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The Fourth Estate, Alluring though Dangerous

New America Media, Commentary, Mark Schurmann Posted: Aug 31, 2008

Editor's note: On the eve of his trip to Myanmar, NAM contributing writer wonders if he has to courage to go after a good stories, like Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana did, even if at the risk of losing life and limb.

BANGKOK, Thailand -- A few nights ago, I saw a profile of Fadel Shana, a young Reuters cameraman, on Al Jazeera TV, in a segment called Shooting the Messenger, a four-part series about the risks faced by reporters.

I cant give up journalism, said the 24-year-old Palestinian in one interview. Only two things can stop me. Death or losing his legs.

The last thing Shana captured on his camera was the Israeli shell that shattered his jeep and his body in early August while on assignment in the Gaza strip.

Sitting in the comfort of my hotel, I asked myself, Can I do this?

Watching the footage of Shanas camera going black as the shell explodes overhead was eerie. It felt as if weeks later, far from the Gaza Strip, and in the darkness of my room, I'm being told: Turn away viewer. This conflict is none of your affair.

Re-enforcing this sense is the list Al Jazeera runs at the end of the segment of journalists killed worldwide since January 2007. Like rolling credits in a movie, the names of the dead seem endless. Most of them, by far, are Arabic.

On the plane from Hong Kong to Thailand, I decided to list my occupation as teacher, rather than journalist, on my customs form. I wanted to avoid any complications while going through Bangkok customs.

I had gone into the closet because I couldnt shake the feeling that journalists, foreign correspondents in particular, are often seen as meddlers. rather than objective observers. I still cant shake the feeling.

Case in point. As I write this, hundreds of anti-government protesters have stormed Thailands NBT, a state owned news agency in Bangkok, ransacking offices and forcing out employees, a prelude to occupying the government offices of prime minister Samak Sudaravej.

Anchormen and reporters are roughly escorted through the mob, with one reportedly having been punched in the face. Surrounded by angry protesters, they look scared and thoroughly miserable.

It isnt hard to see why the media have become a target for mistrust and resentment. They are often accused --sometimes deservedly -- of carrying agendas and having biases. Papers take sides in their editorials, and often reflect conservative or liberal angles and national interests in reporting and opinion. Reporters have been known to exaggerate, or even lie outright.

Even when doing their jobs right, journalists open closets, air out dirty laundry and tell secrets. Someone is always bound to be upset.

A few weeks ago reporters for news outlets like CNN and the BBC were harassed and threatened by Russian soldiers and Ossetian irregulars while looking for access into Georgia. Weeks later, details are still emerging on the damage and casualties committed by both sides in the conflict.

In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia, Mexico and Zimbabwe, journalists are heavily regulated, threatened or denied access at all. Those who are embedded risk much. Those that arenีt, risk more. Cross the lines in pursuit of a story, and you are subject to detention, kidnapping and death, as was the case with New York Timeีs reporter Stephen Vincent while pursuing a story in Basra, Iraq.

The United States is no exception. Last year reporter Chauncey Bailey was shot and killed in downtown Oakland, Calif., in broad daylight while investigating a story on local corruption.

Given the stereotypes and the risks, I ask myself, Why be a journalist?

Because I was a fish-monger on the docks of San Francisco when Katrina struck New Orleans and ruptured the levees. I felt helpless as two friends, reporters and future colleagues, made their way down to the gulf while I went home to bed.

I was compelled to document the neglect that caused the flood and act as witness to the suffering, survival and heroism of people down on the gulf. Four years later, I'm living abroad as a journalist and the risks of reporting scare me, largely because it seems to have become so much more dangerous.

In a few days, I'll travel to Myanmar, ostensibly to renew my visa for Thailand but also to pay my respects to slain journalist Kenji Nagai, the Japanese photographer shot to death by a Burmese soldier while covering the military crackdown in Myanmar last year.

These are the places no one wants to go, but some one has to go, said Nagai to his publisher at APF news agency in Tokyo before leaving for Yangon, the Burmese capital.

Printing, which comes necessarily out of writing, is equivalent to democracy, wrote essayist Thomas Carlyle. But before printing or writing, and perhaps democracy, there have to be Nagais willingness to go. Without it, theres only rumor and silence -- as there was during the Holocaust.

I confess that I struggled to hold back the tears when I watched the profile on Fadel Shana. It seems a cruel irony when a journalist is killed while covering a story, especially when the killing is intentional. Media credentials are no longer a shield. Shanas jeep was clearly marked Press.

After the moment of impact that takes his life and the black screen that follows, an anonymous reporter captures footage of Fadelีs broken body. Someone has already taken his place.

I admire his courage. I hope I have it.

Articles by Mark Schurmann

NAM Myanmar coverage

Ethnic Media Practice Serious Journalism at Risk of Peril

Thailand: Land of a Thousand Grimaces

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