Few journalists have their lives memorialised in a major film, but Marie Colvin was no ordinary journalist. A multi-award-winning war correspondent, she was killed in Syria seven years ago. Colvin had seen it all, having covered Iraq, Chechnya, the Balkans, East Timor, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, and Libya in 25 years as a war reporter for the Sunday Times. All her colleagues have highlighted her extraordinary bravery and thirst for getting to the heart of the news stories often at great personal risk. Some saw this life as glamorous, an image enhanced by an eye patch Colvin wore ever since an incident in Sri Lanka.
Getting the Hollywood treatment in a film released this month under the title, “A Private War,” risks exaggerating even more this stereotype but hopefully the publicity may remind the wider public of the extraordinary risks involved in getting news to our TV screens or breakfast newspaper read.
Yet there is a legal side to the story too. An American court has ruled on January 30th that the Syrian regime deliberately killed Marie Colvin and lest we forget, a French photographer, Rémi Ochlik on February 22nd, 2012. “She was specifically targeted because of her profession, for the purpose of silencing those reporting on the growing opposition movement in the country,” wrote Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the US District Court in Washington DC.
This was not an unfortunate tragedy, but pre-meditated murder, in an artillery barrage designed to destroy the Baba Amr Media Centre located in an apartment building in Homs, all for the ‘crime’ of hosting foreign journalists. Two Syrian regime defectors provided evidence to the court as to the regime’s role. That journalists were targeted is no surprise given the regime’s view that they constitute enemies of the state, and whose independent reporting undermined the regime’s narrative and ability to use its own propaganda effectively.
Colvin and her fellow journalists were tracked using informants and by intercepting satellite calls whilst doing interviews for CNN, BBC and Channel 4 not long before her death. Typically, this was a risk Colvin felt she had to make to get the story out. Paul Conroy and Wael al-Omar two of her fellow journalists who barely survived the blast, were both ex-military and were able to detail the pattern and type of targeted shelling.
The detail of the decision-making processes of the Syrian security officials under Major General Rafiq Shahadah, a leading figure in the Homs Military Security Committee is compelling. Reportedly in celebrations afterwards, Shahadah boasted, “Marie Colvin was a dog and now she’s dead. Let the Americans help her now.” Apparently, Maher Al-Assad, the President’s brother and commander of the Fourth Division of the Syrian army, rewarded Shahadah with a new car for his troubles, and later he was promoted to head Syria’s Military intelligence Department.
In a later interview President Assad showed no remorse. "It's a war and she [Colvin] came illegally to Syria. She worked with the terrorists, and because she came illegally, she's been responsible of everything that befall on her."
A valid question is how come a US court is ruling on this issue, a death in another country. The US passed the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act under which a state can be sued in a US court and its immunity lifted if that state is considered a state sponsor of terrorism. “A foreign state shall not be immune from the jurisdiction of courts of the United States... in which money damages are sought against a foreign state for personal injury or death that was caused by an act of torture, extrajudicial killing, aircraft sabotage, hostage taking, or the provision of material support or resources for such an act if such act or provision of material support or resources is engaged in by an official, employee, or agent of such foreign state while acting within the scope of his or her office, employment, or agency.” The claimant must be a US national which Marie Colvin was.
Will this make any difference? The court ordered the Syrian government to cough up
$302.5m in damages, which somehow will have to be retrieved from the Assad family. Clearly this is unlikely but one might hope that such a case could act as a deterrent, and also a timely reminder of just how brutal the Syrian regime is.
But it also comes at a time of increased risks for journalists not least those covering war. James Foley and Stephen Sotloff in Syria were later killed by Daesh in Syria. Eighty journalists were killed in 2018 alone, half of whom were deliberately targeted. Journalists are increasingly at risk also away from non-war zones, famously Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb in October 2017 near her home in Malta.
Holding the Assad regime to account for this does matter, as of course for all the other litany of atrocities the regime has committed. Maybe one day perhaps years from now an international court will be able to pass judgement on those directly responsible, with Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik just two of the names of many hundreds of thousands.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7Dnews.