As journalists, we have always been aware of the power words have—even when carefully wielded—to provoke outrage and to incite sometimes violent response. But today there is a heightened awareness of the hazards we face, both in reporting the news and in commenting editorially on the issues of our time.
The murder of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi is only the latest and most public reminder that the expression of unpopular truth or dissenting opinion often comes at great risk to the writer. His brutal death delivered a message we can only assume was intended to repress the free exchange of ideas and information.
Four journalists were shot to death in the Capital Gazette newsroom four months ago, in retribution for reporting a sexual harassment case against the shooter several years ago. And this week, pipe bombs mailed to politically outspoken public figures were also sent to CNN. The news was greeted with the incendiary — and absurd — presidential accusation that the news media was complicit in these heinous acts.
Can there be any more compelling proof that words — both written and spoken — can be lethal?
In such a toxic environment, it is easy to become discouraged. I found great reassurance, though, when I spoke last month with Syrian journalist Wael Resol, who was recently honored by a group of international journalists with this year’s “News Fixer” award.
Wael is the husband of friend and former Record intern Katy McGarr, who met him while working as an English teacher at the American International School in Kurdistan. Today, they live in Sulaimani, a city in the northern Kurdistan region of Iraq, where she is the director of student services at the American University and Wael works as a “news fixer.”
Wael’s job is to guide journalists safely to the right place, to the right person, to the scene of the airstrike or sniper shooting, to the front lines of the bloody battleground. Rarely credited and usually in danger, these on-the-ground news fixers often also act as translators, drivers and assistant reporters. It is the fixers’ local expertise, as well as their network of official — and unofficial — contacts, that provide the raw source material for out-of-town correspondents.
In our first meeting via FaceTime, Wael explained that he worked with National Public Radio correspondents in 2014, when ISIS fighters swept through Iraq, taking control of the city of Mosul and forcing the Iraqi military and much of the city’s population to flee. Over the next three years, he primarily assisted reporters from the Los Angeles Times, eventually helping cover Mosul’s liberation.
During our interview, Wael told of routine encounters with mortars, snipers and suicide cars. On one memorable day, he took reporters to cover a bomb-defusing team that had been called to a booby-trapped house. Within a matter of hours he drove, first, over an IED which miraculously did not detonate; and later, over a grenade which did not explode.
“You are lucky nothing happened,” one witness said. “It seems your mom prayed for you.”
The danger others faced in that war zone was heightened for Wael because of his nationality. “I am a Syrian Kurd, living in Iraq,” he said, “so the job was doubly difficult.”
I asked Wael what compelled him to do such dangerous work. He explained that, even as a child, he had always been interested in the news, and in the ability to tell the human story of war.
“In this war,” he said, “people need to reach their voice to the world. Many innocent people died.”
“For me, the truth is very important,” Wael added. “I’ve found that many news agencies do care about the truth — not about fake news. These people I work with are very serious about this.”
That conversation reminded me, too, why so many of us believe in the work we do — and persist — in an increasingly hostile and rancorous environment: Because we care about the truth, and want to tell the human story of our world and our communities.”
Wael reminded me once again that where there is great risk, there is also great reward.
The greatest wealth we reap as journalists is not in the paychecks we earn but in the people we meet, the conversations in which we engage, and the sheer diversity of human experience we are granted the privilege to observe and to document.
It was my privilege to meet Wael Resol, and to tell his story. The News Fixer award presentation was held at the Thomson Reuters Auditorium in Canary Wharf, London, on Wednesday, Oct. 17. Wael was not present for the ceremony. Simply because he is Syrian, he is not welcome in most other countries.
Efforts to apply for a travel visa through the United Kingdom, and the American Embassy in Baghdad, failed. Instead, Wael sent a recorded video with his acceptance speech.
This column is written in honor of Wael Resol and in honor of journalists everywhere who believe that reporting and photographing the truth of the human story is worth the risk — no matter how grave — and who continue to run toward danger, not away from it.