When Reporters Are Targets

Are they victims? Or heroes? • An American journalist sits in a US jail for refusing to reveal her source to a grand jury about the leak of a CIA worker's name.

• ABC News was barred on Tuesday from working in Russia after the network aired an interview with a Chechen rebel leader charged with terrorism.

• Also on Tuesday, a freelance American foreign correspondent who has written for this newspaper was found shot dead in Iraq after being abducted by gunmen, perhaps for something relating to his work as a journalist.

For many on the front line of journalism, the risks are well known, and worth taking. A journalist buys into a commitment to uncover often unpleasant facts about public life that can make some people uncomfortable, even vengeful and retaliatory.

In the case of jailed New York Times reporter Judith Miller, journalists may become witness to a possible crime - revealing a CIA agent - and thus law enforcement officials prefer to ignore the principle of press freedom (and the necessity of maintaining confidential sources) in order to solve one particular crime case.

For Steven Vincent, an investigative reporter who was specially targeted in the Iraqi city of Basra, his articles were perhaps too revealing for those vying for power in Iraq.

His loss will be felt not just by his family, but by Iraqis who want honest journalism and indeed anyone who knows that a key plank of a free society is press freedom. His work for The Christian Science Monitor and other publications has served a high purpose for truth.

More than 50 reporters were killed last year - the most in a decade - and many of those killings were meant to intimidate other journalists. In a way, this is the media's own "war" on terrorism. But the innocent act of uncovering truth cannot be cast as a guilty one, nor is it one that should be intimidated.

In Miller's case, the courts must resolve the rare conflict between a prosecutor's search for truth and a journalist's. Both rely to a degree on secrecy and yet both are champions of truth. When their jobs clash, a journalist can go to jail on principle, just as a prosecution might suffer for lack of a journalist's testimony. In most such clashes, a journalistic need to protect sources - and thus ferret out wrong-doers - should win out.

The ABC News case is more difficult. Should terrorists be given air time? Not if they secretly send messages to accomplices or go unchallenged during an interview. News is not a vehicle for unquestioned propaganda. ABC's interview of rebel leader Shamil Basayev didn't fit that category. So Russia's decision not to renew ABC's visas reveals yet more backsliding on civil liberties by Moscow.

These three cases, coming so close together, are a reminder of the dangers and necessity of a dogged reporter's search for truth. Truth liberates, and these casualties, while sad and unfortunate, should reinforce a commitment to free and unfettered journalism. In that light, these reporters are heroes.

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