In light of the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Turkey consulate, questions regarding the journalist’s death and its impacts on US-Saudi relations have captured the headlines of nearly every major news source.
What has grabbed my attention the most, however, has been a question that I find profoundly relevant today in an age where journalists seem to face scrutiny for their work continually:
Why did Khashoggi report on his country’s hypocrisy, shortcomings, and controversy when doing so meant confronting backlash from his government?
Why, on a broader scale, do journalists do what they do—report the unreported, illuminate the shady corners of issues, and bring voice to the unvoiced and oppressed—even if it means facing dangerous consequences from governments, terrorists, or ordinary people on the streets?
Consider photo-journalist Dan Eldon, who, growing up in Kenya, developed a strong passion for photography and human rights as a white person living during a significant crossroad in Africa’s history. In 1992, Eldon became aware of famine and conflict happening north of him in Somalia, ultimately prompting him to pick up his camera and serve as a link between the world and the events occurring in the small, troubled African country. When it came to life away from reporting and possible death, Eldon followed his philosophy that “You don’t get a second take on reality.”
Eldon was stoned to death in 1993 by an enraged Somali mob shortly after the UN bombed the home of a warlord in Mogadishu, where he was reporting at the time.
His story draws profound parallels with Khashoggi’s: even though both may have been immersed in different spectrums of journalism at different times, the two journalists both were forced to reconcile with consequences as a result of their professions.
What made Eldon pick up his camera and Khashoggi his pen, knowing very well that in doing so they were placing a target on their backs, I believe, is one universal principle: civic duty.
Not the civic duty that requires you, in the US, to go to jury duty or uphold the Constitution, but the responsibility of citizens of the world to, essentially, show the world, the world. This kind of civic duty knows no divides, no borders or barriers, and is instead concerned with making what happens in one place of the world a part of the rest of the world–a duty to educate and inform.
For Dan Eldon, it was this broader necessity to convey to the world the crisis in Somalia that led him to report for Reuters on the conflict even when doing so became increasingly dangerous, writing in his journal, ‘“My job isn’t done. I have to stay.”’ When the rest of the world knew of the crisis, they responded, and supplies and aid for the suffering Somalis were unleashed shortly after Eldon’s photos made the headlines.
To get a sense of how this civic duty of reporting the world plays out today across a variety of beats, I reached out to New York Times foreign correspondent and my personal inspiration Rukmini Callimachi.
Pursuing ISIS as a three-dimensional, human organization rather than a two-dimensional one defined only by its exterior of terror, Callimachi has illuminated a side of the fear-mongering terrorist group that no one else has explored. “By going directly to the enemy, both by interviewing captured ISIS members and defectors, and by gathering and studying the internal records they have left behind,” she explained to me in our interview, Callimachi has bolstered our understanding as global citizens of a group that once controlled land stretching from central Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad.
It is this global understanding that has been the premise of Callimachi’s work, and for this reason, Callimachi conveyed that one principle she never compromises on in her beat of journalism is proximity: “It’s not enough to seek out what Western officials have to say about groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda,” she explained. “We need to try to go to the enemy, which is something I have succeeded in doing by retrieving thousands of pages of their secret correspondence and by speaking to members of the terrorist organization.”
Without this ethic, this adherence to a sense of civic duty, Callimachi would never have been able to “[crack] open a window into the dark and murky world of terrorism,” taking major strides in understanding violent extremism. Her work extends, too, beyond the beat of ISIS, and whether it has been covering earthquakes or discovering in Timbuktu the “first of several thousand pages of internal al-Qaeda records”—a project that earned her numerous honors—Callimachi’s unwavering motivation to report on issues characterized by human suffering and danger has, like Khashoggi and Eldon’s work, also brought risks.
In two ways, Callimachi’s career as a journalist driven to cover topics inherently dangerous puts her in alignment with Khashoggi and Eldon, who, similarly motivated to shed light on the world as members of a global community, have faced the consequences. And, it is, perhaps, through considering the risks involved with their journalism that one can better understand not only their motivations for doing so but also the importance of the work of journalists.
One way Callimachi’s work draws parallels to Eldon’s is in the physical, omnipresent risks of reporting on one of the most dangerous terrorist groups of the time. “I don’t want to give you the impression that I am fearless – I’m not,” Callimachi clarified before continuing into a description of her profession and the risks involved. She described one anecdote of a time when she was on one of her first embeds in Iraq and was forced to come to terms with what many today would describe as the ‘war on journalism’:
“I pulled out my flak jacket and went to put it on. Flak jackets for journalists have a velcro tag which you can attach to the lapel. It says ‘PRESS.’ I went to put mine on and when the New York Times’ security advisor saw me, he walked off and ripped it off. ‘Never put this on here,’ he told me. That was in 2015 and it summarizes how groups like ISIS already view journalists.”
As time has progressed and ISIS’s power has come under assault, their directive has focussed more and more on painting journalists as “an arm of [their] respective governments and thus as legitimate targets,” Callimachi conveyed. The implications of anti-journalist rhetoric like this when actually reporting in ISIS areas are obvious, and, in fact, media organizations have been singled out by ISIS-leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as “a soft target which his followers should aim to hit.” Like Eldon had to in Somalia in the 1990s, Callimachi must balance the dangers of ISIS with safety while also attempting to report.
Perhaps unique to this era, however, and what draws similarities between the dangers of Callimachi’s work with Khashoggi’s, is the political aspects of this ‘war on journalism.’ Specifically, in the US today, anti-media rhetoric from President Trump, who has explicitly criticized the media as being an “enemy of the people,” has contributed to a hostile environment for journalists to report in. Censorship, albeit relatively normalized in countries in North Korea and China, has made its way to the Western, ‘free’ democracy of the United States, and with it, new dangers have ensued for US journalists alike.
Callimachi described this domestic war on journalism as not just “offensive” but also “dangerous for my colleagues and me who routinely work in areas of the world that have less press freedom than in the West.” The narrative Callimachi depicts is similar to that of Khashoggi and numerous other journalists from around the world facing oppressive press criticisms and censorship, and it is this new age of authoritarian media control that has contributed an entirely new risk to the reporting that Callimachi and others engage in:
Combined with the apparent physical risks of reporting on risky global issues, it remains tough to comprehend why journalists would put their life, their liberty, their voice on the line to report. So, I’ll ask again:
Why do journalists report what they do if it means facing drastic consequences?
It is the same reason why they put on their flak jackets, click Publish on a controversial post, and take pictures in the middle of a screaming mob: we are all citizens of this world, unified under our mutual understanding of our surroundings and their connections. Without this understanding, the world would be chaos. Without courageous journalists, the world drowns in ignorance.