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Journalists gave their lives to bear witness

By Robert Mahoney, Special to CNN
Photojournalists Chris Hondros, left, and Tim Hetherington were killed in the Libya conflict.
Photojournalists Chris Hondros, left, and Tim Hetherington were killed in the Libya conflict.
  • Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, two other journalists, killed in Libya
  • Many others are missing or jailed by pro-Tripoli forces, Robert Mahoney says
  • Mahoney: To show the truth of conflict, journalists must get up close, in highly risky situations
  • He says Libya treacherous: irregulars, plainclothes soldiers, armed pro-Gadhafi forces

Editor's note: Robert Mahoney is deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent, nonprofit organization working to defend press freedom worldwide. Mahoney has worked as a reporter and bureau chief for Reuters, reporting on politics and economics. He has covered conflicts such as the civil war in Liberia, the Palestinian intifada, the Iraqi missile attacks on Israel and the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

(CNN) -- It is a bitter irony that Chris Hondros, the prize-winning photographer killed in Libya on Wednesday alongside Oscar-nominated photojournalist Tim Hetherington, was to due to speak in New York next week on the dangers of covering conflict.

I felt honored to be invited to sit on the same panel as him at the International Center of Photography, with other veteran battlefield photographers and their editors. The question for the panelists was essentially, "Covering conflict: Is it worth it?"

Each generation of journalists finds its own answers to that deceptively simple question. Advances in picture and audio technology, coupled with warp-speed mobile communications, have transformed newsgathering. But the essentials of sketching out the first draft of history, whether in words or in images, are the same. The only way to capture the truth is to get close to it. Despite powerful telephoto lenses, conflict photographers still work much like Robert Capa, who used a simple Contax camera to capture the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

Hetherington and Hondros, who won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for his work in Iraq, understood the catalyzing power of the still image. Their work freezes the flow of blood or tears on a human face, rendering the real cost of fighting in Afghanistan, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans.

They knew that a single image, like the napalmed Vietnamese girl running from her burning village, can crystallize a whole war.

Their work freezes the flow of blood or tears on a human face, rendering the real cost of fighting.
--Robert Mahoney

That is why they were in the thick of bullets and mortar bombs in Misrata. Now, unfortunately, they join a tragically high honor roll of journalists who have given their lives to bear witness.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented the deaths of 861 journalists over the past two decades. In that period, 150 have been killed directly in combat. Of those, about half were photojournalists or camera operators.

Last year, 40% of journalists who died in the line of duty were killed in combat-related crossfire and in dangerous assignments such as street protests. And this year, because of the uprisings in the Middle East, 12 of the 16 journalists killed worldwide have died covering combat or on dangerous assignments.

Libya, with four combat deaths and brutal detentions of journalists, is especially dangerous for the press. The fighting is chaotic, with fluid or nonexistent front lines. Irregulars, soldiers without uniforms, pro-Gadhafi forces moving among civilians and firing into populated urban areas, all make for a deadly maze through which unprotected journalists must thread a path.

Unlike the U.S.-prosecuted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, journalists in Libya are not embedded with any military. Hetherington and Hondros had worked as both "embeds" and unilaterals, the military jargon for those journalists who go it alone. It was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to cover the fighting in both U.S. theaters without the army. Hetherington turned this to his advantage brilliantly by co-directing the 2010 Oscar-nominated "Restrepo," a film about a year spent on a forward operating base in Afghanistan with U.S. troops.

Libya, with four combat deaths and brutal detentions of journalists, is especially dangerous for the press.
--Robert Mahoney
  • Libya
  • Journalism

Hetherington and Hondros knew from training and experience how to handle themselves in combat. As a photojournalist, you learn where to stand to shoot, what to wear, how to approach combatants, how to hire a driver, a fixer, an interpreter, how to choose a hotel, and on and on. Any journalist may wear a bulletproof vest and a helmet. But in the end, reporters are exposed. Mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades like those whizzing through the streets of Misrata are no respecters of Kevlar chest plates.

Hetherington and Hondros were not alone. Two other colleagues with them on the street were wounded in the same attack. Others escaped uninjured. To the east, still other photographers and reporters are missing or in detention, grabbed by pro-Tripoli forces.

In the eight weeks since this civil war erupted, the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented more than 80 attacks on the press, including the killing of a cameraman for Al-Jazeera and reporter for Libya Al-Hurra TV.

As of today, 17 journalists are missing or in detention, among them three photojournalists: Spaniard Manuel Varela, European Pressphoto Agency; South African Anton Hammerl, Christian Science Monitor; and American James Foley, Global Post.

We never will get to hear Chris Hondros' thoughts on covering war next week at the International Center of Photography. He already gave his answer by venturing onto Tripoli Street in Misrata with his camera.