Russian fighter bombers howled overhead as Marie Colvin scrambled across the frozen mountain range. It was December 1999 and the war in Chechnya was at its height. She could see flames flickering like a dragon’s crest along the mountain ridges – the bombs had set fire to the trees.
‘Most constant terror. In fact you can’t maintain a state of constant terror so you just move and hope they’re not after you,’ she wrote in her diary.
Few journalists have endured the twin fears of bombardment and freezing to death, but for five days, Marie and the Russian photographer Dmitri Beliakov did just that as they fled across the Caucasus with Magomet and Murad, a guide and a weapons smuggler. Ten days earlier they had driven over the border from neighbouring Georgia escorted by Chechen rebels to report from the front line, but after the road back was blocked by the Russian military, trekking across the mountains was the only viable escape route.
On Christmas Eve they found themselves sheltering in a seasonally appropriate, if not very festive, shepherd’s hut. Having crossed the line of stones that marked the border with Georgia they were now safe from bombing, but hunger and cold threatened. In her diary Marie mused about how she must have ruined her mother’s Christmas, and tried to work out how to survive.
December 24, 1999. How bad is situation: we can survive cold and environment in house. Don’t think we would have lasted outside.
Water plenty – snow and river 3–4 km away. Probably not worth walk – calories used.
Food: problem. Down to bread ends. If that sawdust stuff is flour, mix with water and cook? Desperate enough, bucket of onions and garlic, moldy.
Murad has pistol – animals?
Small things: Murad found bag of nails, were able to fix plastic sheets.
Look for red berries.
Mistake to let fire go out – cold seeps in.
Things they never tell you: constant battle to keep fire going.
Miraculously, a helicopter sent from the Georgian capital by the US embassy rescued Marie and her companions as they tramped through the snow. She said she had never been so grateful to be an American. The article she wrote for the Sunday Times was extraordinary, and her dicing with death became a good dinner-party story.
You can get addicted to the exhilaration of survival – beating the odds, escaping the worst, living to tell the tale. War reporting has always attracted adventurers and charlatans as well as former soldiers and those, like Marie, motivated by a strong desire to expose the suffering of the victims. ‘I had no qualifications as a war correspondent except curiosity,’ wrote Virginia Cowles, who covered the Spanish Civil War and World War II for the Sunday Times. She entitled her memoir Looking for Trouble. That’s what war correspondents do, living out T.S. Eliot’s maxim, ‘Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.’
In February 2012, as the uprising in Syria was morphing into war, Marie and I had dinner in Beirut and discussed being smuggled into Baba Amr, a besieged suburb of Homs, Syria’s third city. I told her that the trip was beyond my danger threshold. She shrugged. ‘Anyway, it’s what we do,’ she said. Marie’s final dispatch described the ‘widows’ basement’ where women and children hid from relentless bombardment by Syrian government forces. Her eyewitness testimony contradicted the official line that everyone in Baba Amr was a terrorist. On 22 February 2012, Marie was killed in an artillery barrage aimed at the rebel media centre where she and other journalists were staying. A French photographer, Rémi Ochlik, died in the same attack. Marie’s sister, Cat Colvin, together with her children, Justine and Christopher, has brought a civil case against the Syrian government, charging it with murder. According to sworn testimony from defectors, the Syrian government targeted Marie and fellow journalists. The aim was to stop any more foreign reporters from crossing the border illegally and to ensure that the government narrative prevailed.
Syria marked the beginning of a deadly new era in war reporting. When militants from the Islamic State kidnapped more than a dozen journalists, ransoming the Europeans and beheading two Americans, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, many editors and reporters decided they could no longer justify taking such risks in the name of ‘bearing witness’. Syrian ‘citizen journalists’ were filming the conflict and giving interviews by Skype. It was possible to piece the story together from far away. Although foreign correspondents have continued to make usually fleeting trips to Syria, Yemen and Libya, much of the risk, therefore, has been transferred from those who seek out trouble to those who have had it visited upon them – journalists from the countries where conflict has broken out. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Marie was one of 120 journalists killed in Syria since the conflict started in 2011. Thirteen were foreigners. The other 107 were Syrian.
Zaina Erhaim, a Syrian journalist who supported the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, says that she and others initially believed that ‘telling the world’ would attract help to their cause. But help did not materialise and soon she and her colleagues were caught between the hammer of the Assad regime and the anvil of the Islamic State. ‘We asked ourselves, “Why are we risking our lives to do journalism?” ’ she wrote in a recent essay. ‘Frankly speaking, I still don’t know the answer.’ Some mainstream journalists argue that Syrian ‘media activists’ are not objective in the way an outsider would be. But neutrality is rare. As militiamen backed by the Indonesian government gathered menacingly outside the UN compound in East Timor in 1999, Marie refused to leave because she believed that foreigners were human shields, and if they left, the Timorese would be slaughtered. Spending time with the fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army, who had risen against Slobodan Miloševic’s Serbian forces, convinced Marie of the righteousness of the Kosovar cause. Virginia Cowles, like most American and British reporters of the 1930s and 40s, believed passionately in the struggle against fascism in Europe. Maybe the greater difference is the emotional toll of being close to sources. ‘They are your classmates, relatives, the girls and boys you had a crush on when you were in high school,’ writes Zaina Erhaim. ‘You are part of the story. It engulfs all aspects of your daily life.’
That was certainly true of the Mexican journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas, who reported from Culiacán, a base for the Sinaloa cartel, the most powerful drug-smuggling enterprise in Mexico, possibly in the world. In 2008, Javier took me to the Jardines del Humaya cemetery, a crowded mini-city of elaborate mausoleums, some with marble columns and domed roofs topped with crosses, many as big as a house. Each was adorned with an enormous photo of the deceased, usually a man aged between sixteen and forty posing with a weapon. These were the narcotraficantes, the men who had lost their lives fighting between different factions of the cartel for control of the trade. At the time, according to Javier, about ten a day were being killed. We didn’t linger: if the women praying – or in one case, having a picnic – at their husband or son’s resting place grew suspicious we could find ourselves in trouble.
Javier introduced me to his neighbour, a trafficker called Luís. They gave me a tour of the war zone, which turned out to be a suburb just a few blocks from where they lived, full of once luxurious, now deserted mansions. ‘There are a few good people like Javier,’ said Luís, ‘But everything is based on narcotraffic, on illegal money.’ Luís, who was high on cocaine, drove like a demon, revving his black SUV with tinted windows, roaring round corners and revelling in showing me the sites of the grisliest murders. We wandered round a vast abandoned villa. Rancid puddles of green water lay in the empty swimming pool, weeds growing round the edge. It was hard to tell exactly what role Luís himself played. Javier was an ebullient character who refused the label of hero, despite being decorated with many press freedom awards for his bravery and refusal to bow to threats and pressure. His column in Ríodoce, the local newspaper that he had co-founded, was written in a kind of code, full of allusion and metaphor so he could say at least some of what he knew without crossing the ‘red lines’ that would anger sources like Luís too much. In the end, that judgement proved impossible to sustain. The CPJ calculates that six journalists were killed in Mexico in 2017, the largest number in a single year. Javier was one of them. On 15 May, as he was leaving the newspaper offices, gunmen blocked his way, dragged him from his car and shot him twelve times. A year later, the police said a man known as Heriberto N, alias ‘El Koala’, whom they had arrested as an alleged accomplice to the murder, told them Javier had been killed for his reporting.
Countries at war, whether over ideology or drugs, are obviously going to be dangerous for reporters but risk is by no means limited to combat journalists. It’s as hard to stay on the right side of the ‘red lines’ in Russia as in Mexico – those who investigate stories perceived as a threat by the authorities might fall off a balcony, like Maksim Borodin, who had reported on the deaths of Russian mercenaries in Syria. Some independent journalists have fled to Ukraine, hoping that the fiercely anti-Russian government in Kiev would protect them. Few were surprised when the Russian dissident journalist Arkady Babchencko was murdered in the Ukrainian capital – he had first angered the Kremlin when he published a book about his brutal experiences as a soldier in Chechnya, and later when he wrote about the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Journalists and the organisations that campaign for their protection immediately cast suspicion on the Russian government. However, in a bizarre turn of events, less than twenty-four hours after his wife found his bullet-riddled body outside their apartment, Babchenko turned up alive and well at a press conference, explaining that the Ukrainian secret services had staged his murder to lure assassins with alleged ties to the Kremlin into a trap. They used a T-shirt riddled with bullet holes and pig’s blood to add authenticity to the scene. The Ukrainian security services justified the sting operation by saying they had made several arrests, and recovered a hit list of forty-seven journalists, writers and bloggers.
‘So now every time a journalist is murdered, those reponsible will unleash their bots and propagandists to say it’s fake news,’ I tweeted. ‘Thanks, Ukrainian security services. That’s really helpful to all who care about journalists’ safety.’
A few hours later Babchenko retaliated. ‘Dear British Press. Please fuck off!’ he wrote in Russian on Facebook. ‘If you want to be of use, give me a British passport and protection. Then you can teach me how to save my family. Fucking smart-arses.’
Babchenko had a point. If I believed that taking part in such a ruse was the only way to save my life and apprehend my would-be murderers, maybe I would have done the same. But his Lazarus-like revival was nonetheless a gift to the Kremlin, which describes most crimes it’s accused of committing as provokatsiya – provocation. The prime example is the attempted assassination of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, which the Russian propaganda machine has suggested was a ‘false flag’ operation, carried out by the British secret service to discredit the Russians. The ‘murder’ of Arkady Babchenko really was a provokatsiya. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, said that the journalist had been used by the Ukrainian government for propaganda, ‘turning him into a real hostage forever’. The incident also distracted from the all too real threat to journalists who investigate the nexus between organised crime and the Russian state. Buzzfeed has investigated the suspicious deaths in Britain of fourteen people connected with Russia in recent years. The police had closed the cases, and only after the attempt on the Skripals and the Buzzfeed report did Prime Minister Theresa May announce an official investigation.
While few doubted the initial report that Babchenko was dead, five months later it was the opposite – few could believe that the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi had really been killed inside his country’s consulate in the Turkish city of Istanbul. He was well connected within the Saudi royal family, and was only in the consulate to pick up divorce papers so he could remarry. As the days went past, the plot – for that is how it seemed – grew more bizarre: fifteen Saudi agents had flown to Turkey, one an autopsy specialist, another carrying the kind of bone-saw used for amputations in the Kingdom. It was macabre, far-fetched – and true. Khashoggi had been writing critical pieces in the Western media about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has instituted social reforms while locking up those who dare criticise his authoritarian rule. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, who has gaoled more journalists in the last few years than any other leader, was suddenly in the position of defending a reporter.
Those who ordered the hit seem to have assumed that President Trump would not make too much fuss – after all, he frequently calls journalists ‘enemies of the people’ and has praised an American political candidate convicted of assaulting a reporter. They may also have noted that assassination as a method of message control has come to Europe – in the past year three journalists have been murdered within the European Union. It’s not clear whether the rape and murder of the Bulgarian TV reporter Viktoria Marinova was connected to her work – she had reported the theft of hundred of millions of euros from EU-funded projects, but the Bulgarian prosecutor said it was a ‘spontaneous’ attack. A suspect was arrested in Germany. No such doubt hangs over the murder of the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, killed by a car bomb in October 2017. At the time of her death, she had forty-six libel cases outstanding against her – there was scarcely a politician or powerful businessperson in Malta whom she had not investigated. After combing the Panama Papers, a trove of confidential financial documents leaked from the law firm Mossack Fonseca, she had alleged that the Maltese prime minister, Joseph Muscat, was behind an offshore entity that received $41 million dollars from a Dubai company linked to the ruling family in Azerbaijan. Muscat denied the allegations but the scandal forced him to call an election, which he won.
‘Everyone knows Ms Caruana Galizia was a harsh critic of mine, both politically and personally . . . but nobody can justify this barbaric act in any way,’ he said in a statement after the journalist’s murder. Since then, her three sons have fled Malta, saying they fear for their safety as they pursue justice for their mother.
In February 2018, the Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak was shot dead in his apartment, alongside his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová. He had been investigating the reach of the Calabrian Mafia, the ’Ndrangheta, into Slovakia. Such was the outcry over his murder that the Slovak prime minister and two other ministers were forced to resign. Nonetheless, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, with which Ján Kuciak was associated, says that the Slovak police seem more interested in investigating their reporting of the murder rather than the killing itself. ‘We have seen this behaviour by police in captured states and autocratic regimes,’ they said in a statement. ‘It does not belong in Europe.’
Journalists have always tried to uncover corruption in high places, but globalisation and the ‘dark web’ have enabled more complex and secretive forms of transnational crime. The threat in Europe has galvanised a new kind of solidarity. Forbidden Stories, an organisation based in Paris, invites investigative reporters to back up their work by sending documents using encrypted email and other forms of secure communication. If they are killed, someone else will follow up their leads. The website has a section devoted to Javier Valdez’s reporting on the war within the Sinaloa cartel, but the most prominent undertaking is the Daphne Project, a global consortium of forty-five journalists representing eighteen news organisations from fifteen countries working to complete the investigations Daphne Caruana Galizia started. The first follow-up stories were published in April 2018, exposing details of how Maltese taxpayers were losing money through a monopoly energy deal with Azerbaijan, and raising questions about the murder investigation.
‘It sent a powerful signal to Daphne’s killers that you may have killed the messenger but you didn’t kill the message. You failed,’ says Laurent Richard, one of the co-founders of Forbidden Stories.
Marie Colvin was killed because she was determined to report from the place where Syrians were suffering most.
‘This is the worst we’ve ever seen,’ she said to me in a Skype call from Baba Amr. She meant the situation of civilians, not the danger in which she found herself.
‘What’s your exit strategy?’ I asked her.
‘That’s just it. We don’t have one. We’re working on it now,’ she replied.
The rocket attack that killed her began a few hours later.
While war correspondents are often portrayed in novels and films as glamorous, rakish types, investigative reporting often attracts quieter, maverick characters with an eye for detail, an understanding of figures and the ability to hold vast amounts of information in their heads. Yet looking for trouble in war zones may not be the only dangerous form of journalism in the years to come. Investigative reporters are in more peril than ever and the front line has come to Europe.
Image © United Nations Photo