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From AJR,   December/January 2010  issue

Risking It All for the Story   

Marked for Death: Dying for the Story in the World’s Most Dangerous Places

By Terry Gould

Counterpoint

392 pages; $25


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

Before she was shot to death in front of her children, reporter Marlene Garcia-Esperat had a hand grenade thrown into her living room. Three men tried to kidnap her. She spent two years in witness protection.

But she wouldn't stop exposing graft in the Philippines. Five weeks before her death, she wrote the country's president, "My crusade is to prevent corruption... I am ready to die for this cause."

And she did. On March 24, 2005, a man walked into her dining room, smiled at her 9-year-old son and shot Garcia-Esperat through the eye.

Garcia-Esperat is one of seven martyred journalists memorialized by investigative reporter Terry Gould in this powerful and unsettling book. Nearly all defied repeated threats. Several foretold their doom. Few of their killers were punished.

One reporter was killed while Gould was en route to interview her about the deaths of two others.

At some risk to himself, Gould profiles each one, interviewing family, colleagues and even enemies to answer two questions: What makes a reporter persist despite threats of "certain death," and what makes entire societies tolerate ongoing corruption and the murder of their truth-tellers?

His subjects came from the five top countries where journalists had been assassinated between 2000 and 2005, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In addition to Garcia-Esperat, they are:

• Guillermo Bravo Vega, Colombia, economist turned reporter, obsessed with feudal injustice, shot at his desk in 2003 after a hired gunman visited his home and warned him to leave town or die.

• Manik Chandra Saha, Bangladesh, a man of almost "pure goodness" who founded schools, poverty councils and women's shelters; a trained lawyer who exposed killings and environmental scandals and was beheaded in public in 2004 by an explosive "cocktail" tossed in his face.

• Anna Politkovskaya, Russia, "the most vehement living critic of Russia's criminal modus operandi" in Chechnya, who had survived arrest, beatings, poisoning and even a mock execution in a concentration camp, finally shot coming out of an elevator in 2006. (See "Iron Curtain Redux," February/March 2007.)

• Valery Ivanov and Alexei Sidorov, Russia, crusading editors whose office had been sledgehammered and pillaged; after Ivanov was murdered contract-style in 2002, Sidorov hesitated, then carried on, until he was stabbed to death 18 months later.

• Khalid W. Hassan, Iraq, affiliated with the New York Times Baghdad bureau, survivor of kidnapping by insurgents, in such danger that colleagues disagreed whether it was the Sunni extremists or Shia militia who finally got him, ambushed in 2007 a day after telling his fiancée, "I feel like I am never going to see you again."

Gould takes care to show these were not flawless people. They were aggressive, stubborn, so headstrong they often alienated even their friends. They fought unreasonably with editors, messed up their personal lives.

Bravo maintained households with three different women and served prison time for murder. Politkovskaya seemed traumatized and bitter after a marital collapse, and complained in her own paper that editors cut the "toughest parts," making it "more difficult..to publish the whole truth." Before affiliating with the Times, Hassan was fired by CBS for infecting its computers with viruses from porn sites.

But as journalists, they were unequivocally heroes, dogged and unyielding in rooting out the stinking contaminations within their countries.

We may never truly know their motives, but Gould suggests many. Bravo, "filled with anger after his mother's murder," rechanneled his fury into fighting corruption, drawn toward "heroic martyrdom." Garcia-Esperat continued the work of her lover and the father of her children, himself a murdered broadcaster. Saha told his wife, "If I die, it will be for my country."

Shame drove Politkovskaya, Gould writes, for atrocities she had failed to expose and for colleagues and fellow citizens looking the other way.

In the end, Gould believes, these martyrs "were standing up for their homes..acting for the sake of the many victims in their tormented communities."

They also acted in the faith that fellow citizens would join their struggle. But will they? Sadly, "Marked for Death" offers no answer to Gould's second big question: Why do people tolerate the assassination of journalists and the corruption of their homelands?

We are left with that grim question, and with the memory of these heartbreakingly courageous journalists whose legacy, whatever their personal imperfections, borders on nobility.