Steven Sotloff died far from home and his family in a way that should turn every mother’s blood cold. He was killed in cold blood by a group calling themselves the Islamic State. How that act helps people understand the group’s cause or get those who disagree to change their minds – beats me.
Sotloff had the traits of many of us who make our living with the pen: curiosity; drive; imagination; hard work and resilience. It drew him to stories where courage could cost you your life. He was no war junkie, his family said; he merely wanted to find the truth.
Anyone who has been there, will tell you of the fear of incarceration or a gun to your head or the fear that a blow to the head or poison gas in your lungs to squeeze the life out of your tired and aching body. All this, in search of a story that may be forgotten next week.
If you have survived this, the feeling is one of relief and guilt. Relief that, against the odds you survived and guilt for those who didn’t. Any proper journalist worth their salt will look at the Sotloff story and wince with remembered pain. I am one of them.
Nearly a year ago, I went to a reunion of my old college buddies, who are now all in their 50s with kids, careers, marriages and divorces. One of the questions we all asked each other was: “Any regrets?” I replied that I considered myself to be very lucky to be alive so every day was gravy, as far as I was concerned, for the rest of my life. Most of my college buddies were surprised by that as their lives had been more peaceful and humdrum.
This brings me to my point about the risks that journalists take to tell the stories that everyone wants to know. Freelancers, those who work for no one and live by selling their stories, take the most risks and live a life of vulnerability. They are seen as the foot soldiers of the newsdesks of the world. They are often the ones who are prepared to go into the places the regular correspondents don’t have time nor the inclination to go to. The newsdesks send them in with the cynical knowledge that they ultimately don’t have to take responsibility for freelancers. If they hit, fine, if they don’t well, hard luck and no pay due. So many brave freelancers have died in the line of duty, often unsung.
My belief is that the world should stiffen its sinews to protect those journalists who give their lives to protect our right to know. Without it, it is a colder, darker world.