Although Chronicle readers are generally aware that journalists are sometimes under threat because of their work, the scale of those threats might be unclear. They might recall the headline stories – Jamal Khashoggi, Marie Colvin, Daniel Pearl – but not realize how those stories fit into a broader pattern. That pattern is the subject of The Last Column, a collection of the final writings (or photographs) of two dozen journalists who died in the course of doing their indispensable work – and who speak for many, many more.
The book is based on research by the Committee to Protect Journalists. According to CPJ, the reporters included represent "more than 1,335 journalists killed in the line of duty or murdered because of their journalism since 1992" (when CPJ began monitoring). While many were killed on dangerous assignments, the authors report, "well over half of all journalists killed were murdered, usually in well-planned attacks orchestrated by criminal groups, armed militias, or powerful individuals, even politicians."
They recognized the risks, yet they kept on with their work. Among the most powerful testimonies is a posthumous essay by Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, murdered, after many threats, by government thugs in January of 2009. He left a testament – "And Then They Came for Me" – that begins with a stark acknowledgment of a fate he considered inevitable. "Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened, and killed. It has been my honor to belong to all those categories, and now especially the last." He recalls the creed of theologian Martin Niemöller ("First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. ...") and notes that the sacrifices made by reporters are for the benefit of others. "As for me," he concludes, "God knows I tried."
The litany is stunning. Colvin was killed in 2012 by Syrian army rockets after broadcasting a report on that army's attacks against civilians. Pearl was publicly beheaded in 2002 by Pakistani terrorists allied with al Qaeda. Khashoggi, currently the most notorious victim, was tortured, murdered, and dismembered in 2018, apparently on the orders of the Saudi crown prince. Khashoggi's last column discusses the limits on information imposed by Arab governments, and the minimal international response: "As a result, Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate."
The toll continues internationally:
• Kashmiri journalist Shujaat Bukhari and two policemen were killed in 2018 by gunmen outside Bukhari's office. He had insisted on a distinction between the unreliability of social media and "hard-core journalists," saying, "There is no alternative to journalism when it is real."
• Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy was murdered in 2015 by Islamic extremists angered by his writings defending secularism: "Faith-based terrorisms are nothing but viruses – if allowed to spread, they will wreak havoc on society in epidemic proportions."
• Javier Valdez Cárdenas, founder of the Mexican magazine Ríodoce, was murdered in 2017 by drug criminals outside the magazine's offices. A few months earlier he had written of another murdered journalist: "They told him: Hey man, tone it down. Those bastards are out to get you. They will kill you. He shrugged it off with a harrumph."
Lest we forget, five employees of Maryland's Capital Gazette were murdered less than a year ago by an angry reader (editor Gerald Fischman is anthologized in The Last Column). Like casualties in combat zones, those deaths were not explicitly "political" – they were motivated instead by the murderer's conviction that reporters should not write negatively of him, truthfully or not. As it happens, the current president of the United States believes the same about the news media, branding negative coverage of his administration, however accurate, as "fake news," and the reporters who write it as "enemies of the people."
Over the years at the Chronicle, real dangers have been rare. Our reporters have occasionally been subject to vile threats or abuse, a brick through a window, and inevitably the pseudonymous insults of online cowards, eventually evoking security precautions we might not take otherwise. Writers and readers alike, we live in a gun-crazy culture where such things are no longer surprising.
Take a moment to recall the journalists of The Last Column and their many colleagues working every day in danger. The best of us still strive to remain "the tyrant's foe, the people's friend."
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