Ten years on from the death of Sunday Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, Times editor John Witherow has warned the targeting of journalists means “terrible things” now go “unreported”.
Colvin was killed alongside French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik in shelling by Syrian government forces on 22 February 2012 in the town of Homs.
Colvin first started reporting from the Middle East for the Sunday Times in 1986, before becoming the paper’s foreign affairs correspondent in 1995. From being the first to interview former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi after the US bombing of Libya, to helping save the lives of 1,500 refugees in East Timor in 1999, she had an unrivaled career reporting from war zones across the world.
In 2019, the Syrian government was found guilty of deliberately killing Colvin in an “extrajudicial killing” by a US court and ordered to pay $302m in damages to the family of Colvin. However, to date no-one has been punished for her death.
Since her death, Press Gazette has given an annual prize called the Marie Colvin Award to a journalist in her mould. This year it was won by Afghanistan’s Rukhshana Media.
Times editor John Witherow, who was previously Colvin’s editor at the Sunday Times, told Press Gazette: “Marie was passionate, funny, quixotic and exotic. She had been brought to The Sunday Times from United Press International by David Blundy, the handsome and debonair foreign reporter who was himself killed in El Salvador in 1989.”
He went on: “She toyed with Colonel Gaddafi, who was intrigued by a glamorous American working for a British paper, and she charmed her way across the Middle East and South Asia from Algiers to Kabul. Although she loved life and was determined to have fun, underneath was the utmost seriousness about her role as a storyteller who could reveal the suffering of innocent victims of heartless dictators bent on their own survival.”
Speaking earlier on BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show, Witherow expressed concerns about war reporting since Colvin’s death.
Citing the shooting of Times reporter Anthony Loyd during an attempted kidnap in 2014, he told the programme: “It’s shocking what’s happening. Already in northern Africa it’s almost impossible to report due to Islamic State expanding and the dangers are incredible.
“We know very little about what’s happening in Syria because reporters aren’t going in. Terrible things may be happening and they go unreported because of the hostility. Before people would help foreign correspondents. They would look after them. And that’s disappeared.”
Channel 4 News international editor Lindsey Hilsum, a close friend of Colvin’s, told Press Gazette: “Marie was irreplaceable, but what encourages me is how many young journalists I meet who want to follow in her footsteps.
“Three of her friends – the writer Jane Wellesley, the BBC’s chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet, and myself – founded the Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network to provide support to young female journalists in the Arab world, where Marie spent much of her career.”
“It’s great to see a new generation of Arab journalists taking Marie as their inspiration.”
Photographer Paul Conroy was with Colvin when the makeshift media centre they were in was targeted in a rocket attack by regime forces, and he was seriously injured.
Colvin and Conroy took the risk to enter the besieged area of Baba Amr in Homs a second time despite already filing copy and pictures for the Sunday Times, deciding they could not “abandon” the civilians unable to escape.
That night Colvin took part in live broadcasts for the BBC, Channel 4 News and CNN – a decision that ultimately enabled the Syrian regime to locate her and target the building in which she was based.
Speaking to Press Gazette this week Conroy recollected the first time he met her in Syria in 2003: “I was in a town called Qamishli, in north-eastern Syria. There was a gathering of about 20 to 30 journalists, and we were all trying to cross the border into Iraq to get in for the invasion.“And I’d been there about a month in this horrible town. And the thing was, you have to go to the secret police to try to get permission to go on a boat into Iraq. And they would just say no.” “So after about a month, I built a boat out of lorry inner tubes and rope and bits of wood. And one night attempted to sail across the Tigris into Iraq. But unfortunately, I was captured by the Syrian Army.”
He added: “No-one would talk to me – all the other press said ‘you’ve spoiled our war’ because the soldiers wouldn’t let them cross into Iraq now. So at midnight, I was like Billy no mates in the bar with a drink being shunned by my peers. And the door opened. And everyone looked over and it was Marie.“She just walked in she went ‘who and where is the boatman’. And she just walked across and said ‘Boatman. I like your style. Marie Colvin, Sunday Times. Can I buy you a whisky?’.
“So we sat down and bonded over whisky… and she called me boatman till the day she died. That was her nickname for me.”
Of the anniversary, he said: “Looking at what’s happening in Ukraine, you know, I’m really aware of that, over the last few weeks Marie would have been out there already.”
“All the time in the back of your head you’re saying ‘I know what I’d be doing now, if the situation had gone differently’… and not to have that sounding board, that partner to bounce ideas off about how we challenge [what’s happening in Ukraine]. It’s been a big gap that’s almost amplified.”
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