Dead journalists and collective responsibility

Asking why journalists are killed can lead to painful answers.

Swedish journalist Nils Horner was shot in the head in Afghanistan [EPA]

About 10 years ago, I went to hear Noam Chomsky give a public lecture in central Istanbul. The room was packed. At the end of the talk there was a question-and-answer session and Chomsky was asked what he thought about the Turkish government’s position on Kurdish rights.

Chomsky’s response (and I paraphrase): I’m an American, and what I can talk about is what my government does in relation to the support or suppression of Kurdish rights. It’s for the Turkish people to address what the Turkish state does. He went on to discuss – in Chomsky-esque detail – what the US was doing, but I could feel the disappointment rippling through the room. Many people wanted him to come out and condemn the Turkish government, to make a statement.

While I understood the let-down felt by activists, as one of the few Americans in the room, I also understood what Chomsky was saying, and it has stuck in my head ever since. He was addressing the notion of collective responsibility: the idea that citizens of a given country cannot escape their role (no matter how small) in the actions of their government.

This goes beyond a responsibility only for the policies of a government one votes for and includes responsibility for every action and policy of a state regardless of personal support. In my own case – as an American –  that means taking a measure of responsibility for the death penalty, Guantanamo, drones, Iraq and Afghanistan; and, asking to what extent I enjoy the right to life, freedom and economic security at the expense of others outside of the US being denied those same rights. It’s a painful question.

Listening Post – Media mea culpas and the Iraq war

These issues, and the lecture by Chomsky, came back to me recently when I heard the news that the Swedish radio journalist Nils Horner had been murdered in Kabul. Horner was shot in the back of the head on a busy street in broad daylight, microphone in hand. Horner’s last report for Radio Sweden was a piece about the upcoming elections in Afghanistan and the possible impact upon the lives of women.

It was typical Horner: He was well-known for basing his journalism not upon interviews with the social and political elite, but with those at the other end of the power spectrum. Those were the ordinary people whose lives were at the mercy of forces seemingly beyond their control, often ignored in the news, to whom Horner offered a brief-but-human voice.

Chomsky is relevant because Horner’s reporting was often from conflict zones, and he was particularly well-known for his work in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the past 10 years Iraq has been the deadliest place in the world for journalists to work, with over 160 reporters and 50 media workers killed since 2003. The vast majority of these reporters – 73 percent according to the Committee to Protect Journalists – had “war” as their area of coverage.

So, these dead journalists were there to cover a war, and the aftermath of a war, started by the US. Did US soldiers or US citizens pull all the triggers or set all  the bombs that killed these women and men? No. Does this fact absolve Americans (and citizens of all other nations involved in the occupation of Iraq) from some semblance of responsibility for these deaths, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians? No.

While we see it as tragic, I suspect that many of us feel a detachment from the killing of journalists like Nils Horner, as we do from the killings in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Horner was the victim of a form of violence most people find alien and abhorrent in the name of a cause many people find incomprehensible.

Yet there he was. In that country. In that city. On that street. Doing that interview.

In addition to asking ourselves why Horner was killed, we also need to ask why Horner was there. The answer to the first question is easy to distil: He represented a freedom of expression repressive groups worldwide wish to crush. The answer to the second question, however, requires us to go beyond soundbites and to consider our collective responsibility for fuelling the very repression we condemn.

Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden