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A Dangerous Job
Journalists, too, have a role in the fight for freedom, and sometimes the risks of reporting are great.

By Robert Leger

In the United States, journalists sometimes go to jail rather than give up a source. We fight with public officials over records and meetings. We miss dates or a kid’s soccer game to cover a breaking story. While we seek to tell our readers, listeners, and viewers what is happening in their community, their state, or the world, we find ourselves facing a public that questions our motives. But rarely are American journalists killed for asking questions and seeking truth.

We are slapped into realizing how dangerous this job can be when terrorists kidnap and murder Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was doing the same thing we do every day: reporting a story.

It shakes us. It angers us. And then we consider that unfriendly fire in Afghanistan has killed more reporters than American soldiers.

Sadly, the death of a journalist isn’t unusual. Last year, at least three dozen reporters were killed for doing their jobs. They asked questions, looked at records, and reported what they found. They didn’t put on a uniform or carry a weapon, but they, too, were fighting for freedom.

In lists compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Freedom Forum, phrases such as “he had uncovered links between police and smuggling rings”crop up regularly. In the United States, revealing corruption can win you a Pulitzer Prize. In other countries, it can get you a bullet to the brain.

Or worse:

— Feng Zhaoxia, who wrote about criminal gangs and their links to corrupt local politicians for a Chinese daily, was found in a ditch outside Xi’an with his throat cut. The gash was four inches long and one and a half inches deep, witnesses said, but police ruled the death a suicide. They banned the local press from writing about it. “He was very bright, very cultured,”one relative told Reuters. “He was determined to make a contribution to society.”

— Brignol Lindor hosted a talk show on Radio Echo in Petit-Goâve, Haiti. He allowed members of the 15-party opposition coalition to appear on his Radio Echo talk show. A machete-wielding mob, egged on by the town’s deputy mayor, ambushed Lindor and killed him.

— Jose Luis Ortega Mata was editor of a weekly newspaper in Mexico. The paper reported that the federal attorney general was investigating drug trafficking in a nearby town. He was reportedly working on a story that drug traffickers were funding the election campaigns of local politicians. On Feb. 19, 2001, someone fired two bullets into his head at close range.

— Igor Aleksandrov was stepping into Tor, the independent television company he managed in Ukraine, when attackers beat him with baseball bats. He died four days later. His television show “Without Censorship” featured investigative coverage of government corruption and organized crime. Police said the attack was a case of mistaken identity; a parliamentary commission was skeptical.

Three journalists with ties to the United States are on the list of journalists killed in 2001: Kerem Lawton, a British citizen who worked for Associated Press Television News, died from shrapnel wounds in Kosovo. Robert Stevens, a photo editor at the tabloid The Sun, died of inhalation anthrax. William Biggart, a free-lance photographer, died in the collapse of the World Trade Center; he told his wife, in a cell-phone call, not to worry. “I’m OK. I’m with the firemen.”

Most people go the other way when firefighters rush into danger. Good journalists are driven to follow them, to get closer to truth, to show readers, viewers and listeners what is happening around them — and, in our own way, to fight for freedom.

Usually, the worst we have to deal with is a police officer telling us we can’t cross this line or a subscriber angry enough about a story to cancel a subscription. We accept that as a cost of our calling, and go about our work.

But sometimes, in too many countries, journalists have to decide if a story is worth risking their life for. That so many continue pursuing truth is a testament.

Robert Leger is editorial page editor at The Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. This essay is adapted and expanded from a column that originally appeared in that paper.

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