When the price for journalism becomes too high

Easter Monday marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Anton Hammerl. Five years before that he had left the Saturday Star where he had been chief photographer to forge a new career for himself in London.

Ten years ago, he packed his cameras, bade his young family farewell and travelled to Libya to document the unfolding civil war. There was a battle between rebels and government forces. Hammerl was with three other freelance journalists. Initially it was thought that they had all been captured. 45 days of hope and prayer later the Americans were released, only to tell the world how Hammerl had been shot and left for dead.

There’s an eerie synchronicity between his anniversary and current events. 

Last weekend, there was a flurry of activity in Cabo Delgado to get refugees out of the grip of militants sacking the town of Palma in northern Mozambique. A decade ago, there would have been South African journalists on the ground documenting the drama – in fact, there would have been a steady flow of mainstream reportage since 2017, when the uprising first began. Instead, it has been left to the ubiquitous social media by citizen journalists to tell a story that could potentially be as disruptive and destructive for the region as the Arab Spring was for north Africa, 10 years ago.

We won’t really know until it’s too late because media houses, even before COVID 19, were far too cash strapped to still have the kind of reporters and conflict photographers who could have successfully – and safely – traversed this desperately dangerous journalism.

If they did still have them on staff, their accountants certainly wouldn’t have had the pockets to pay ransoms. They wouldn’t have the stomach to deal with them being maimed getting the story – as happened to the peerless Joao Silva in Afghanistan six months before Hammerl was killed – or for facing the logistical nightmare of repatriating their remains. 

The New York Times stands alone in its noble treatment of Silva, a freelancer working for them at the time. Very few other media houses would have done anything like it. We see that in the paucity of coverage from theatres of conflict – and you can’t blame the journalists; Hammerl’s compulsion to tell the story ended catastrophically; unresolved grief and unimaginable hardship for his family that endure to this day.

Very few journalists are prepared to take that risk or pay the price – and nor should they. For those who do, the rewards are negligible because the world no longer respects journalism. People aren’t prepared to pay anywhere near the price for the journalism they need – yet had it not been for the indefatigable efforts of a handful of investigative journalists and the courage of their editors, South Africans would still be in the dark about state capture. At least, thanks to them, we have an idea of what happened and who did what. 

For Hammerl’s widow Penny Sukraj-Hammerl and his children, they don’t even know where he lies in the desert – even less who pulled the trigger. 

Published on Saturday Star on 10 April 2021.