Journalists killed in war zones

The Archbishop of Canterbury preached today at a special service for fallen journalists held at St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street – the first time an Archbishop of Canterbury has preached at the annual service. Here’s an excerpt and a video

We live in a world at the moment in which in many areas it feels as though the darkness is falling ever more severely on whole swathes and regions of the world, and in which the light of news very often seems to go out. Whole areas where there is fighting that is forgotten because there is simply so much of it. Whole areas which depend only on the likes of James Foley and Steven Sotloff to show some light on what is happening.

The front-line reporter is the one who sees first-hand what is going on. They are the look-outs, who stand on the watchtower, day after day and all night long, in the watches of the night. “Watchman, how goes the night?”, as Isaiah described it from two and a half thousand years ago. They are the ones who witness the full horror of what is going on and dare to speak it. The rest of us are one step, or many steps, removed – both from the adrenalin and from the agony. We rely on the reports. And the nature of the reports has become more and more immediate, of that we can be thankful.

Last Friday I sat and listened to the chief of staff of the UN team fighting Ebola, and because of the reporting I was able to sense much more profoundly what he was saying, and to see the urgency of it.

Those reporters are as much at risk as anyone in a war zone. They were careful not to get too close, I hope. But they were run the risk of many things, not only of contracting Ebola (probably a fairly low risk), but the much higher one of the psychological trauma with which they will live for years afterwards. And that is true of those who have been in war zones.

Some years ago, about six weeks after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was in Baghdad to reopen the Anglican church there. It was, as they say, an interesting trip. We were there the inside of a week. But while I was there I bumped into a well-known reporter from a television company. They were there for months at a time, living hard, working incessantly – very long hours – and constantly at risk. Last January we were in the South Sudan in a town destroyed by war, surrounded by bodies, burying them in mass graves. As we left, reporters were arriving. They were going the opposite way. They are the ones who come to mind when we read of Isaiah’s watchmen: ‘What of the night?’

Such reporting now is a far remove from the bush telegraph: precisely because the people who do it are not safely removed from the agony. The reality of disaster, of war and suffering, is brought to us in a completely fresh way. It may still occasionally lack accuracy – that is an inevitable part of being human – but what it lacks in one area is more than compensated for by immediacy. And immediacy means risk.

Even where there are all sorts of personal things that one can say about those who go and report wars and conflicts, whether wars against disease or poverty, or the old-fashioned type where people kill each other deliberately and horribly; whichever it is, whatever they are like, what they do – and sometimes are hurt deeply mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually or even killed doing – what they do remains of extraordinary value, a God-given calling to inspire others to serve our common humanity.

To witness is to tell the truth. And the more horrific the circumstances, the more needful, the more precious, the more costly is the truth.

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