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What the world owes the slain journalists

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 6:23 AM EST, Thu February 23, 2012
Award-winning French photojournalist <a href='' target='_blank'>Remi Ochlik</a> was killed in the city of Homs while reporting on the bloody conflict in Syria on Wednesday. Award-winning French photojournalist Remi Ochlik was killed in the city of Homs while reporting on the bloody conflict in Syria on Wednesday.
Remi Ochlik photojournalist
Photojournalist Remi Ochlik's work
Photojournalist Remi Ochlik's work
Photojournalist Remi Ochlik's work
Photojournalist Remi Ochlik's work
Photojournalist Remi Ochlik's work
Photojournalist Remi Ochlik's work
Photojournalist Remi Ochlik's work
Photojournalist Remi Ochlik's work
  • Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik are the latest journalists to die in Syria conflict
  • Frida Ghitis: Journalists put themselves in harm's way to bring the truth to the world
  • She says we should support and applaud the efforts of truth-tellers
  • Ghitis: Those who denigrate the work of journalists do so for their own ends

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and writes the "World Citizen" column for the World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television."

(CNN) -- Two more journalists have just died in Syria. They gave their lives for one simple reason: to bring the world the news; to find out the truth about what is happening in Syria, so the rest of us can sit in the safety of our living rooms, reading about it in the paper, watching it on television or perusing it on our digital devices.

This is a good moment to stop and take a look at the work so many courageous, committed and highly professional journalists do today. Clearly, the line about who is a journalist has been blurred by new communications platforms. But there are some people whose serious journalistic work is not just admirable. It is indispensable.

Marie Colvin, 55, had already lost one eye covering the conflict in Sri Lanka. But she kept working until the last minute of her life. Just hours before she died, Colvin spoke to Anderson Cooper on CNN. Cooper asked her about her decision to stay in the besieged city of Homs even as other reporters left reluctantly, fearing the worst.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

She knew her life was in danger. Friends say her last Facebook post reads ominously: "Reports of my survival may be exaggerated ...Can't understand how world can stand by."

Like others who have died in the line of journalistic duty, Colvin, along with Remi Ochlik, the gifted 28-year-old French photographer, wanted the world to know about the carnage taking place thousands of miles away from their lives.

Deaths of journalists in Syria highlight dangers

I believe they subscribed to my own journalistic creed, that what happens everywhere, anywhere, deserves our attention. We are all citizens of the world. When a dictator massacres his people, we cannot, we should not, avert our gaze.

An anti-Syria regime demonstrator in Paris remembers journalists killed in Syria Wednesday.
An anti-Syria regime demonstrator in Paris remembers journalists killed in Syria Wednesday.

It's true that when journalists die, they receive much more attention than thousands of others who perish in the same conflicts. But there is a good reason for that.

Journalists are indispensable for the moral working of our civilization. When a journalist dies, it is as if we all lose some of our eyesight. They are our eyes on the ground. They are the ones who tell us where history is going, so we can decide if we must do something to push it in a different direction.

We have all lost because the brilliant Anthony Shadid, who died in Syria a few days ago, will no longer send us his dispatches from the Middle East. Our understanding of the world and our ability to make choices about how we will respond to the turmoil in the region is diminished by his absence.

Remembering Marie Colvin
'Colvin lived so others could learn'
Cooper remembers final Colvin CNN report

After 25 years with The Sunday Times, Colvin, a native of the United States, was not jaded. She anguished over what was happening in Syria, and in Homs, in particular. Just hours before her death, she told Cooper about the people she had taken shelter with, about a small baby just killed by the forces of Syria's Bashar al-Assad. "That baby," she said, "probably will move more people to think, 'What is going on, and why is no one stopping this murder in Homs that is happening every day?' "

When journalists are killed, it is almost always a sign that even more terrible things are going to happen, and it can portend disaster for society. When drug gangs started killing journalists in Mexico and in Colombia, we knew thousands of innocent people would also die, even as many brave reporters stepped into the breach. When journalists started dying of mysterious causes in Russia, we knew democracy there was increasingly a sham.

Perhaps the deaths of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik will suck some of the air out of the ongoing campaign to denigrate and discredit the work of journalists. Perhaps it will help us see for what it is that popular practice by some politicians of using journalists as punching bags when they want nothing more than to change the subject.

Attacking journalists is nothing new. The ancient Greek playwright Sophocles admonished against killing the messenger. He knew the warning was needed because the target is so appealing. Journalists often bring news we don't want to hear, and they ask questions that powerful people don't want to answer.

When powerful people attack responsible, serious journalists, it is almost always a sign that they have something to hide.

So, to politicians who would climb to power by stepping on the reputations of hardworking journalists, we say we're on to you. To the public, which has been persuaded to hold journalists in low regard, we say take another look.

To be sure, there are journalists who have behaved improperly, and they have stained the legacy of all the others.

But let's remember that hundreds of reporters and photographers and producers risk their lives every day because they want us all to see the reality of what is happening in our dangerous, turbulent world. Let's remember that hundreds of them have died -- in the crossfire, in accidents, in medical emergencies away from medical facilities -- because they chose to take risk. They chose to take the risk, but they did not choose to die.

We should be nothing but grateful. We should thank them, ask them to be safe, but we should also support their work. And tell those who demonize journalists that they don't have an ounce of the courage of the people they pretend to disdain.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

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