable television or didn’t get to paragraph 23 of The Times’ account would have no reason to know, however, that this was not solely a tale of bravery and redemption. It was also a story of loss. As happens all too often in foreign danger zones, when the journalists escape, it is their local staff members who take the full brunt of the oppressor’s fury.

A man identified only as Mohammed, who drove The Times’ foursome to the fatal army checkpoint near the town of Ajdabiya on March 16, has not been seen or heard from since the abduction. He is presumed dead, though that’s not certain.

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Times photographer Lynsey Addario saw a body near the car where the others were being held. They all feared it was their driver.

“If he died,” the foursome wrote in The Times, “we will have to bear the burden for the rest of our lives that an innocent man died because of us, because of wrong choices that we made, for an article that was never worth dying for.”

“No article is,” they added, “but we were too blind to admit that.”

As in most other endeavors, big media have their headliners and their bit players. The stars win the awards, write the books and get the glory. But the unknowns make the enterprise go.

The heartache and guilt foreign correspondents feel when they lose a colleague is real. But that doesn’t mean that once the horror passes, they won’t push to the edge of safety again, putting their homegrown translators, drivers and bodyguards at risk. In an inherently colonial relationship, the locals won’t turn away. They need the steady pay and might feel they are helping tell the true story of their country.

This is not to pass judgment on whether the arrangement is right or wrong. But it will never be equal, and that’s why most thoughtful journalists who enter war zones pause before each foray. They need to think about whether the risk is worth the reward.

The Times foursome — Addario, photographer Tyler Hicks, reporter Stephen Farrell and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Anthony Shadid — are not answering questions yet about what happened. But a friend who has communicated with Shadid tells me the reporter is “beside himself” with concern about Mohammed. “All he can talk about is the driver,” said the friend, who asked for anonymity because Shadid shared his feelings in confidence. “He is still trying to find out whether he might have survived. He is trying to do something about it.”

All four of the journalists have dodged death before — Addario kidnapped in Fallujah, Iraq, Shadid shot and gravely injured, apparently by an Israeli soldier, and Hicks routinely on the firing line in multiple conflicts.

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Farrell has gained a reputation for testing the boundaries of safety. Only a year and a half ago, commandos plucked him from captivity in Afghanistan. British authorities said Farrell, who is Irish, never should have been in Kunduz, where the population was enraged by a NATO airstrike that killed 90. Militants snatched Farrell. His Afghan translator, Sultan Munadi, died in the subsequent rescue. So did a local woman, a child and one of the paratroopers who had flown to his rescue. (Farrell also escaped a 2004 kidnapping in Iraq.)

Editors in the U.S. want correspondents on the ground in Libya to assess the state of the insurgency and its chances of overthrowing strongman Moammar Kadafi. The reporters make it a priority to get the story but first to remain free so they can keep filing their reports.

“You vow before you leave on these trips, and you tell your wife, that you will only do so much,” said a correspondent for another paper, who didn’t want to be named because he did not want to be seen as criticizing the New York Times journalists. “But then you get there and you say, ‘If I just go a little further, maybe I can find out what’s happening.’ There is mission creep. What happened to these journalists can happen to many of the best journalists.”

(No Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent or any of their foreign co-workers have been killed in the line of duty since 1983, when Mexico City bureau chief Dial Torgerson died covering revolution near the Honduran-Nicaraguan border. Reporters and their assistants, however, have been threatened and occasionally detained.)

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The New York Times account of the Libyan ordeal gives only the barest hints of how the journalists decided where it was safe to go. It notes that the group had already covered the fall of two other towns held by rebels. Addario and Farrell had “worried that government soldiers might encircle” Ajdabiya and trap them, but their two colleagues “discounted it.”

There’s no telling whether Mohammed, the man behind the wheel, offered an opinion. By the time the car got close to the checkpoint outside Ajdabiya it was too late. The soldiers pulled the five occupants from the car and subjected the four Westerners to days of beatings and, in Addario’s case, gropings.

Much less is known about the driver. But reporters who have worked in the region know that locals who aid Westerners can face deadly retribution. They are viewed as collaborators, if not infidels, for aiding foreigners and non-Muslims.

News organizations typically pay compensation to the families of helpers killed in the line of duty. A source who did not want details revealed told me his outlet paid something under $100,000 to the family of a translator killed in Iraq.

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The New York Times paid an untold amount to Munadi’s family after the 2009 Kunduz raid. The paper also set up a fund for donations to educate the translator’s children, though it declined to reveal how much it raised.

Times editor Bill Keller visited Munadi’s family. “I can assure you,” he told me, “that there is no such thing as adequate compensation.”

In Libya in recent weeks, even veteran reporters have struggled to assess the danger. The government had been torn apart; lines of authority blurred. The rebels have little structure at all. No one on either side can say quite where trouble might loom. Still, I asked Keller whether there might be any discussion about decisions made by his people or about lessons learned.

“I don’t go in for second-guessing, especially in public, the decisions seasoned, professional journalists make in the heat of battle,” Keller wrote back. “They do enough of that themselves.” He added that a clear message always has been sent that journalists “being prudent in a dangerous situation” would not be subject to criticism.

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The whole episode reminded me of a conversation I had with one Iraqi translator a couple of years ago. At a hospital in Fallujah, he and an American reporter escaped a run-in with a man, who had lost a loved one in a bombing. The enraged man held a pistol to their heads and told them they should die.

The translator slowly talked the gunman down from his fury. The journalist and loyal aide slipped away unharmed, then broke down in tears in each other’s arms. The reporter promised she would never, ever force the translator to return.

As he concluded the tale, the translator paused a beat, smiled ruefully, and added: “Six weeks later, we were back in Fallujah.”

james.rainey@latimes.com

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Twitter: latimesrainey


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