CAIRO: It was hard not to feel giddy Thursday afternoon when the breaking news bulletin crossed that American journalist Jill Carroll had been released. Even though she was at one time based in Cairo, I don t know her, I ve never met her and there s a good chance I never will.
For many of the foreign journalists based here, however, the news of her abduction and release struck a chord. Jill Carroll is about my age; an American journalist who came to this region to learn about the culture, immerse herself in it and tell the stories of the people who make this region, and this war, unique.
News readers have equally turned numb to the endless stream of horrific headlines coming out of Iraq on a daily basis. After months of nonstop death tolls, diplomatic wrangling and civil unrest, finally, some good news. Since September 11th and well before that even, thousands of Western journalists have come to the region looking to tell a story, myself included. Many of them follow this burning desire to witness a story firsthand, interpret it and present it to readers from a personal perspective. Certainly, some will call it voyeurism, while others will see it as a media invasion. Of course the reasons inspiring each journalist to travel to this region vary. It is often that you hear of young reporters heading to war zones to boost their careers and, usually, it works. Even Jill Carroll, despite this harrowing ordeal she has undergone these past three months, has gained unprecedented fame and exposure. She will likely receive a number of book deals, interviews and speaking engagements. That s not to say that she hasn t earned it. The fact of the matter is in my book, you don t have to be kidnapped by Iraqi militants to be deemed a hero. I have never heard so much criticism toward the field of journalism as in the case of the Iraqi war. Some have said to me that death tolls have taken precedence over the civilians whose daily lives are affected. Others have claimed that the news coming out of Iraq is slanted as pro-Arab or pro-West and no news organizations have legitimately published stories that are insightful or objective. It s hard to be objective when you re reporting on a war under house arrest. The sad fact is, unless a journalist is imbedded with a military company, moving around Baghdad unaccompanied has become virtual suicide. Iraqi reporters, camerapersons and photographers have become the only people able to move around freely, though they face just as much a risk as any foreigner working in the country. Many freelance journalists, Jill Carroll included, are not provided with the same security as others and are forced to fen for themselves. Arab journalists recently mourned the death of Atwar Bahjat, an Iraqi reporter who rose to fame reporting from Iraq for rival Arabic satellite news networks Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera. Gunmen kidnapped and killed her and two members of her crew near Samarra where they had gone to cover reactions to the bombing of Al-Askari mosque, a revered Shia Muslim shrine. Bahjat was only 26 years old. At least 86 journalists and support staff, many of them Iraqis, have been killed in Iraq over the past three years. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 66 journalists were killed in 1994 as civil wars raged in Algeria, Bosnia and Rwanda. In 1991, 93 journalists died, most of them in battles in the Balkins and in drug trade conflicts in Colombia. Sixty-nine journalists died in all of World War II. Most Western governments warn news organizations against sending reporters to conflict zones. To this day, a travel warning is in place against Americans going to Gaza, for instance. Nonetheless, reporters continue coming to this region. Georgetown University in Washington, DC recently received over 4,000 applicants for its acclaimed Arabic Studies program. Many of the journalists who come here invest time in learning the language, the culture and religions. There was equally a great deal of parachute journalism when the war first began and a new wave is arriving now as the country braces for a civil war. Jill Carroll was not one of those. We celebrate the release of Jill Carroll but should not forget that there are many other journalists, both Arab and foreign, who continue to jeopardize their lives day in and day out to bring us headlines from the war-torn country. Whether or not you feel their presence is immaterial, or if you think their reporting is accurate or bias, I ask that you remember them every time you turn on the evening news or pick up a newspaper and recognize the risk they are taking to open up the volatility of one country to the world.