Don’t shoot, starve or imprison the messenger

The daily news abounds with stories from regions rife with civil war and chaos. In the digital age, people have a sense of entitlement to information about these dangerous regions of the world.

People often take this coverage for granted, but the cost of this reporting can sometimes be a human life.

Paul Salopek was traveling through Chad on a freelance assignment, which was printed in this month’s National Geographic. He was touring refugee camps and wanted to investigate the conditions in Darfur. To do so, he had to cross the border from Chad into Sudan, which took him through a war zone teeming with rebels and bandits. Salopek understood the peril, but he needed coverage in Darfur for his story and decided to risk the journey.

On the way to Sudan, he was captured by militants, turned over to the Sudanese army and placed in a 20-by-20 cell with 15 other prisoners. He’d broken the law by attempting to enter Sudan without a visa, and the government accused him of being a spy.

Over the next month, he nearly starved to death. An anonymous Sudanese woman, who was also slowly starving, sometimes handed him food through the prison bars. He was released after 34 days as a result of efforts by National Geographic and N.M. Gov. Bill Richardson.

“The risk of danger in covering war is the risk of being captured, being wounded or being killed – like a soldier, like a combatant,” Salopek said. He later returned to northern Africa and finished his story.

Salopek’s was released relatively quickly, after about a month, but BBC correspondent Alan Johnston was not as lucky.

Johnston was a foreign correspondent in Gaza. In the summer of 2006, the violence toward westerners was escalating.

“Set against the danger, I felt that Gaza’s story was important,” Johnston said. “I decided that the risks were worth taking.”

With only 16 days left on his assignment in Gaza, Johnston was kidnapped and imprisoned by jihadis. He lost 22 pounds over 114 days, pacing back and forth to pass the time in his cell. One of his guards let him have a radio, and he heard a report on the BBC that he had been executed. His release was negotiated when Hamas took control of the Gaza strip.

In the field notes for his National Geographic article, Salopek explained why journalists put themselves in danger for the sake of a story.

“It’s for the people who I cover whose stories I feel are not getting out, and to bear witness to darker corners of the world that the rest of the world chooses, for a variety of reasons, to avert its gaze from,” Salopek said. “I am not an activist – I am a journalist, a reporter.”