Why you should care
Because bloody wars are being left unreported.
Smoke billowed in the Iraqi sky. David Enders heard the staccato of sirens, explosions, gunfire. Earlier that day, a local politician showed him the bullet holes left by an AK-47, like moth holes in the thin curtain drapes. That night, Islamic State forces marched toward the military compound in Ramadi, where Enders was holed up. Soldiers started calling their loved ones.
Enders didn’t have a gun to defend himself. That was by design.
Like many journalists in conflict zones, Enders — a friend of OZY who spent a decade reporting from the Middle East — chooses not to arm himself. Rules set in the Geneva convention have long advised that journalists shouldn’t carry weapons because it might compromise their status as noncombatants. Media organizations, from The New York Times to CNN, have barred employees from packing heat. But the practice of war has changed drastically in recent years, with militants targeting journalists for kidnapping and highly publicized beheadings. Should news gatherers and international press agencies reconsider their ban on reporters carrying protection?
The question was posed to me recently by a former State Department official who had seen the way terrorist brutality created a chilling effect on reporting in Syria. But “the problem with carrying a weapon is you lose your ability to claim that you are a noncombatant,” argues Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. Enders experienced this firsthand in February 2013, when he was kidnapped by Al-Qaeda. He was able to secure his release only after convincing his captors that he was not a spy. “If he had a gun, they would never have believed him,” says Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “What keeps journalists safe in most situations is their vulnerability” — the idea that they are there to listen to combatants, not intervene.
Some journalists decide to blur those lines anyway. In World War II, Ernest Hemingway was accused of storing bazookas and grenades in his Parisian hotel. Both Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera and then–New York Times Baghdad chief Dexter Filkins — nicknamed “Six-Shooter Dex” by other correspondents — carried guns into conflict, to great controversy in the 2000s (neither responded to requests for comment). The journalists most at risk, CPJ’s Simon says, are local reporters who target crime syndicates and government corruption. In those situations, strapping a pistol is less uncommon and more understandable, Simon says, even if he wouldn’t recommend it. “A lot of these international correspondents are in danger for a relatively short period of time. If you’re a local journalist in Columbia or Uruguay or Mexico, this is your home and it’s much more difficult to say, ‘This is too dangerous,’ and leave.”
War itself has changed drastically in recent decades, complicating things. Militants often target journalists for kidnapping. “If you’re a Westerner, you’re an ATM,” Simon says. And if you’re captured by jihadist rebel groups, the situation could be much more dire, as was the case for Steven Sotloff and James Foley, journalists beheaded by ISIS in 2014. Last year, Reporters Without Borders reported that 110 journalists died in the line of duty, and battle zones like Syria (11 fatalities) and Iraq (10) topped that list. Yet it’s in the fog of war — where countless lives are at risk — that the light needs to be shone the most. So what’s better: reporting that comes with the hazy moral gray of a handgun or no reporting at all?
Back in Ramadi, with ISIS forces approaching, Enders did what he had never done before: He relented and, somewhat cheekily, asked for a gun. “That was being faced with the almost certain likelihood of a gruesome death my family would have to avoid on YouTube in perpetuity,” Enders says. “At that point, issues of integrity are not your biggest concern.” He survived, but only after the terrorist combatants weren’t able to cross a bridge between them and his hideaway.