Lisa Ramaci remembers that day well. First, she got an email. Then, six hours later, a phone call.
“I know what it feels like to get that phone call,” said Ramaci.
It was August 2nd, 2005, just three days after Ramaci’s husband, Iraq- based freelance reporter Steven Vincent, had penned a scathing op-ed in the New York Times on the increasing infiltration of Islamic extremists in the Basra police force. That day, Vincent and his Iraqi translator, Nouriya Itais, were kidnapped off the streets of Basra, in southern Iraq, by men in police uniforms, interrogated, tortured, and then five hours later, shot on the outskirts of the city. Itais survived, but Vincent did not.
Ramaci, who was married to Vincent for 10 years, believes that his groundbreaking work – he was the first journalist in Iraq to uncover Iraqi death squads – was his undoing.
“He was killed because they didn’t want what he was doing. Killed to shut him up.”
As Vincent’s story shows, Journalism can be risky. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international organization dedicated to raising awareness about journalists under siege, 41 Journalists were killed due to their work as journalists in 2008. Already in 2009 eleven journalists have been killed, with Iraq still leading as the world’s deadliest place to be a journalist, but countries like North Korea, China, and Iran not far behind.
This issue shot to the forefront with last week’s kidnapping of two journalists working for Current TV, headquartered in San Francisco, on the North Korean-Chinese border. CPJ and Reporters with Borders, which works to raise awareness about press freedom internationally, have issued a petition calling for Laura and name’s unconditional release.
But the vast majority of those killed aren’t western journalists, or even foreign journalists, but locals reporting in their home countries. This is as true in Iraq as anywhere else.
“It’s mostly the local Iraqi press who are killed and abused, at a higher rate than western writers, but the media tends not to cover those local reporters,” said Tala Dowlatshahi, the New York bureau director for Reporters Without Borders.
After her husband’s death, Ramaci was disgusted to find out how even families of Iraqi journalists killed while working for wester new organizations were not given compensation.
“They put their lives on the line for western readers. We don’t know what the families go through. It speaks of an utter loss of humanity, if they’re killed, to look away, and to send no help to their families,” said Ramaci.
In the end, Ramaci doesn’t think that much could have been done to protect Vincent, or future reporters working independently in war zones. “If they want you, they will get you. In every single war, journalists are killed. They put themselves on the line.”
Dowlatshahi disagrees. She believes that proper training, often lacking, can help to prepare journalists for the most difficult situations, and that Iraq is improving, slowly, but steadily.
“In Iraq, as the Government continues to establish itself, and becomes more democratized and developed, an inclusive press will be essential to cover recovery,” said Dowlatshahi.
She also believes there is a direct link between Democratization and press freedom.
“In every country that is militaristic or communistic, with a government that threatens open society, journalists are killed and abused,” said Dowlatshahi.
What is one of the worst countries in the world for journalists, according to Dowlatshahi? North Korea, where Ling and Lee are currently awaiting trial with a potential sentence of 10 years of manual labor.
Like Ling and Lee, Vincent often could be found on the front lines. An art critic until one event changed his life – September 11th, Vincent gave up his job to report on what he considered more pressing and timely issues. Two years later he was in Iraq.
“He wanted to do something after 9/11,” said Ramaci.
The Newseum, a museum in Washington DC, seeks to honor the historic role Vincent and his colleagues have played with their Freedom Forum Journalists Memorial, a multistory glass pane structure, with over 1800 names engraved of every known journalists killed in the line of duty, from 1837 to the present.
And there is plenty of space for more. Because if history is any key, as long as there is a story to be told, there will reporters like Vincent who will seek it out. At the same time, there will always will be those, like his still-unnamed killers, who will do anything to stop it.