Correction to This Article
The Media Notes column in the Aug. 28 Style section, which mentioned the kidnapping in Iraq this year of Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll, incorrectly said that her driver was killed in the incident. It was her interpreter, Allan Enwiyah.

Journalism's Rising Risk Factor

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 28, 2006

It's official: Being a foreign correspondent is one of the world's most thankless jobs.

Those who ply the journalistic trade around the globe are increasingly subjected to bombings, shootings, kidnappings or simply being jailed on spying charges. Yesterday's release in Gaza of two Fox News journalists who had been abducted was a welcome relief, but also a powerful reminder that reporting in war zones is a treacherous business in which Western correspondents are now deemed high-value targets.

For all the abuse heaped on journalists these days, it's worth remembering that there is a hardy band of reporters, producers, cameramen and photographers who risk their lives and put their families through great stress simply to tell the rest of us what is transpiring in faraway lands.

When Fox correspondent Steve Centanni, 60, and freelance cameraman Olaf Wiig, 36, were freed after 13 days with the help of Palestinian officials, their comments were striking. Although they had faced death, and were forced at gunpoint to make a video proclaiming that they had converted to Islam, they spoke not about themselves but the country they were trying to cover.

"My biggest concern, really, is that as a result of what happened to us, foreign journalists will be discouraged from coming here to tell the story," Wiig said. "And that would be a great tragedy for the people of Palestine, and especially for the people of Gaza. Your story does not get well told."

John Moody, Fox News's senior vice president, said in an interview that Centanni is "a quiet, self-effacing but really competent reporter. His fingernails have been dirtied. I never thought to worry about his ability to handle himself in an ugly situation." Centanni, who has also reported from Iraq and Afghanistan, volunteered to go to Gaza because other Fox correspondents had been redeployed to cover the war between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas.

As for Wiig, another Fox staffer told Moody that his quick thinking may have saved their lives when they were caught in a crossfire in Iraq in 2004.

Since Gaza was widely believed to be safer than Iraq or Lebanon during the conflict with Israel, the emergence of a group called the Holy Jihad Brigades that seized the Fox journalists adds to the unsettling feeling that the press is fair game in just about any war zone.

"The entire international community is beginning to realize that journalists should never be hostages or pawns in world events," Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes said in a statement. But there are plenty of rogue factions unwilling to play by those rules.

"Most reporters have a built-in caution about having armed protection with them," Moody said. "But as the world gets more dangerous, we may have to come to new conclusions about what is acceptable."

As if to underscore the constant threat, two cameraman, one working for Reuters and another for Dubai TV, were injured yesterday when shrapnel from Israeli rockets struck their vehicle as they were headed to cover an Israeli army incursion into Gaza City.

The list of journalists killed or wounded in action this year is a growing one. On Memorial Day, CBS cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan were killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq that also badly wounded correspondent Kimberly Dozier. In January, ABC anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt were seriously injured by a roadside explosion while traveling with Iraqi troops.

Jill Carroll, a Christian Science Monitor reporter, was released in April after Iraqi abductors had held her for 82 days following an ambush that killed her driver.

And that list doesn't even include a harrowing series of close calls in Iraq over the past two years. New York Times correspondent John Burns and several colleagues were abducted and blindfolded but released after eight hours. CNN correspondent Michael Holmes barely escaped death in an attack on his press caravan that killed two of the network's Iraqi employees. Washington Post reporter Jackie Spinner managed to fend off an attempted abduction by men who tried to push her into a van.

The spate of kidnappings also creates a dilemma for other news outlets, since heavy coverage could undermine what are invariably delicate negotiations. After Centanni and Wiig were seized, Ailes called top news executives at the other networks and urged them to exercise restraint.

"At the very beginning, we asked for and received the cooperation of our competitors -- who ceased to be competitors and just became colleagues -- in not overplaying the story," Moody said.

As the ordeal dragged on, and Centanni's brother and Wiig's wife made televised appeals for their freedom, Fox made no further attempt to minimize the coverage.

Still, the kidnapping received no mention on the CBS, ABC or NBC nightly news until the first hostage video was released Wednesday. The relative paucity of coverage, compared with the intensive chronicling of Carroll's captivity, may have reflected the fact that there are many more journalists in Iraq, and that the war in that country is a focus of far greater debate in the United States than the long-running conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Wartime or not, television also tends to play up kidnappings involving young women, which often become cable melodramas.

Violence isn't the only hazard facing foreign correspondents these days. Chicago Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was charged with espionage in Sudan on Saturday, three weeks after being detained in the war-ravaged province of Darfur. Salopek was on a freelance assignment for National Geographic.

Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinksi told her paper that Salopek is "one of the most accomplished and admired journalists of our time. He is not a spy." Chris Johns, the Geographic's editor in chief, said in a statement that Salopek was preparing an article on sub-Saharan Africa and "had no agenda other than to fairly and accurately report on the region."

Salopek entered Sudan without a visa and now realizes that was a mistake, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who visited him last week, told the Tribune.

On Friday, a Chinese court sentenced Zhao Yan, a New York Times researcher in Beijing, to three years in prison on a fraud charge. That was good news, in a sense, because Zhao was acquitted on more serious charges of leaking state secrets. He was detained in 2004 after a Times article accurately predicted that former president Jiang Zemin would give up his last Communist Party post.

It is not difficult to see that such cases are another form of warfare against foreign correspondents, carried out by repressive governments that are determined to chill aggressive reporting by outsiders.

In the past two weeks, television networks have embarrassed themselves with wild, speculative and unrelenting coverage of the JonBenet Ramsey case, based on little more than a shaky confession from a creepy character whose own relatives say he was not in Colorado when the 6-year-old girl was killed a decade ago. The kidnapping of Centanni and Wiig, and the charges in China and the Sudan, are a reminder that there is another side to journalism, one that relies on courage and dedication rather than hype and sensationalism.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company