NYT: Correspondence/Dangerous Stories; Doing Your Best to Gauge the Risks Where Reporting Isn't Too Safe

By John Kifner
Feb 24, 2002

IT could have been any of us.

That was the stunned reaction of experienced foreign correspondents to the news that Daniel Pearl of The Wall Street Journal had been killed, his throat slit by his captors. To outsiders, it might have seemed that Mr. Pearl was engaged in a dangerous -- even foolhardy -- endeavor, trying to interview an outlawed Islamic militant leader. Yet, quite simply, that is the kind of thing we do, day in and day out.

Indeed, around the time Mr. Pearl was making his ultimately lethal contacts, my Times colleague, Somini Sengupta, was trying to set up meetings with leaders of the very organization that has been implicated in his death -- Jaish-i-Muhammad -- who had gone to ground in the disputed Indian-held region of Kashmir.

All of us who have covered the Middle East or Central Asia have spent a considerable amount of time sitting cross-legged on the floor of one slum or another, sipping tea and listening to various forms of Islamic militancy and anti-Americanism, often late into the night.

The reason is simple: the rising tide of Islamic anger is one of the most important stories in the world today, and it is our job -- our duty -- to report it. To be sure, there are other elements that contribute to the experience of being a foreign correspondent: the thrill of a big story, the comradeship, the sheer joy of learning about exotic places, the adrenaline rush. But ultimately, it is the belief that trying to find out what is really happening is something intrinsically very worthwhile.

Even so, I can still remember the chill, years ago in Beirut -- when hostage taking was in vogue -- during a rare, prized interview with Sheik Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, the Hezbollah leader, when he suddenly looked at me and said, "You ask questions like a spy."

The sheik almost never gave interviews, and the go-between that day was a wonderful Shiite Muslim taxi driver named Fahti. He had assisted me partly out of gratitude for my having helped to talk two Christian militiamen out of killing him near the Green Line that then divided the city. "My heart was in my shoes," Fahti had told me. This is the kind of murky, often violent world we must navigate.

Those of us who have kicked around for a while like to tell ourselves that we apply a careful calculus to all this: weigh the risk against the possible benefit. Is the story worth the danger?

But the hard reality is that a number of very experienced and cautious colleagues have been randomly killed in circumstances that had been deemed safe enough that most of the press corps was there, doing much the same thing and surviving. There was Joe Alex Morris of The Los Angeles Times, who was shot when he peered out a window at the wrong instant during a gun battle during the Iranian revolution; David Blundy of The Sunday Correspondent in London, who was shot by a sniper while walking down a supposedly safe street with other reporters in El Salvador; and Bill Stewart, an ABC television reporter, who was forced to kneel and was shot by a Nicaraguan National Guard patrol to whom he had been identifying himself as a journalist.

Two years ago, Kurt Schork of Reuters and an Associated Press cameraman, Miguel Gil Moreno -- two veterans highly respected not only for their courage but also for their common sense -- were killed in an ambush in Sierra Leone. "That really shook everyone up," said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which counted 37 journalists killed on the job around the world last year. "Who could be more experienced and savvy than these guys? It shows how completely random this can be."

Mr. Pearl is the ninth foreign correspondent to die in this conflict. Three were killed in a gun battle while riding atop a Northern Alliance armored vehicle, four were murdered by Islamic gunmen on the road between Jalalabad and Kabul (other cars in the caravan escaped) and one was shot dead in a robbery of a compound full of journalists. Mr. Pearl was the only American.

Of course, much of our effort at caution is an illusion. Professional foreign correspondents almost never write about our troubles -- we are not the story -- but once we set out, unpredictable events and, often, competition, take over.

WE would turn back if it got dangerous, we told ourselves, sneaking out of Djibouti in the dead of night by sailboat and rubber raft to the closed-off country of South Yemen, which was Communist at the time and torn by a brief but vicious civil war fueled by tribal animosity and khat. But of course there was no way we could.

In the jittery spring before Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon there was a report one night -- false, it turned out -- that commandos had landed south of Beirut. We'll just drive a little way down, we said, and if people are fleeing, we'll know it's true. An ambulance cut us off, spilling out heavily armed Palestinian guerrillas with an offer of a cup of coffee we couldn't refuse. We spent the night in a dungeon until our colleagues negotiated our release.

We used to cherish the idea that, because we were impartial, we were also somehow cloaked in a kind of immunity, almost invulnerability, that allowed us to move through conflict zones reporting -- fairly, we felt -- about all sides. Correspondents had T-shirts made up with the local word for "journalist"-- it was "sahafi" in the Arab world, "periodista" in Central America -- and their organization's logo. In Lebanon, the government-issued press card (actually, you got it through the Hotel Commodore) was universally respected, about the only instrument of that poor government that was.

Sadly, that illusion, too, is slipping away.

In many places where we now operate, the idea of an impartial, independent press is an alien concept. The post-cold-war battlefields in the Balkans, the Middle East and Asia are stoked by religious certitude, that most toxic of ideologies. And, in a new war in which everything American is the enemy, so are we. In a world grown uglier, the T-shirts have given way to bulletproof vests, now everyday wear for correspondents based in Jerusalem. Armored cars came in during the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia; the basement garage of Sarajevo's Holiday Inn was packed with ungainly steel-plated white Land Rovers with the logos of news organizations stenciled on the doors.

Mr. Pearl, by the account of those who knew him, was no cowboy. He helped draft The Wall Street Journal's safety rules. Unlike many of his colleagues, he had no desire to rush into Afghanistan. He voiced his reluctance to friends over dinner, saying he was freshly married, his wife pregnant. But he worked diligently in Pakistan, trying to trace the background of Robert C. Reid, the would-be shoe bomber subdued by the passengers and crew of a flight from Paris. The Wall Street Journal was ahead on the story: a second-hand (translation: looted by neighbors) laptop bought by their reporter in Kabul turned out to have Al Qaeda documents on its hard drive, including a report on an agent casing possible attack sites in Israel and Egypt whose travels, including picking up a replacement British passport in Belgium, matched Mr. Reid's. Mr. Reid had reportedly studied in madrassas in Pakistan under a Sheik Gilani.

Trying to find the sheik, Mr. Pearl followed the kind of path that many reporters in many countries have. A Pakistani reporter, doubtless hoping for a job as a fixer or stringer, put him in touch with some people. Islamic militants are not hard to find in Pakistan. Until President Pervez Musharraf's abrupt about-face under American pressure last fall, they were prominent public figures, many of them on the payroll of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Indeed, it is possible the kidnapping and killing were carried out by rogue intelligence operatives intent on undermining Mr. Musharraf.

Instead of the interview he had hoped for, officials now say, Mr. Pearl was lured into a trap by a skilled, ruthless British-born militant, Ahmed Omar Sheikh. He had been jailed in India for kidnapping three Britons and an American in 1994, but was released in a deal after Islamic militants hijacked an Air India plane in 1999, landing in the friendly environs of Kabul.

"It's just part of doing the job," said Ms. Cooper of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "You try not to be too risky, but you have to get out and report. What are you going to do, sit in a hotel room?"