Dead reporters and the information gap

Times Staff Writer

An earlier version of this article referred to “Western correspondents mainly trapped inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.” In fact, the majority of U.S. correspondents are based outside the Green Zone.

When journalists die, we count the bodies. But how do we reckon the consequences in information forfeited? How do we know what we do not know?

These are questions worth contemplating in the case of Iraq, where the statistics about journalists’ deaths, like the rest of the daily carnage report, are so mind-numbing that we cease to process them.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 108 journalists and 39 media assistants have been killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. Reporters Without Borders puts the death toll at more than 180. Either way, it’s more than double the number of journalists killed during the Vietnam War (71 between 1962 and 1975, according to the Associated Press Saigon bureau.)


In addition, 80 media workers have been abducted since 2003—for profit, revenge or ideological gain. Of those, 42 have been freed and 23 were murdered. Fourteen are still being held hostage. Ominously, no demand for ransom or claim of responsibility has been made for them. In Iraq, kidnappers often collect ransom from desperate families, then kill their victims anyway. But the lack of a ransom demand is usually equated with a death sentence.

The plight of abducted journalists has received less attention since the March 2006 release of Jill Carroll, the Christian Science Monitor reporter who was held for 82 days. Iraqi journalists and media assistants don’t attract nearly as much coverage. Carroll’s translator, Allan Enwiyah, was killed during the kidnapping. Her driver, who received death threats after witnessing the kidnapping, fled Iraq with his family and is now counted among the 2 million Iraqi refugees.

Four out of five journalists killed in Iraq have been Iraqi. This is to be expected, as major foreign media have pulled back from the front lines for financial and safety reasons. But it also means their deaths receive less attention, even as non-Iraqis, including the Western correspondents whose ability to move around the country is extremely limited, are more and more dependent on them for information about Iraq. (The Los Angeles Times at any given time has three correspondents based in Iraq and employs a staff of about 25 Iraqis, including translators in Baghdad and stringers around the country.)

Of course, Iraqis are dependent on their media as well—not merely for the democracy-building exercise in which they are supposed to be engaged, but more importantly, for timely information that can help them survive in an increasing violent society. What happens when the reporters, typically the people brave or stupid enough to ask impertinent questions of those in power, are killed?

And what is the impact, for example, in Kirkuk, the ethnically tense northern Iraqi city, where one journalist was snatched March 3 and three more were dragged from their car May 9, slashed and then machine-gunned? Kirkuk is on edge due to the demand by ethnic Kurds for the oil-rich city to hold a referendum on whether it should be incorporated into Kurdistan. Arabs, many of them relocated there in one of Saddam Hussein’s ethnic balancing campaigns, oppose holding the referendum. How can citizens expect news reporting without fear or favor when those who attempt such a feat become immediate targets?

The chilling effect of death is impossible to measure, but surely every Iraqi journalist’s death inhibits those who remain from holding the powerful accountable. Whether they are writing about government officials, the clergy or the death squads, or whether they are simply women who dare to speak in public, they know their own lives may soon be at risk. What is the societal cost of terror? What is the opportunity cost of silence?

Here in the United States, news hounds can continue to point their browsers to dozens of different media sites and blogs for information about Iraq. The other 99% of the population can nibble at the news or let it wash over them. Whether we consume a little or a lot, the Internet gives Americans the illusion of unfettered access to infinite information about what’s going on in the world. That’s a dangerous delusion.

In Hussein’s day, the most honest analysts in the U.S. intelligence community knew they had not penetrated Iraq. Today, Iraq is more open, but with multiple ethnic and ideological conflicts raging, information is still power. Without professional journalists on the ground to ferret it out—and without all of the nongovernmental sources they rely on and the competitors who will verify or debunk their stories—citizens and policymakers cannot know whether the information they receive from official or unofficial sources is correct.

We can trust, but we cannot verify.

Sonni Efron is a member of The Times’ editorial board. Send us your thoughts at