Viewpoints

Dana Milbank: A noble calling with a deadly risk

WASHINGTON – Washington’s Newseum on Monday inducted the newest members into a club that none of us would want to join: journalists who died covering the news around the world.

The Class of 2014 in the museum’s Journalists Memorial includes my Washington Post colleague Michel du Cille, who died of an apparent heart attack while photographing the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, and two men, freelancers James Foley and Steven Sotloff, beheaded by the barbarians of the Islamic State after they were taken hostage in Syria.

There were 14 inductees in all, representing the larger number (61, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists) killed last year. Associated Press reporter Kathy Gannon, her arm bandaged, spoke about AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus, gunned down in Afghanistan by a police commander who also severely wounded Gannon. The parents of Sotloff read from a note from him, smuggled home to them by a released captive. “Everyone has two lives,” he wrote. “The second one begins when you realize you only have one.”

I went to the Newseum ceremony in part to mark another event occurring Monday that neither I nor any other journalist could cover: the resumption of a secret trial in Iran of The Post’s Tehran bureau chief, Jason Rezaian.

Rezaian, an Iranian American guilty of nothing other than being a journalist, has been imprisoned since last summer and is being tried in Revolutionary Court on unspecified – but obviously false – charges related to espionage. Even Rezaian’s family members aren’t allowed to witness the proceedings, overseen by a judge known for imposing harsh sentences, lashings and sometimes death for political defendants.

God willing, Iran will prove itself more civilized than the Islamic State and the other terrorist organizations and lawless states that have sent scores of names to the etched-glass panels of the Journalists Memorial in recent years. On the glass panels that climb a sun-filled atrium at the Newseum are the names of 2,271 journalists who have died reporting the news since 1837.

Listed there is Danny Pearl, my friend and successor in The Wall Street Journal London bureau who was murdered by al-Qaeda in Pakistan in 2002. So is Anthony Shadid, who had worked at The Post and later died in Syria on assignment for The New York Times. Others in the memorial I knew – David Bloom, Michael Kelly, Elizabeth Neuffer – died in Iraq, and Brad Will, my college roommate’s kid brother, was gunned down while reporting in Mexico.

We’re blessed to live in a country where political disagreements are almost always resolved peacefully – and as a political reporter I’ve not had an assignment more dangerous than standing between Chuck Schumer and a microphone. I have the highest admiration for my colleagues who risk not only their lives and safety but also – more than ever – their freedom. Though killings of journalists fluctuate year by year, the number of imprisoned journalists has been rising. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports 221 were imprisoned in 2014, the second-worst year after 2012.

One of them was Rezaian, whose trial is so secret that even his court-assigned lawyer isn’t allowed to say what’s happening. The only available account comes from the state’s semiofficial Tasnim News Agency.

“He is being accused of being a master spy when all he was doing was reporting on a country that he loves,” his mother, Mary Breme Rezaian, told the AP at the courthouse in Tehran.

Superficially, Rezaian’s circumstances have little in common with those of Anja Niedringhaus, a veteran war photojournalist who had been thrown from a car struck by a grenade in Kosovo and who was hit by a sniper’s bullet in Sarajevo and injured by shrapnel in Afghanistan before she was killed in that country last year.

But I saw the similarity between Rezaian and Niedringhaus when listening to Gannon, who narrowly survived the attack that killed Niedringhaus. Selflessly, Gannon praised the sacrifices of journalists “far from conflict zones” whose reporting on crime and corruption put their homes, reputations and families at risk. “Still others are sitting in jail,” she said, “wondering what tomorrow will bring – all because they shout through their stories, photographs and videos to make us more aware and more understanding of the world.”

This is the noble calling that landed so many names on glass panels at the Newseum – and Jason Rezaian in an Iranian jail.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.

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