Paris, Friday, June 9, 2000
Bad News for the World's Reporters

By Anna Husarska International Herald Tribune

PARIS - When the 28-hour drama of the tiny hostages in a Luxembourg day care center came to an end, there was an outburst of joy as parents hugged their children and took them to the safety of their homes. What a relief it must have been after knowing that a mentally unstable man could have blown up the 25 children and three teachers.
So all's well that ends well? Not so fast. The drama of the Wasserbillig hostages did not have an entirely happy end.

By coincidence that day, the press corps from the Balkans and a few other war zones was mourning the killing in Sierra Leone of our colleagues Miguel Gil Moreno from The Associated Press and Kurt Schork from Reuters.

There is no link between the two events - one in a conflict-ridden corner of Africa, the other in sleepy, affluent Europe. But the way the hostage-taker was neutralized set a precedent that could establish such a link in the future.

The ruse used to end the crisis was to simulate a television interview with the hostage-taker. The ''journalists'' were disguised policemen, who shot him.

Miguel and Kurt were killed because, as journalists, they wanted to bring us the events that they were covering. They knew that their mission was dangerous. They assumed the risk.

During the past eight years I have often been on a story with Kurt, who was a great friend. He was a dogged journalist and a brave man. I often found myself in scary situations with him where I would never follow another colleague. We went places where peacekeepers, policemen serving with the United Nations, foreign negotiators, monitors and observers would not venture. On the last three occasions that I recall, all of them in Kosovo, we were definitely in the crosshairs of hostile Serbian guns.

Once, when we had to drive up a bare hill from which Kurt wanted to film Serbian artillery pounding Albanian villages, I felt like a duck in a shooting gallery. Our jeep was a perfect target for any military, paramilitary or weekend ethnic cleanser. We made it. The Serbs knew that we were reporters and apparently chose not to shoot for that reason.

A few days later, trying to avoid a nasty checkpoint, we came upon a Serbian military patrol. Suddenly we were stopped, guns were pointed at us. It was only at the end of the day that we managed to talk our way out. Again, trigger-happy Serbs believed that we were journalists and not disguised spies or enemies. They didn't like us, but our identity was not in doubt.

Soon we were back on the road leading to Klina, a town that had fallen only hours before. The American diplomat Richard Holbrooke called Klina at the time the ''most dangerous place in Europe.''

The road sparkled with recently spent bullet cases; on both sides were fresh trenches, and there was not a soul around.

As we approached the sandbagged position of the Serbs, Kurt drove excruciatingly slowly to make sure that the gunners in whose viewers we found ourselves would see that we were journalists. Again we made it.

Then and on so many other occasions our lives were saved because we were identified as being from the media: reporters who come to see and describe, or film or record, not to intervene.

Perhaps the gun-toting youngsters in T-shirts who shot Miguel and Kurt in Sierra Leone had no idea that they were journalists, or perhaps they did know. They certainly did not assume that these were disguised enemies or undercover policemen. This was not a case of mistaken identity. It was an ambush.

But after the fake interview in Luxembourg, other thugs in other countries, or even military officers in regular armies, may suspect other journalists of being fakes and may shoot them for that reason.

According to Reporters Sans Frontières, this is the first known case of abuse of journalistic identity in a police operation. It is a dangerous precedent that puts the lives of many of us at additional risk. The profession is already dangerous, all right. In 1999 worldwide, 36 of our colleagues were killed.

The writer, senior political analyst at the International Crisis Group, has been covering civil wars and other armed conflicts since 1984. She contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.