Noted Journalist Speaks at UM About the Dangers Foreign Correspondents Face Abroad

By UM News

Noted Journalist Speaks at UM About the Dangers Foreign Correspondents Face Abroad

By UM News
In a gripping talk presented at UM’s Miller Center, international journalist Ilene Prusher explained that reporters are no longer only truth-seekers but also targets of extremist terrorist groups.

Ilene Prusher got the disturbing news in an email from a close friend: Daniel Pearl, the <i>Wall Street Journal</i> correspondent taken hostage in Pakistan in early 2002 while investigating an alleged link between shoe bomber Richard Reid and al-Qaeda, had been decapitated by his abductors.

The news shook Prusher to her core. As a staff writer for the <i>Christian Science Monitor</i>, she had crossed paths with Pearl on a few occasions, staying at the same guesthouse in Islamabad while covering the war in Afghanistan.

The more recent beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff are surely ugly reminders of the barbaric fate that befell Pearl. But more than that, they shed light on a gruesome reality—that journalists on assignment in some of the most dangerous parts of the world are no longer only “truth tellers but also targets” of extremists groups like ISIS who view them as extensions of U.S. foreign policy.

Ilene Prusher, left, is interviewed by School of Communication faculty members Tsitsi Wakhisi and Joseph Treaster during the Q&A portion of her talk. Prusher, who has worked for Time, The Christian Science Monitor, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other notable publications, once worked with a group of UM students who participated in the University of Miami-Jerusalem Press Club reporting seminar in Israel in the summer of 2013.

“There’s a fundamental mismatch between this truth-seeking agenda of journalists and of the kind of people who got Danny Pearl and killed Steven Sotloff and James Foley,” Prusher said Wednesday at the University of Miami’s Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies, where she spoke on “The Journalist as Target” and shared her experiences of covering stories in conflict-ridden countries in the Middle East and South Asia.

Prusher used to think that people in countries without a free press or vibrant democracy didn’t fully understand what role journalists played. “But what we’re seeing today in Iraq and Syria are people who very much get the role of the journalist—the symbol and power of what a Western journalist in your hands represents. And those people are using journalists as legitimate targets.

“What’s clear is that having journalists is a lucrative business,” Prusher continued, noting the ransom payments terrorists have received to finance their military operations and propaganda purposes. She cited a recent <i>New York Times</i> article that reported al-Qaeda has received tens of millions of dollars in ransoms, much of it coming from European governments.

Yet journalists continue to travel to hot spots around the world “because they care, and they want to do something good to unmask some of the world’s most troubling problems,” Prusher said.

“What we really do, and in almost naïve fashion as journalists working in conflict zones, is put our faith in humanity,” she explained. “We don’t go out armed. We almost never use bodyguards, and we hope and believe that across cultures and beyond language barriers, we will meet people who will essentially understand that we’re there as truth-seekers. We’re out there to explain, to report, to document, to photograph, knowing that if we do our job well enough, it will make average citizens think and rethink, and it might even sway the hands of presidents and prime ministers.”

Not knowing whom to trust has compounded the difficulty of being a foreign correspondent, which is a topic she addresses in her recently published book, <i>Baghdad Fixer</i>. Journalists who work in dangerous areas need the assistance that often comes in the form of a fixer, who may act as a translator and guide and who will often help journalists get interviews they could not otherwise obtain themselves.

“Sometimes fixers are the unsung heroes of the story, sometimes the fixers are the victims. In a few cases, the fixers are the villains,” she said, explaining that some may have been involved in the abductions of journalists.

“Part of what we do involves taking a leap of faith, however you want to define that,” she said, “and part of that leap of faith is a leap of faith in humanity. But humanity failed us when these journalists were killed. For me that’s the ugly underside of what’s happening in the world of journalism today. There isn’t a path you can follow and say, ‘That’s how you do it safely.’ I know I could have been in their shoes. I’m not alive because I’m smarter or savvier. Some of it is probably just luck. Perhaps it’s fate.”

Prusher is now a writer and multimedia journalist based in Jerusalem. After having her first child in 2011, she said she realized “the sensible thing to do was to become an editor for a while.” As deputy editor of the <i>Jerusalem Review</i>, she edited much of Sotloff’s work, and she’s always felt envious of reporters like him who do the kind of reporting she was doing for a good part of her 20-year career. “It was in countries like Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain where I met Steven, in a sense, through his reporting,” she said.

While it is becoming more difficult and dangerous for journalists to “shed our light in dark corners, that doesn’t mean we should stop doing it altogether,” Prusher said. “We should keep trying to do it as best we can. With the conscience of the world on our shoulders, we can’t afford to let these losses stop us.”

Prusher’s talk was co-sponsored by the Miller Center, the School of Communication’s Department of Journalism and Media Management, and the College of Arts and Sciences’ Political Science and International Studies departments.